August 2018

Enjoying the best of both old and new in Marrakech

Gone are the days when Crosby Stills and Nash rode the Marrakech Express, a mind-trip fuelled principally by unusually fat cigarettes which rarely took you further than your imagination’s outer limits.

Today’s journey to the Moroccan city is a more conventional flight, coming down to earth at an unexpectedly modern airport.

There are actually two Marrakechs. One is modern with chain stores, shopping malls and coffee shops. The other is the one the tourists come for – the souk that starts at Jemaa El Fna square and stretches into infinity with largely factory-made sandals, belts and other bits of leather trash which are fun to haggle over.

If the haggling and elbow-tugging begin to get you down, you can head to fixed-price shops at Souk Cheifia, where you avoid the junk in favour of sensibly priced high-quality rugs, textiles, spices, kaftans, raffia bags and baskets, and leather everything.

Main attraction: The souk at Jemaa El Fna square (above) is a tourist hotspot 

As we’ve done before, we headed out to the Majorelle Gardens to spend a relaxing hour. This little oasis of cool and colour is not to be missed if only to enjoy the lemon-yellow and cobalt-blue planters and the gleaming white of the water lillies – all a tribute to French painter Jacques Majorelle’s homage to the plant world.

If, like me, your knees usually fail to deliver on your expectations, jump in a taxi to take in the Koutoubia mosque, a real look-at-me attraction topped with four gleaming copper globes and towering over the town.

A local ordinance forbids any neighbouring building being higher than a palm tree, which means the mosque retains its imperious dignity. It remains a place of worship, and non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.

You can duck between both old and new Marrakech without difficulty, and if you fancy a spot more shopping, I’d recommend the less exotic but more rewarding Ensemble Artisanal, a bit like a department store but selling only handicrafts that are slightly more expensive than the souks but also elegantly made.

For the ladies, this is really kaftan and jewellery heaven. And yes, there are camel rides to be had in the streets and squares, and you can take a charming tour by horse and carriage (for which you should offer no more than two-thirds of the asking price.)

Marrakech has several good hotels, but we chose to stay well out of town. It seems pointless journeying to a location so close to a mountain range and then not staying where the air is at its freshest. We chose the Fairmont Royal Palm some seven miles away. This is a beautifully designed, elegant hotel in the five-star class and has the one element we always want in a good hotel – space, and more space.

It’s not just in the communal areas that you sometimes feel you may be the only guests in the hotel – it is also in the rooms.

Ours was a giant suite with a huge balcony looking straight at the distant Atlas mountains, a massive tiled bathroom, and soft carpets and sink-in furniture.

One tiny note of caution: high heels tapping away on the tiled bathroom above at night can be a pain in the ear.

The hotel must also have the largest man-made swimming area on the globe. It’s not a pool, it’s a tiled lake. You could have every citizen of Marrakech swimming in it and still have plenty of space left over. Not only that, but all that water is pleasantly heated. It’s odd, though, that with all this luxury the hotel has such cheap and rickety sunloungers in the lawns around the lake.

The hotel is very much child-friendly with a kids’ club and plenty of available nannies. It also has a country club area and a beautiful 18-hole golf course.

I’m a cyclist and have to say that belting around the hotel’s spacious grounds on a warm, sunny morning in the shadow of the Atlas mountains with the breeze filling your lungs, and the first warm rays of the sun on your face, is a bike ride to remember. Pity, then, that my bike hire bill for four days came to well over £100. I should have haggled.

This, then, may not be the Marrakech of Crosby Stills and Nash. It is, however, a delightful seven-day break. I’d recommend going in April – we had temperatures from the mid-60s to 92F (about 18-33C). It’s bearably coolish in the evenings and a light cardigan will be enough.

There’s no Marrakech Express – there never was – but there are plenty of flights. And they’re all non-smoking.


More articles