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48 hours in… Marrakech

| 21 Jan 2014

Katie Parsons explores a city bursting with life at all times of day.

Walls of Marrakech

1. WHY BOOK NOW
Marrakech is about as exotic a place as you can reach on a four-hour flight. Local goods such as leather slippers, colourful plates and pashminas make authentic rather than tacky souvenirs. With daytime temperatures around 20°, Christmas shopping will be a breeze.

2. GET YOUR BEARINGS
Head for Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s marketside main square in the heart of the old city (medina). The Koutoubia mosque is on the western side and souks are to the north. The Palmeraie, to the north and east of the medina, is the new part of the city and features chic boutique and luxury hotels.

3. CHECK IN
It’s difficult to keep track of all the elegant new resort hotels that have opened in the last 18 months. The best include the Taj Palace Hotel and Palais Namasker. Or stay in the heart of the medina in a stylishly converted riad: one of the traditional Moroccan houses built around a garden courtyard. For the best of both worlds, explore the souks from your base in say the exquisite Riad Ilayka, then spend a couple of nights relaxing in the new luxury Mosaic Palais Aziza.

4. KNOWN FOR
If there is anything Marrakech is more famous for than its labyrinthine souks (markets) and colourful mounds of pungent spices, it’s haggling. Pitch with the pros – stall holders have it down to a fine art, or should that be Olympic sport! – for hand-woven carpets from Rabat or embroidered fezes from, err Fez.

5. WORTH WALKING
Surprisingly, however lost you feel in the souks, you always end up back at the square, and if not, someone will point you in the right direction. Leave your map in your bag and explore the myriad of souks spreading north from the Djemaa el Fna. Each is named after the main product they sell: spice souk, shoe souk, crafts, leather, perfume…

6. QUICK LUNCH
After a morning in the souks, head back to Djemaa el Fna for a snack in one of the cafes lining the square. Street performers work the crowds, and the non-stop activity is entertainment in itself. Cafe des Epices or Café de France are good spots: their roof terraces give you a bird’s-eye view, while the pavement tables are ringside seats.

7. CULTURAL AFTERNOON
Bahia Palace is a gracious, 19th-century palace, whose maze of apartments opens onto elegant gardens and fountain-set courtyards. Nearby, the remains of El Badi Palace, which means ‘incomparable palace’, and was inspired by the Spanish Alhambra, is still an impressive building, though now home only to storks.

8. COCKTAIL HOUR
Head to one of the rooftop bars, such as Cozybar in the Mellah district, to watch the sun set over the medina. Cocktails, excellent local wine or even a sweet mint tea are the perfect tipple.

9. DRESSING FOR DINNER
Book a dinner in your riad and enjoy traditional home-cooked Moroccan food served in the peaceful courtyard. Typical foods served might include a selection of dips and vegetables or pitta, a lamb tagine with couscous and fruits or sweet pastries to end.

10. NIGHT ON THE TOWN
The Djemaa el Fna really comes to life as the sun goes down. Vendors wheel food stalls seemingly out of nowhere and set up grills selling meat, fish and vegetable kebabs. Popular with locals and tourists alike, it’s a great spot to soak up the atmosphere. The hard part is choosing a stall, especially with the distraction of local snake charmers, musicians, magicians, acrobats and story tellers.

11. EASY LIKE…
A traditional hammam is the perfect way to sooth tired feet. You can join the locals in the public baths, or experience a private hammam such as Les Bains de Marrakech. For guests of the Palmeraie hotels, an indulgent spa treatment is a must. I personally – and highly – recommend the body scrub and hammam at the Mosaic Palais Aziza.

12. WINDOW SHOPPING
Marrakech is a shopper’s paradise: you can find everything you need, and things you definitely don’t. In the souk, the criss-cross alleys of Kissaria are lined with stalls specialising in good quality cotton clothing and feather-light wool blankets. Or go to the more western Centre Artisanal, a huge department store type outlet, selling the best of the souks’ handicrafts, in a less chaotic setting.

13. DON’T MISS
The Jardin Majorelle is one of the most beautiful gardens in Marrakech. Restored in the 1980s by Yves-Saint Laurent and his partner, the subtropical garden’s towering palms and flamboyant cacti are framed within striking blue (majorelle blue) walls and hand-painted tiles. After a stroll around the garden, cool off in the courtyard cafe with a refreshing tea.

14. OUT OF TOWN
The Atlas Mountains are just over an hour’s drive from Marrakech and are a complete contrast to the bustling city. Explore traditional Berber villages and souks, or hike into the hills set with fertile valleys, rivers and waterfalls. It’s possible to stay longer, using one of the chic mountain hotels as your base. For the really adventurous, there is a five-day trek to Mount Toubkal, which at 4,200 metres is North Africa’s highest mountain.

View Cox & Kings’  short breaks to Marrakech.

Shoes at the souk

Need to know: MARRAKECH
THE BACKGROUND

Location: At the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, 322km southwest of the capital Rabat.

Languages: Arabic, Berber and French.

Population: 1 million (2012).

Time zone: GMT +0 hours.

Currency: Moroccan dirham (MAD). £1 = 13.5 MAD.

Visas: No visa required if staying under three months.

POTTED HISTORY
Marrakech has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, but was founded in 1062. The red city walls were built in the 12th century and from then it grew rapidly into a cultural, religious and trading centre for sub-Saharan Africa: Djemaa el Fna is the continent’s busiest square. In the early 20th century, Marrakech underwent several years of unrest, leading to the French Protectorate in Morocco being established in 1912. Independence came in 1956, and since then Marrakech has thrived as a tourist destination.

TRAVEL WITH COX & KINGS
Recommended tour: Marrakech short break: A 4-day / 3-night break at Riad Ilayka is from £495 per person with flights, transfers and breakfast daily.

Keri Moss is leading MasterChef Travel’s 5-day / 4-night Souks & Spices of Marrakech tour, priced from £1,395 per person, including accommodation in a riad, transfers, excursions and flights.



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