A Sensual Feast in Marrakech

I write this from my kitchen, cumin scented vapours gradually rising from a pan of homemade soup. Don’t worry; you haven’t inadvertently clinked on a cookery article. You see, I am desperately trying to recapture the flavour of my all too brief dalliance with Morocco.  Spurred by my desire to experience some winter sun, a smattering of culture and a glimpse of camels, and with exams out of the way, the Marrakech Express truly took off.

Your sense of smell is most definitely engaged in Morocco, whether it is the spices wafting from a slowly cooked tagine, the stench of leather around the tanneries, or the less savoury smell omitted from the fresh fish (rather less fresh having sat in the sun all morning). It is, however, quite possibly, the smell of the fresh orange carts throughout the main square that will tempt you the most.

And as you peel back the thick skin or pass a freshly squeezed juice-to-go, you will kick-start your next sense of the Moroccan experience; exquisite, exciting, unique tastes. The sweetest, juiciest, most delicious orange juice is perfect post-bargaining in the Souks.  There is more for your culinary delight in the form of the famous tagines (although perhaps save this al fresco experience until your last day, as food hygiene levels can leave a lot to be desired), and don’t forget to taste wine from Morocco’s very own vines. The main square Djemaa el Fna is the epicentre for street performers, food stalls and serves as the gateway to the Souks. You can pick up a Caleche (horse drawn carriage) for a tour or to take to Jardin Majorelle, famously owned by Yves Saint Laurent and where his ashes are scattered.

Jardin Majorelle epitomises the visual feast of bursts of colour and beautiful contrasts. Behind the non-descript entrance lies a tropical paradise a world away from the bustle of dusty Marrakech with the palm trees, cacti and yukka plants. Terracotta pathways contrast with the cobalt blue pavillion (a museum housing some of YSL’s original sketches), brilliant greenery and reflective pools. Throughout Marrakech there are two sides to what you see.  Bland, expressionless buildings have only a carved door or mosaic entrance arch hinting at the colourful delight within.  

The Souks themselves, infamous for their labyrinth ways and almost impossible to navigate, provide a further sumptuous visual treat. The brightly coloured scarves, beautifully embroidered babouches and ceramics, make it impossible to leave empty handed. Brush up on your bargaining skills before entering and decide what is the final price (usually accepted, even if much lower than the original quote). The fun is just as much in the transaction process as in obtaining the goods.  Don’t, however, do what I agreed to do in just nipping to buy some last minute carpets before rushing to the airport. You cannot buy a carpet in a hurry. Although you think you know just what you are after, as soon as you cross over the threshold, you will suddenly be led to believe otherwise. This will cue a rather long-winded charade as an incredibly charismatic carpet seller will spring into life. Although a perfectly pleasant experience, almost like visiting an art gallery, it is time-consuming.  You will be shown at least a quarter of the stock, even if you just wanted the one hanging in the doorway where you came in.

The visual experience isn’t limited to Marrakech. Cast your navigation net wider and have a day in the Atlas Mountains. Visible from Marrakech, they are only an hour’s drive away and their snow-capped impressiveness is only added to by contrasting them with the blisteringly warm city. You could do a standard tourist trip (hike, visit a village, sit on a camel, have a nice cup of mint tea). Or for the more adventurous, hire a car and head to Oukaimeden, Morocco’s very own ski resort. ‘Resort’ may be stretching it slightly, but there are several drag lifts and a very long chair lift, taking you to a run that requires you to take your life very much in your hands. But be prepared to walk, or take a ride on one of the donkey shuttles, although it’s probably quicker to walk, or as we did, go off piste in the hope of making it to another lift across the mountain side. Just £6 for half a day’s lift pass and £10 for equipment hire, it’s definitely one to try.

After a day skiing or bargaining, brave the traditional Hamman.  A cross between a stream treatment, sauna and Turkish bath, this involves sitting in a heated room and being daubed in special soap, before having your entire body exfoliated, and the badness steamed out of your pores. It’s difficult to sell, but the at times painful and rather embarrassing treatment is justified by the promise of the smoothest skin imaginable.

And finally, sound. Marrakech is certainly not a haven of peace and tranquillity. Instead it is a vibrant, bustling mix of the modern with the constant tooting of horns, the incessant calls of admirers, and the traditional call to prayer, which rises throughout the day above the din of this busy city.  It’s worth noting that the pretty doorway of the Mosque that I admired when walking down the alley to our riad was soon resented, after being woken by the first call at five each morning!

Practical info

Flights: Easy Jet from London Gatwick (£35 each way).

Where to stay: The Riad Viva, close to the Royal Palace and adjoining the gardens of Winston Churchill’s favourite haunt, the luxurious Hotel La Mamounia. Doubles from £70 per night inc.large breakfast. Consider paying more than the cheaper hostels for privacy, peace and best of all the true Moroccan cultural experience, with traditional decoration of these former palaces

Where to eat: There are cheap, traditional food stalls in Djemaa el Fna, but be careful in regards to food hygiene. For a romantic roof-top experience in individual curtained-booths above the din of the souks try Terrasse des épices. Or for a truly Moroccan culinary experience, treat yourself to a meal prepared by Morocco’s answer to Jamie Oliver, at Dar Moha where on a nice day you can sit around the pool, before taking a post-feast dip.

Organise a Hammam through your riad; Riad Viva charged €65 for a Hammam and Massage (per couple).

Car hire for the Atlas Mountains can be arranged through your riad for €35 for 24 hours.

 

Images courtesy of Jim Shannon (title image), Hayley Daen, Mariska de Groot and Javier Gutierrez Marcos. Compiled by lucy Thomas.

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