Top tips for... Marrakech

| April 23, 2013

Cox & Kings’ Katie Parsons was in Marrakech for a few days recently. Read her top tips for what to see, do, eat and stay.

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Just a three hour flight from London, and Marrakech feels a whole world away. The narrow streets of the ancient medina are bursting with life, colour and smells at all times of the day, while the more modern Nouvelle Ville and Palmeraie are home to trendy boutiques, palatial hotels and wide palm tree-lined streets. The city makes for an ideal short break but with so much to do, what shouldn't you miss?

The heart of the medina, Djemaa el Fna, is a hive of activity at all times of day. Early in the morning, vendors set up stalls selling fresh orange juice and dried fruits. Henna tattoo artists arrive later to line the edge of the square, alongside healers, snake charmers and men with chained Barbary apes. At dusk, the square becomes an open-air kitchen as cooks haul in carts setting up over 100 restaurants serving barbecued meats, salads, couscous and snails. All will want you to eat at their stand, but wander through and pick the one with lots of locals and join them in a tasty grilled skewer.Surrounding the square are cafes and restaurants, all with roof terraces and views over the square. It’s a good spot to escape the non-stop activity and reward yourself with a mint tea while watching from above.

Haggling over the price of goods is as much of an experience as the souks themselves. The warren of streets lead off the square and as you wander deeper, through shops selling leather, fragrant spices, colourful scarves, and shiny lanterns, it becomes increasingly maze-like but you can’t help but get lost. Supposedly, the covered souks are organised according to what they sell, so after passing rows of olives sellers, come the traditional musical instruments, teapot shops and butchers. It really is an assault on every sense.

The sellers expect you to haggle so start low and meet them somewhere in the middle. More than likely they’ll tell you their ‘final price’ is final, so if you’re not happy, walk away. If they want to sell it to you, they’ll call you back. If not, there will be somewhere else selling the same thing. Just watch out for donkeys, carts and motorbikes trying to share the same streets.

In the medina’s Mellah, the Jewish quarter, lies the Bahia Palais. Built in the 19th century, the palace and gardens was intended to be the greatest of its time, and a mix of Islamic and Moroccan styles. Just outside of the old city walls, in the new town, is the Jardin Majorelle. The botanical gardens and cobalt blue house were created in the 1920s by Jacques Majorelle and feature plants from all over the world. The design and vibrant colours of the garden still feel contemporary today. The French designer Yves Saint Laurent came across the garden in the 1960s with his partner, and eventually bought it in 1980. After his death, his ashes were scattered in the gardens and a memorial to him erected.

After a day in the souks, chances are you’ll be in need of some pampering. A visit to a community hammam is a weekly tradition for Moroccans: a chance to scrub, clean and soak themselves. There are plenty of hammams and spas in the medina but I recommend booking yourself a treatment in one of the new spa resort hotels in the Palmeraie. The Mosaic Palais Aziza & Spa opened in October 2012, and as well as a full range of massages and facials, a traditional body scrub and hammam should not be missed. It’s a real treat but you’ll feel revitalised and ready to face the souk sellers again.

Hidden behind thick, heavy doors, the city’s riads are a haven away from the souks. Down narrow alleys, tucked away from view, you’ll definitely need to be shown where they are but once inside, the restored houses offer a peaceful place to rest and recuperate for a night. Something seemingly impossible when first arriving in the medina. Marrakech has hundreds of riads, ranging in size and standards. Riad Ilayka has seven rooms surrounding a traditional courtyard, with a fountain in the centre. Each room is different but all have been restored immaculately, some with beautifully painted wooden ceilings, others with elaborate four-poster beds and traditional furniture. The gazebo on the roof terrace is a lovely spot to watch the sunset over the city with a mint tea and the riad’s kitchen will serve a traditional Moroccan dinner in the courtyard. Really not to be missed.

Cox & Kings arranges holidays to Morocco.

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