PUBLISHED: 09:00 29 June 2014
Just over three hours from the South West and yet a world away from a standard trip to the sun, Marrakech offers a myriad of delights, as ANDY COOPER discovers
I’ve had some interesting arrivals on holiday in my time - grappling over a hire car in Orlando, waiting for hours at the wrong apartment in Berlin, being manhandled by a tram inspector in Budapest. But nothing - nothing - prepared me for Marrakech.
Stepping off the plane and whisked away by taxi to our riad in the heart of the Medina, when we alighted from our air-conditioned vehicle it was although we’d stepped back in time.
Only the westernised clothes sported by many of the locals and the occasional ‘beep-beep-buzz’ of a moped as it swept past provided any kind of clues that the broiling, busy, bewildering streets we had stepped into weren’t dateline 1800-and-something.
Our guide from the riad greeted us like long lost friends at the side of the road, insisted on grabbing our two heavy suitcases and with a quick “Follow me” shot off down a dark alleyway with us in hot pursuit. After a 15-minute zig-zag down alleyways, through souks and with a final turn down the kind of alleyway you would avoid if it were in any UK town or city, we were at the imposing front door of our home for the next week.
And that’s what you have to get used to if you want to truly maximise your stay in Marrakech – shake off your UK sensibilities and dive into the place with gusto!
Because Marrakech is truly a place apart, a living, breathing miasma of ‘east meets west’, sun-kissed and special, memorable and mind-blowing. It is no exaggeration to say it took me two days to fully get used to it and start to truly enjoy it.
Closeted as we were in air-conditioned, stylish luxury in the Riad Star, one of four riads (or hotel houses) owned in the city by ex-pat couple Mike Wood and Lucie Anderson-Wood under the banner of Marrakech Riad, it would have been easy to forget what lay beyond the front door.
But the sounds and smells of the street are soon calling you and, nestled as you are deep in the heart of this ancient place, the minute you cross the threshold you are bundled right into city life.
It’s busy and bursting with colour and it’s hard on first encounter to not stand open-mouthed at it all. There is a medieval quality, still, to the Medina, dotted as it is with souks, hammams (public baths), mosques and closeted, cool courtyards.
‘Cool’ is an apt word for the city: it’s rising up the popularity scale with Europeans who fancy a guaranteed sun spot with a difference. And ‘different’ is certainly what you get with Marrakech.
You do have to be resilient and prepared to be buffeted and bothered at each turn by street sellers and hustlers. But, strangely, perhaps the alleged presence of secret police at every corner means one never feels over intimidated. A fixed gaze forward and a polite ‘non merci’ means you can continue your travels with relative ease.
And if you plunge into the city with the gusto required then there is more than enough to make the visit worthwhile.
And at the end of each day returning to the Rid Star was even more pleasurable for the oasis it provided from the city outside. The beautiful sun terrace provides a lovely spot for sunseekers and the attentive, ever-present staff are on hand to cater for your every whim. Particularly noteworthy for me was the breakfast (correctly) billed as the best in the city and the free use of a mobile phone with a direct line to the hotel when you left the building to explore ‘just in case’ help was required.
So, not your ‘average’ break, but who wants one of those? With the world getting smaller at every turn and holidays rather ‘samey’, Marrakech can still lay claim to being a corner of the planet which can surprise and delight in equal measure.
Six top tips when visiting Marrakech
1) Place Jemaa is truly the spot to head for in the city to sip a coffee, get your bearings and experience everything from snake charmers to street food.
2) Maps provided can seem a little out of date and indistinct when walking in the Medina. Rely on fixed point landmarks (some stalls have a habit of disappearing!) and don’t accept instructions or offers of help from locals, who will expect Dirhams in return for their assistance
3) It might seem a little cheesy, but one of the ubiquitous pony and trap rides available from Place Jemaa is a great way to see the city at leisure.
4) Palaces abound in the city and its surroundings, but our favourite was the Bahia Palace, an ancient and compelling place.
5) As you might expect, haggling in the souks is considered obligatory! There are some bargains to be had but only if you halve and then halve again the seller’s opening offer before starting to bargain!
6) All tourists head for Yves St Laurent’s world famous Jardin Majorelle – and it is a must – but also put on your best togs to meet the dress code at the wonderful La Mamounia, where the gardens are just as stunning.
For more information and booking details, see the website at marrakech-riad.co.uk or call 0207 193 7357
easyJet flies from Bristol to Marrakech on Tuesdays and Saturdays with fares starting from £29.74 (one-way, including taxes based on two people on the same booking). All bookings can be made via easyJet.com