Introducing Marrakech, Morocco.
For a dollop of exotica in the Islamic world, in comparative safety, treat yourself to a magical encounter in the storied “Red City” of Marrakech. The political climate is stable and the hospitality unfailing in Morocco’s fairy-tale tourist hotspot. The finely crafted ochre-coloured walls, alleys and buildings of the city boast a wealth of enchanting experiences, where your wild imaginings come true and your senses are awakened. If it’s your first time in Marrakech, base yourself in the heady heart of the Medina (old town). Set against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, the blaze of rose and red-tinted sandstone buildings are a photogenic delight to explore, as the bustle of traditional medina living swirls around you. Cheeky kids on scooters, horses haul produce-laden carts, pharmacies burst with colourful herbal potions and tagine cooking sizzles on the sidewalks. And don’t shy away from tasting the dates, figs and sweet cakes, which are pure heaven. But the star attraction is the UNESCO-listed World Heritage site, the Djemaa el-Fna Square. It’s a mesmerising open-air cauldron of street theatre, exuberant market traders and culture. The circus atmosphere starts with the snake charmers, acrobats, starry-eyed astrologers, magicians, buskers and belly-dancers. Nightly street theatre has been taking place in this square for a thousand years. At sunset, one of the world’s biggest mass-barbeques roars into life as scores of chefs and portable grills cook up a storm of kebabs. Throughout the day, humanity’s rich pageant plays out and you can never be sure who might you run into, touting their wares. I stumbled across a mobile dentist, on my last trip, and politely declined his services. My sister bought a weird-looking, weight-slimming herbal potion – but it worked. For a playful panoramic view of this great square’s activity, pull up a chair and grab a chilled drink from one of the surrounding terrace bars. From there, enter the Aladdin’s cave fantasy world of the Souks and markets streets.
Amongst the fabulously colourful fresh produce stands and souvenir shops, a slew of superb craftwork tumbles out into the lanes. Puzzlework mosaics, lattice screens, spectacular pottery and Moroccan lamps were the show-stoppers for me. Haggling is expected. Be sure to enjoy a hot mint tea, if the frenetic souk activity starts to take its toll. For culture vultures, there’s a variety of museums and palaces in the centre of town, to give you a sense of Marrakech’s imperial heritage. But if you’re looking for a more verdant change of scenery, I highly recommend setting aside some time to explore the nearby Jardin Majorelle. Gifted to the city by Yves Saint Laurent, this is where cactus meets couture. Rare flora from all over the world thrives in the shadow of the art deco villa, built in 1931 by painter Jacques Majorelle.
One of the prize draws to Marrakech is the chance to savour the delights of a traditional Morccan riad, where the cooling oasis of an inner courtyard is the central feature of their housing design. A sparkling example of this housing style is spectacularly illustrated by LaSultana Marrakech, which has combined several traditional Medina homes into one glorious boutique hotel. Situated down a quiet residential alley, from the moment I walked through the grand front door, I felt I’d been transported into a world of exquisite fantasy, indulgence and timeless charm. La Sultana has been dramatically furnished with five tons of marble, 12,000 square metres of carved cedarwood, hanging gardens and 18 full-grown palms. The four cleverly interlocking courtyards are individually themed: Moroccan art deco in one, African safaris in another. But it’s the serene pool courtyard, bracketed by intricate, elegant brickwork and private suite balconies that really hit my sweet spot. Even standard rooms feature extravagant and dramatic details: red walls, swan-shaped fireplaces, and marbled bathrooms that are like your own private Roman temple. Massages and gourmet dinners are available on the rooftop, which is the picture-perfect spot to sip on a sundowner and survey the mystical city’s beating heart. But the signature feature of La Sultana is the extravagant array of artworks, festooned across every area of the hotel. The walls, ceilings, floors, stairs and windows are all masterpieces of art. In addition to the sculptures, antiques and period furniture, La Sultana boasts an exceptional private collection of paintings from Moroccan artists. A dreamy destination in its own right, La Sultana brings fantasy to life.
For an enchanting escape from the heady bustle of Marrakech, a day trip to the Atlas Mountains accentuates the magic of a Moroccan holiday. Serving as a striking, vaulted backdrop to the city, my favourite pocket of this alpine expanse is the spectacular Ourika Valley. Just an hour from Marrakech, the lush, green fields of the valley floor and gushing Ourika River intermix with weathered red-clay villages and dramatic rocky cliffs. The picturesque appeal of the Ourika Valley is as nourishing as the rich cultural offerings. The Ourika Valley is Berber country, North Africa’s indigenous ethnic group, west of the Nile, where they continue to maintain their traditional way of life. The real thrill of a trip to the Ourika is the chance to interact with these wonderfully resourceful, self-sufficient villagers who extend the hand of hospitality to passing visitors, with a tagine and mint tea. Savour the chance to glimpse through a window on their world, which remains largely unmolested by the passage of time. One of their great money-spinners is the world-famous pottery which spills out onto the streets of every village. The traditional souks and weekly markets are a hive of activity, enabling you to sample their authentic craftwork and fresh local produce. The valley is a fertile oasis, carpeted with gardens and orchards that specialise in olives, oranges, lemons, grapes, almonds, cherries, prized saffron and a plethora of herbs. Leaving from Marrakech early in the morning, you’ll drive through the olive groves of the the small Berber villages of the Haouz plain, before entering the valley. Stop by the market town of Tnine Ourika, where you will discover the Jardin Bio-Aromatique D’Ourika, a picturesque organic garden of aromatic herbs. Heading further up the valley, with glistening river views out the window, the most popular stop is at the Berber village of Setti Fatma. This a great place to enjoy lunch at one of the small traditional restaurants on the river. Here you can dip your feet in the swishing cooling waters and enjoy a tasty tagine cooked traditionally over charcoal. It’s not just tourists who revel in this experience. Many Marrakech residents will head to Setti Fatma to escape the searing heat of summer and chill in the river. I particularly the playful sense of hospitality. Swing bridges lashed together with rope lead you down to the rive restaurants, with red carpets spread under trees and tagines bubbling on charcoal burners. After lunch, it’s time to marvel at more of the valley’s natural charms.
Take the well-trodden trail which leads to seven waterfalls. My local guide added more bang to the buck, by navigating us even deeper into the valley, past young Berber boys tending to their cattle and camels, accentuating the flavour of Berber village life, off the tourist track.
Check out the range of special packages and best-value room rates for La Sultana on the hotel website. www.lasultanamarrakech.com
Kiwis don’t require a visa to visit Morocco, however steer clear of the country between June and August when the ferocious North African heat can nudge 50C.
( First published in Mike Yardley’s syndicated travel page in APN newspapers.)