Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Desert De-lights

Marrakech, Morocco
HOT STUFF: In Jemaa el Fna, the main square, Berber storytellers vie with musicians and snake charmers against a backdrop of pungent spices

Regal opulence now combines with the hectic bustle of the souks in Morocco’s most alluring city, thanks to a recent initiative to attract visitors —and new flights are about to make Marrakech even more accessible, writes Christopher Wakling

Mohammed increased the power. The helicopter rose and Marrakech spread out in front of me: a red smear on the dusty plain, spiked with minarets and set against the serrated white teeth of the Atlas Mountains.

I'd seen it all before, albeit through the smaller window of a bigger plane. And from this week — when Ryanair, BMI and BA all launch flights from London to Marrakech — the same sight is even more accessible. In just three hours, you can be a continent and cultural world away.

The place to start exploring Marrakech is Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the walled old city, or medina. It's more of a vast theatrical space than anything else: Berber storytellers vie with musicians, tooth-pullers, apothecaries and snake charmers for the attention, and dirhams, of one and all.

Hafid Sherrakh, my guide, reassured me that the cobras aren't venomous these days (the result of a different kind of tooth-pulling). Still, they dance to ancient tunes. The smell of burning frankincense, snail soup and boiled sheep's heads, sold at open-air stalls to the north of the square, is equally timeless.

As are the brightly costumed water-sellers, whose presence is a reminder of why the city was founded. Nine hundred and fifty years ago, the Almoravid dynasty worked out how to run water underground from the Atlas Mountains down on to the fertile — but arid — plain, and Marrakech was born. Wikipedia reckons the city's name means “More God”, but Hafid told me it is derived from two words for “pass quickly”: the ancient city was integral to a trade route; hang around for long and the authorities taxed you twice. Nowadays, if you're like me, you'll wish you had longer to spend there.

Particularly if you're lucky enough to stay at the Royal Mansour hotel. Rulers aren't currently popular in this part of the world, but Mohammed VI, Morocco's modernising monarch, seems to have fared pretty well.

Initiatives such as Vision 2010, which set about attracting 10 million visitors to the country last year, may have helped. The target was missed (by about 700,000), but the Royal Mansour was built as part of that project. It has its sights set on the highest of high-end luxury junkies, and it aims to lure them with the very best decor, cuisine and service Morocco has to offer.

It's a phenomenal hotel. Built to resemble a medina within the medina, its narrow, pink-walled passageways are laced with running water and overarched with beautiful plants. One thousand Moroccan craftsmen spent two years decorating the walls and ceilings with mosaics, hand-carved plaster reliefs and painted wood, to create an authentic Moroccan masterpiece.

Each of the 53 riads (a house, with one or more bedrooms, built over three floors around a courtyard with its own fountain) is decorated in a different shade of marble. Mine had a rooftop plunge pool, three bathrooms, 64 lights and 98 cushions. I counted.

And the service is second to none. Three men in suits welcomed me to my courtyard. When I turned up for dinner, the mâitre d' shook my hand and slotted me into a perfectly fitting jacket in one movement, and somehow made me feel like a king instead of an under-dressed numpty.

Back to the helicopter ride. If you're staying at the Royal Mansour, it feels a fitting sort of way to get beyond the city limits. Rosena and Frederic Charmoy, of the travel concierge service Boutique Souk, kindly organised for me to sample their Desert Camp Helicopter Experience, which does what it says, in style. After taking in the city from on high, we swooped out over the plain. Although the camp is not far from the city (45 minutes in a 4x4) civilisation feels a world away here: it's all moonscape rocks, wide horizon and silence. I'd barely clocked some camels before Fred had waved them over and stuck me on one for a ride.

After a day in the desert, it seemed sensible to check out the hotel's spa. I passed on “lymphatic drainage” and “zen harmony” in favour of a traditional Moroccan hammam. Think hot marble slab, steam, soap, scrubbing and a cold plunge pool.

Halfway through being rubbed down with the loofah glove, I was embarrassed to see that half my skin had wriggled off me in dead grey worms. By the time the other half had fallen off, my shame had turned to concern. But Miriam — the friendly masseuse — assured me this was normal and I'd feel great afterwards. She was right, I did, in a spaced out, newly peeled piglet sort of way.

Later, Hafid explained that the real hammams — as well as being a good place for a gossip — play an essential part in the purification ritual Muslims must perform in order to attend the mosque.

Non-Muslims, being impure, aren't allowed inside mosques in Morocco. We can, however, appreciate them from the outside. The elegant Koutoubia Mosque's minaret, to the south of Jemaa el Fna, dominates the city as the Eiffel Tower does Paris. At night, lit from within like a Moroccan lamp, it looks particularly stunning. Hafid also told me I'd get closest to the spirit of a mosque by visiting the Ben Youssef Medersa, a former Koranic School to the north of the medina.

What the Ben Youssef Medersa is to serenity, the tumbling maze of souks between it and the Jemaa el Fna is to colourful chaos. You don't need a guide here, but having one helps, not least because it stops kids on the make accosting you with the news that you need them as your guide.

Following Hafid past the leather-workers and carpenters, the silk spinners and cloth-dyers, I was able to take in the spectacle uninterrupted More or less uninterrupted, that is. You have to watch out for the motorbikes, which weave their way through the shoppers thronging even the narrowest of lanes. One swerved past me so close the dead chicken slung from its handlebars high-fived my thigh.

The souks are an intoxicating spectacle, as far from an anaesthetised British high street as it's possible to get. So, if shopping for Moroccan stuff is your thing, a stroll around the 2,600 stalls here would be the place to do it. But watch out. Hafid warned me that much of what was on offer was tat.

We visited a carpet shop near the dyers' souk called Bazar Chez Les Nomades. I didn't need a carpet, but the owner, Namous Abderrahim, invited me to lunch anyway. Up on the roof, we lounged around a vast silver dish, in the middle of which stood a steaming vegetable tagine. We ate with chunks of bread and the fingers of our right hands. Zero washing up. Afterwards, Havid made tea: a 20-minute ritual involving fresh mint and lots of high pouring into tiny glasses. It aerates the brew. “Good for the digestion,” he explained.

They make a mean Moroccan tea at the Royal Mansour, of course, to finish off the Michelin-starred experience available in its two restaurants (French and Moroccan). The food was perfect.

If – and it's possible – you're not an oligarch, banker, or prince, you might want to visit Marrakech on a different budget to the one the Royal Mansour has in mind. Boutique Souk can arrange riads in the medina or — if you want more space and a pool — in the laid-back Palmeraie, an oasis of date and palm trees not far from town.

I also met up with Kerstin Brand, of Bare Minimum Travel, who scopes out rooms in dars (smaller houses in the medina) for as little as £30 a night. Over a beer in the Ville Nouvelle (Moroccan bars do exist, more plentifully in the new city, but none are visible from the street), she stressed the importance of working with an agency who could vouch for the place you're going to stay, if you're booking in advance. At the cheaper end, properties might be “unfinished”, or right next to a mosque. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, until the muezzin cranks up for the dawn call to prayer.

At least waking at dawn would allow you to make the most of your stay. My three days passed too quickly. And as we took off, I caught one last glimpse of the red city spread out in the afternoon sun.

Travel Essentials

Getting there: British Airways ( ba.com), Royal Air Maroc ( royalairmaroc.com) and easyJet ( easyjet.com) fly from Gatwick. EasyJet also flies from Manchester. Ryanair ( ryanair.com) departs from Stansted, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh and Luton. BMI ( flybmi.co.uk) has a link via Heathrow. Add around £100 for return flights from Belfast to Heathrow

Staying there:

  • Royal Mansour, Rue Abou Abbas El Sebti, Marrakech ( royalmansour.com). One-bedroom accommodation starts at 18,000 Moroccan dirhams (£1,384), including breakfast.
  • You can book the Royal Mansour and other lodgings through Boutique Souk ( boutiquesouk.com); this comes with concierge services, such as English-speaking guides and restaurant and VIP clubbing reservations. The Desert Camp Helicopter Experience costs £505.
  • Bare Minimum Travel ( bareminimumtravel.com) offers a range of budget accommodation in Morocco.

More information: Moroccan Tourist Office: 020- 7437 0073; visitmorocco.com

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