Wednesday, 2 February 2011

48 Hours In: Marrakech

The most exotic place you can reach within three hours of the UK is a mesmerising mix of culture, cafés and souks.

Click here for 48 Hours in Marrakech Map

Why go now?

It's spring, so the days are warming up and the skies are clearing. And peak season for visitors to this fascinating ancient city is still a month or two away.

Touch down

You can fly from Gatwick or Manchester on Thomson Airways (0871 231 4691; ) or easyJet (0905 821 0905; ); from Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh or Luton on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ); from Gatwick on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ) or Royal Air Maroc (020-7307 5800; ) and its no-frills subsidiary Atlas Blue. The newest route in addition is BMI from Heathrow to Marrakech, flying on a Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

Get your bearings Image:Marrakech and the High Atlas
The main attraction – the Medina – is the oldest part of town. Centuries-old planning permission allows just one building to stand high above the rest: the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque (1). To the west of the Medina is the Nouvelle Ville, created by French colonists. Here you'll find some great restaurants, boutiques and the tourist office (2) on Place Abdel Moumen Ben Ali on Avenue Mohammed V (00 212 524 43 61 31; ) open 8.30am-4.30pm Monday-Friday. To the north-east of the "old" and "new" parts of the city is the Palmeraie – a place of palm trees, big hotels and private villas, best explored on camel or horseback.

Marrakech's Menara airport is just 6km south-west of the city centre. Expect to pay 100-150 dirhams (Dh), about £8-£12, from the airport to the Medina and 200-250Dh (£16-£20) to the Palmeraie – two or three times the "official" fares. Surprisingly you'll get a slightly cheaper ride if you opt for a "grand taxi" rather than a "petit taxi". The grand variety tend to be 25-year-old Mercedes; the petit taxis are usually Peugeot 206s.
The airport shuttle bus departs every half-hour, for a fixed fare of 20Dh (£1.70) single/30Dh (£2.50) return. It deposits you at all the key places in the city, including the main square in the old town, Djemaa el Fna (3), and the biggest roundabout in the New Town, Place du 16 Novembre (4).

Check in Image:Riad Laksiba by Scott Mackay
Ideally, every visitor to Marrakech should stay in a riad: a traditional family house authentically restored for the traveller.
A top-of-the-range example is the Riad El Fenn (5), at 2 Derb Moulay Abdallah Ben Hezzian, Bab El Ksour (00212 524 44 12 10; ). Five minutes' walk from the main square of Djemaa el Fna (3), down a half-built alleyway and behind a very ordinary looking door, you find luxury on an opulent scale: heavenly bedrooms, serene courtyards, fountains, roses and the odd wandering tortoise. There are 21 rooms and suites to choose from. Doubles start at 3,000Dh (£250) including breakfast.
For travellers on a budget the riad experience is still an option. Try Riad Laksiba, at 16 Derb Kadi, Bab Ksiba,(0044 7850 390 107 ; ) situated in the popular Kasbah quartier of the Medina, styled and restored in a very apt' "old Palace" style and offeres comfortable 5 Bedroomed B&B facility. All rooms are Twin bedded, some "pushed together", dependant on preference, at 780Dh (£60) per/room including Breakfast represents excellent value for money and can be rented as a whole from 6 to Max 10 people on discounted rates.

At the km6 point on Route Fes you can find space and Marrakech's largest swimming pool at Club Hotel Riu Tikida Palmeraie (6) (00212 524 327 400; ) – a hotel so new they're still planting palm trees in its gardens. It's a great location if you want to dip an occasional toe into the vibrant circus of humanity contained within the red earth walls of the ancient city; a 15-minute shuttle-bus ride takes you to the city centre. Thomson (0044 871 231 4691; ) has one-week packages including flights from Gatwick and transfers for under £600 per person.

Day one

Take a hike Image: Ben Youssef Medersa by Simon Hawkesley
The packed, noisy, heaving,
sense-assaulting main square, Djemaa el Fna (3), is an obvious place to start the day. But a counter-intuitive approach is to kick off north of the square and its markets and work your way down. Here, centred on a more modest square, Place Ben Yousseff (7), are three buildings to give you an insight into the history and culture of the city. A single 60Dh (£5) ticket will get you into them all, which share the same hours (daily 9am-6pm, from April to 7pm) and contact details (00212 524 44 18 93 ; ). Start with the medersa (8), the religious school next to the Ben Youseff Mosque and one of the few Islamic buildings open to the public. The mosaics, cloisters, cupolas and arches are 16th-century masterpieces. Move on to the Museum of Marrakech (9), an early 20th-century palace offering temporary exhibitions of modern art and permanent displays of Koran manuscripts, coins, ceramics and textiles. And the last exhibit on your all-in-one ticket: Quabba Ba'Ayin (10), a well-preserved 12th-century dome.

Lunch on the run
There are dozens of eating opportunities as you get deeper into the souks, but if you want some respite outside the Medina, it's worth tracking down the Café du Livre (11) at 44 Rue Tarik Ben Ziad (00212 524 43 21 49; ), which opens 9.30am-9pm daily except Sunday. It is hard to find, hidden behind a building site and tucked away in a courtyard. Yet it is popular with students thanks to free Wi-Fi, good food and a good selection of books for sale into the bargain. A tasty salad costs 75Dh (£6.25), while a spicy bowl of Moroccan soup costs 40Dh (£3.40).

Window shopping
Image: "Simon" teapot hunting for Riad Laksiba in the Antiques Souk by Clare Williams
Marrakech's souks take the form
of a covered market area spreading out into a mass of confusing lanes, alleyways, passages and small squares, guaranteed to outwit the most spatially aware visitor. A map won't really help you here, but a friendly smile and 10Dh (80p) tip to the many willing guides will get you to where you want to go.

After you've passed the same emporia a few times you realise there is a system here – of sorts. The shops tend to be grouped together by trade: herbs and spices in one area, leather and weaving in another, pottery, metalwork, jewellery, lamps and mirrors somewhere else. Bargaining is expected; enjoy it: work out what you think something is worth, attempt to stick to that target and never walk away from a purchase once you've settled on a price.

An aperitif
Alcohol is not permitted to be served within 150m of a mosque, so if it's a stiff drink you need in the heart of Marrakech, head for Café Arabe (12) on Rue El Mouassine (00212 524 42 97 28; ), one of the few bars that sells alcohol in the area. Enjoy a 35Dh (£2) glass of wine on the terrace with the Atlas Mountains as a backdrop.

If being in the centre of the action appeals more than alcohol, head for one of the many cafés and restaurants overlooking the Djemaa el Fna (3), such as Les Terrasses De L'Alhambra in the north-east corner of the square (00 212 524 427 570). Sip tea on their terrace for one of the most fascinating views of all: of food sellers, henna-tattooists, snake-charmers, storytellers, musicians, tarot card readers and amazed tourists coming together for what looks like one big, early-evening rave.

Dining with the locals
On the stroke of 6pm the food stall vendors in the Djemaa el Fna (3) appear from nowhere and spring into action, setting up shop, putting up tables and chairs, laying out tablecloths and getting their grills going. The square becomes a haze of barbecue smoke and smells. Try stall number 32 where a plate of kefta (lamb meatballs) or merguez (spicy red sausage) will cost you 18Dh (£1.50). For an exclusive, more intimate Moroccan feast, away from the party atmosphere, try Le Tobsil (13) at 22 derb Moulay Abdallah Ben Hessaien, Ksour (00212 524 44 40 52). Do book: it's deservedly very popular. For a fixed price of 600Dh (£50) you get the full banquet: vegetarian mezes, tajines (stews), couscous, delicious desserts and a choice of Moroccan wines. It's a spread best appreciated when very hungry after a day of sightseeing.

Day two

Sunday morning: a walk in the park
The best public garden to explore is the Jardin Majorelle (14), north of the Medina in the new town on Avenue Yacoub El Mansour Marrakech (00 212 5 24 31 30 47; ). It was created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1924 and opened to the public in 1947. Here, amid the palm trees, the cacti, the cobalt blue and bright, bright yellow planters, you'll find a memorial to the late fashion giant Yves Saint Laurent. He took it over in the Eighties and preserved it until he died in 2008; his ashes are said to be spread here. It opens 8am-6pm daily, admission 30Dh (£2.50). Within the gardens stands the Musée d'Art Islamique, though sadly it is currently closed for renovation until the summer.

A more natural green space can be found in the Menara Gardens (15) on the Avenue de la Menara, open 8am-7pm daily, admission free. It resembles one big olive orchard broken up by a huge rectangular pool with a 19th-century pavilion situated on one side. Viewed from the opposite side of the pool you'll find yourself looking at an oft-used postcard shot of the pavilion set against the Atlas Mountains.

Out to brunch
The Menara Gardens (15) is a popular picnic spot for locals, but if you're after comfort head back into the New Town, and on the corner of Boulevard el-Mansour Eddahbi and Avenue Imam Malike you'll find Le Grand Café de la Poste (16), a former sorting office that became a French colonial hotel and which has now been restored and operates as a wonderfully chi-chi café-brasserie (00212 524 43 30 38; ). Salads start at 90Dh (£7.50) and omelettes at 70Dh (£5.80) Open daily 8am-1pm.

Cultural afternoon Image: Bahia Palace with "Simon & Molly" by Annie Coulter
Back in the old town, venture south of the Djemaa el Fna (3) to the kasbah, or royal quarter, an area with more space and more light. This is where you find the king's palace (17) and two former royal residences: Palais El Badi (18) and the stunning Bahia Palace (19), a magnificent 19th-century residence which, despite being stripped bare, is still impressive with its woodwork ceilings, mosaics, patios and courtyards. Open 9am-noon and 3pm-6pm daily, admission 10Dh (80p).

The icing on the cake
Head out to the Palmeraie and get a grasp of the geography by going on a camel or horse ride. Once you get past the carcasses of half-built villas and hotels you can trek alongside shepherds and their sheep and feel you've gained an authentic view of the Moroccan countryside. A small outfit that can help you achieve this is Marrakech Cheval (00212 524 31 1771; ); 420Dh (£35) for a two-hour camel or pony ride with a guide, including pick-up from your hotel.

by Siobhan Mulholland for The Independent

Six things you can do in Marrakech

Marrakech has been transformed from dusty hippie outpost to one of North Africa’s swishest destinations, a vital call on the glitteratis’ grand tour.

This magical boom city boasts boutique hotels furnished in high style, celebrity chef-run restaurants and deluxe hammams. But inside its sophisticated wrapping, the old city is little changed, with its masterpiece 11th century minaret rising above a sea of terracotta roofs and an ancient square saved for the world. Here is a list of six things you must do in Marrakech.


The real-life human tableau played out over centuries in Djemaa el Fna - the square celebrated in the Crosby, Stills and Nash song Marrakesh express with its cobracharmers, drummers, acrobats, dancers, storytellers and spicecake sellers - was dying out. Then the locals campaigned to save it and their protests were heard at the highest level.

The UN’s cultural body Unesco came up with a completely new designation - “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible heritage of humanity”. This square is the very first one so titled. They moved out the bus station in 2000, and the beat, and the bustle, goes on.

Image:"Hannah" posing as Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn at Riad Laksiba by Simon Hawkesley

Morocco, and especially Marrakech, sets itself apart with its own version of seductive boutique hotel accommodation.Riads are compact townhouses with a cool, secluded central courtyard, often smothered in greenery.

They come with designer panache and many pampering touches, from scattered rose petals and pastries in your room to embroidered pillows by the pool.

(Artwork: Laksiba Arch Detail by Simon Hawkesley)

There is top-of-the-range cosseting, too, in the city’s big, opulent hotels. In the ritzy royal Mansour, new in 2010, Art Deco meets traditional Moroccan design. La Mamounia, haunt of celebrities down the years, recently reopened after a lavish makeover.

Image: "Mindy" relaxed at the Ben Youssef Medersa by Simon Hawkesley

A typical day’s sightseeing in Marrakech takes in Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, the 16th Century Ben Youssef Medersa
, for its mosaic tiles
and cedar panels, and the sumptuous Bahia palace, built for a grand vizier’s four wives and 24 concubines. And all this under the shadow of the wondrous 70 metre minaret of the 11th century Koutoubia Mosque.

Late afternoon, as you begin to flag, head for a Di-Di's hammam Rue Bab Aganou near the main square, a stress reliever across the Middle East and North Africa.

For smarter places such as Les Bains de Marrakech in the Kasbah, next to Bab Aganou, standard luxuries include a lathering with black Moroccan beldi soap flavoured with sesame seeds, and a four-hand massage. The upmarket hotels have their own hammam.

Image: "Slippers" The Babouche Souk by Annie Coulter

Take a walk through the
tangle of alleys in the souks of Marrakech. You can see craftsmen at their centuries-old skills - in the Babouche (slipper) Souk, the Dyers’ Souk with its riot of colours, the Ironworkers’ Souk, and the Carpet Souk.

There’s a European variation on the local produce in a string of smart boutiques and emporia dotted around the Medina (Old Town).
Look for sleek ceramics, Arabesque embroidered blouses, striped hammam towels and djellabas (hooded robes).

5 AMAZING GAZE Image: The Caid of Tafza (copyright: Patrick Manac’h)
You can read the soul of a nation through its eyes. In the wonderful new Maison de la photographie (house of photography), Moroccan tribesmen, wrapped in their woollen haiks (blankets), fix you with their proud and noble gaze. These portraits are part of a private collection of 3 500 photographs dating from 1870 to 1950.

A star exhibit is the first colour documentary, made in 1957, of the tribal Berbers of the nearby high Atlas Mountains. After this visual bounty, climb to the roof terrace cafe for good food and splendid views over the Medina (http://


Every evening they fire up a feast in Djemaa el Fna square. Join a queue to be served the latest superior street food from grills and steaming cauldrons, which could be bean soup, sizzling aubergine, and chicken tagine with caramelised pumpkin.

Tomorrow, you might want to compare the new crop of celebrity chefs’ take on the perfect simplicity of Moroccan cuisine. So much of it is based on that elegant grain made from semolina, couscous.

My local favourites include pastilla - pigeon cooked in flaky pastry with pistachios and almonds, topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. I like the recently renovated Grand Cafe de la poste for French fare with a Moroccan accent

by Gareth Huw Davies Daily Mail

Sights to see in Marrakech

Here's a quick guide to sights in and around Marrakech:

• Djemaa El-Fna:

is the main attraction of any Marrakech night. Musicians, dancers, acrobats and storytellers fill this square at the heart of the medina with a chaos of activity, noise, sights, smells and tastes. Scores of stalls sell an array of Moroccan fare. Enjoy the various performers, but be prepared to pay to watch. By day the square is largely filled with snake charmers and people with (ill-treated) monkeys as well as the more common stalls.

• The souks: (suuqs)
Image: The Coulter family and Simon at the Weavers Souk

or markets of Marrakech along the streets that lead to and around Djemaa El-Fna, are where you can buy anything from spices to shoes, tangine pots, djellabas (robelike garment with hood), kaftans, Moroccan carpets and basketry. Be sure to bargain. If you happen to run out of dirhams -- the Moroccan currency -- plenty of people in the souks will be happy to exchange your dollars or euros, though probably for less than the official exchange rate of approx Moroccan 13Dhs to the £1.00 (*Feb 2011). Don't expect to pay with a credit card, even at sit-down restaurants, and sometimes even large denomination dirham bills can be hard to use at the smaller stands.

• Koutoubia Mosque:, next to Djemaa El-Fna, is named after the booksellers market once located here. Although non-believers are not permitted to enter the mosque, it is the prime place for prayers five times each day and beautifully lit at night.

• The Saadian Tombs:
Image: Saadian Tombs by Simon Hawkesley

were discovered only a century ago, preserved just as they were during the glory days of the Saadian rulers. Decorated inside with Zelij (Moroccan tiles), they don't take a lot of time to explore, but are worth a visit. Also look for the tombs of Jews and Christians buried here, which are noted by different letterings and the direction the tomb faces.

• The Majorelle Gardens:
Image: "Maggie Casey" enjoying the Marjorelle Gardens

are situated just outside the medina. The entrance fee of 30 dirhams per adult is more expensive than Marrakech's other attractions, but in addition to providing excellent escape from the heat, the gardens boast an impressive collection of plants from across the globe. Once part of the estate of the French designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergere, the gardens also include a small Museum of Islamic Art, which requires an additional entrance fee.

• The Dar Si Saïd Museum: is set in an old palace five minutes away from Djemaa El-Fna. It houses an eclectic assortment of artifacts from Morocco through the ages, woodcraft, carpets, clothing, pottery and ceramics.

• Ben Youssef Madrassa:,
Image: Ben Youssef Medersa by Simon Hawkesley

one of the largest educational institutions in North Africa, is a school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque and is home to beautiful art and architecture.

• El Bahia Palace:
Image: "Come lift me up to the water" Molly organising Simon at the Bahia Palace by Annie Coulter

Built in the late 19th century, is an ornate and beautiful complex, popular with guided tours and stray cats. Although entirely stripped of its furnishings, its ornately tiled rooms provide some insight of what it must have been like to be a nobleman in Morocco. Admission is 10 dirhams.

The El Badi Palace:
Image: El Badi Palace by Simon Hawkesley

is now in ruins and inhabited by storks and stray cats, although the view from the terrace is spectacular. There are underground passageways to explore. Admission is 10 dirhams.

by David Bear, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Senior Post-Gazette travel editor David Bear can be reached at

Morocco gives an enticing taste of Arabic world

Morocco is probably best-known to foreign travelers for cities like Fez, Casablanca and Marrakech. But this country in the northwest corner of Africa is actually a place of dramatic variety. On a two-week or even one-week visit, it's feasible to fit in a trip to a major city or two, in addition to exploring rural areas.

You might explore undulating desert dunes, the magnificent Atlas Mountains, or a tranquil beach like those found near Agadir. Or visit the Volubilis Roman ruins near Meknes, the dinosaur footprints near Azilal, or eerily quiet Berber villages around Imlil, at the base of Mount Jebel Toubkal.

The ancient city of Fez: is known for its architecture, alluring medina (the old part of the city) and Karaouine Mosque and University, dating from 859.
In Marrakech:, by day you can explore the Saadian tombs and the luscious Marjorelle Garden, and by night the famous Djemaa El Fna square, with its food stalls, entertainers and peddlers.

In Casablanca:, the modern, giant Hassan II mosque looks like it's melting into the sea at sunset. And for fans of the famous 1942 Humphrey Bogart movie, head to Rick's Cafe, opened by American Kathy Kriger in 2004, a marvelous evocation of the film.

But ex-pats living in Morocco advise that there's no such thing as a "must-see" list. "There are many places beyond Marrakech that people should consider putting on their agenda," said Vanessa Noel Brown, from Washington D.C, who has been studying in Rabat, the capital city, on a postgraduate scholarship since September 2007.

"Foreigners like Morocco — they get a taste of the Arabic world, without having to go to the Middle East," said Yassine Naciri, who works at a mid-range hotel in the old part of Marrakech, the tourism hub of the country. His hotel, Marhbabikoum, like many, is the of the traditional "riad" style: quaintly decorated rooms built around a tiled courtyard, gently lit by candlelight in the evening.

The very best riads are complete with an in-house "hammam," an opulent version of traditional Moroccan communal bathhouses.

It is also possible to stay in a restored kasbah. There are hundreds of them around the country; they once served as fortresses for the most important families. Some stand empty now, while others have been turned into luxury hotels. But budget travelers can also find cheap hostels and guesthouses all over the country, for as little as £15 a night.

Foreigners can expect to attract attention, especially in the more touristy areas, where touts — people who offer unsolicited services for tips — are desperate for business.

Those worried about language difficulties should be reassured that English is more and more widely spoken, according to Hamid Khairi, founder of the Morocco section of CouchSurfers, the popular accommodation-swap Web site, which is an option for those traveling on a shoestring. "But basic French is useful," he said.

The main language, the Moroccan Arabic dialect known as "derija," is quite different from modern standard Arabic, even posing problems for native Arabic speakers.

To confuse things further, many Moroccans also speak one of the Berber languages, Tachelhit, Central Atlas Tamazight or Tarifit.

Morocco's culinary splendor needs little translation however; the superb fusion of French and Middle-Eastern fare speaks for itself.

The day starts with a spectacular array of pastries (as little as 25 pence) at the street stalls), accompanied by "qehwa bil halib" or "nus-nus" Half & Half (coffee with milk) and the startlingly good "aseir limun" (orange juice).

Lunch is couscous, or tagine — which is the name of both a rich stew and the dome-shaped terra-cotta pot in which it is cooked.

To fill the gap between meals, "le gouter" of coffee or tea and cake might be taken at 7 p.m.

Moroccan dinner, normally eaten around 10 p.m., might be "harira" (soup with tomato and lentils), or perhaps an omelette and bread.

The renowned sugary mint tea is drunk throughout the day, and at greater frequency the farther south you go.

With the exception of hot drinks where the water has been boiled, drinking bottled water is advisable.

Islam is central to Moroccan life and on the main religious day of Friday, shops and businesses frequently shut for a good proportion of the afternoon, also allowing time for families to eat couscous together.

While it is not necessary to cover hair, or put on the "djellaba" — the long traditional gown — women may want to dress modestly in respect to local customs.

For travelers saving their dirhams (the local currency, currently about 13 Moroccan Dirhams to £1.00, *Feb 2011), sharing a "grand-taxi" which seats two in the front, and four in the back, is the most convenient way to get between towns and villages.

The smaller "petit-taxis," a different color in each town, are limited to three people but Moroccan law does not allow them to leave their designated city.

Buses are to be found in the town "gare routiere," and the mainly efficient trains run between major cities. Those on a bigger budget can take a four-wheel drive vehicle, known locally as a "quatre-quatre," on a tailor-made tour.

Choosing the best season to visit really depends on where travel is planned. The High Atlas Mountains are best walked in spring and autumn. Farther south, nearer the desert, summers can get unbearably hot.

It's a bit chilly year-round on the Atlantic Ocean, but beaches are at their warmest in July and August.

In addition to Fez, Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakech, it is worth considering visits to Essaouira, for a glimpse of a coastal town with a rich architectural history, and Agadir, where you can start a trip along the coast, eat sumptuous seafood, and perhaps head out to the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

A few other places worth seeing in the countryside include:

Chefchaouen:, a pretty, quaint town, where the houses are painted blue, and which you can use as a departure point for exploring the rural north.

Zagora:, a small town next to the desert that can serve as a starting point to visit the villages of Tamegroute and Amezrou, and Mounts Zagora and Azlag.

Merzouga:, a small village reached via the town of Rissani, which provides accommodation within walking distance of Erg Chebbi, Morocco's largest sand dune.

Ouarzazate:, where you'll want to visit the kasbah, then head to the impressive Todra and Dades gorges.

by Jude Townend The Associated Press

The Marrakesh Express, Children Welcome

IT was cocktail hour, and what better place to spend it than on the rooftop terrace of Café Arabe, watching the sun set over Marrakesh. With my two companions, Charles and Florence, I settled into one of the plump white sofas decorated with silky orange throw pillows, as above us a patchwork of cream-colored cloth squares, each bordered by the darkening blue sky, fluttered like a hundred sailing kites.
Below us lay a sea of terra-cotta and ruby roofs, interrupted only by the gap of a courtyard, a towering palm tree or a glistening mosque, with the outline of the Atlas Mountains framing the horizon. All of us were mesmerized by the scene in front of us. “Pretty,” Florence said. “Wow,” Charles chimed in.

Time for a drink,” I declared, thirsty after an afternoon of shopping in the medina below.

Moments later, my husband, Daniel, arrived, fresh from carpet bargaining and more than ready to try the minty mojitos I’d just ordered. “Cheers,” Florence said, lifting a concoction of orange, lemon and peach juice. “To more trips like this one,” Charles added, taking a sip of his frothy strawberry and plum drink. “To your first mocktail hour,” I added, clinking glasses with my 12-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

Though friends had urged us to take a “couple’s” trip to Marrakesh and leave the children behind (it is one of the world’s most romantic places, combining the best of African and European design), we had a different plan in mind — discovering whether the kids were finally old enough to enjoy a non-childcentric vacation (that is, no Disneyland, aqua hotels, beach resorts or kids’ clubs allowed). Instead, we wanted a weeklong break in an urban location where the only itinerary would be finding the next great meal, museum, outdoor market or cafe.
Marrakesh was an easy choice, not just because Daniel and I had been wanting to visit what I’d heard called the jet set capital of North Africa for a long time (many American celebrities have homes here), but also because it has an ancient walled city, souks and palaces and a nearby desert and mountain range for day trips.

My worries that the kids were too young for such an exotic trip evaporated the moment we entered the city. Driving past donkeys laden with food baskets and camels saddled for rides, they asked questions about everything from the djellabas, the traditional long, loose-hooded robes worn by the men, to the history of the Seven Saints — seven large, three-story-high towers on the edge of the city that bear the tombs of different saliheen, or righteous men, from the 12th to 16th century. Up one street they noticed a man in a turban carrying a snake, down another a monkey in a fez. All that was missing was a genie flying past on a Berber rug.

Wanting no overt emphasis on the “educational” aspects of this trip (another recurring theme of many of our past family vacations), we allowed our days to develop organically, visiting just one major cultural site each day and allowing plenty of free time for eating, shopping and poolside lounging at our hotel, which was located in the Palmaraie, a palm grove 15 minutes by taxi from the city center.
Day 1 started slowly, as we ambled through the Jardin Majorelle, a renowned botanical garden created in the 1920s by a French painter, Jacques Majorelle, and later owned by Yves Saint-Laurent (the designer’s ashes are now scattered there). After a morning wandering the tiled walkways, admiring the fragrant flowers, frog ponds and chirping birds, we lingered in the garden cafe over warm plates of Moroccan pancakes with honey and small cups of sweet tea before spending an hour in the garden’s intimate Islamic art museum, filled with pottery, paintings, jewelry and carpets, many of which were part of Saint Laurent’s personal collection.

At the Bahia (which means brilliant) Palace, a complex of ornately decorated reception rooms, apartments and gardens built by a grand vizier at the end of the 19th century, we admired the architecture: mosaic ceilings, tiled courtyards and carved wooden columns. Free from the narrated tour taking place near us, the kids explored the palace on their own eagerly, though no doubt the promise of an afternoon of quad biking in the desert provided some incentive. The tour, while somewhat “child-oriented,” proved to be amazingly fun for us adults too.
By design, even our most active day — an excursion with a driver into the high Atlas Mountains, with their deep canyons, rocky plains and cumin-colored hills — was not overly taxing. After a bit of hiking, as well as a donkey ride in the small hill village of Imlil — the starting point for climbing Jabal Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa — we ended our outing with a civilized meal on a terrace at Sir Richard Branson’s nearby luxury retreat, Kasbah Tamadot.

Still, nothing measures up to a day in the old city, where we headed with a guide, having been warned that tourists often get wildly lost in the pedestrians-only maze of the medina, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The children loved the labyrinth of small, winding streets leading to the souks selling spices, carpets, jewelry, leatherwork and, most fascinating to them, “magic boxes,” with secret compartments. They learned a quick lesson in austerity visiting the Ben Youssef Madrasa, a Koranic school founded in the 14th century, where some 800 students lived, studied and even ate in the tiniest of rooms. And, not surprisingly, did not want to leave the Place Djemaa el Fna, the town square, which comes to life each night with acrobats and storytellers, magicians, jugglers, healers and food stalls.

While in the medina (where we discovered that a good map is better than a guide, most of whom drag you to their friends’ shops) I lamented that we had not decided to stay for at least two nights in a riad in the old city. Though not all riads allow children, one in particular, Noir D’Ivoire, would have been perfect. It welcomes children and has a plunge pool, a rooftop terrace and even a rescued donkey named Couscous that helps ferry guests’ bags. What’s more, the bar and lounge areas are stunningly decorated in natural hues (black, beige, white and brown), filled with antiques and accented with palm plants. In good weather, guests dine next to the pool in the courtyard.

Our one complete concession to the children was a visit to Chez Ali — a giant Arabian palace with dining tents set up around a horse ring in the desert, which could easily be renamed “Aladdin land,” though it was populated more by package-tour adults than families. Known for its traditional six-course banquet dinner (spicy vegetable soup, chicken couscous with vegetables, and huge slabs of grilled lamb to name a few dishes) and “Fantasia” show, which includes cavaliers, mounted acrobats, belly dancing, traditional music, a camel-led parade and even fireworks, I had been told it was both “seriously touristy” and an “unforgettable night out.” Both of which turned out to be true.

A few nights later, we discovered a more sophisticated, albeit less spectacular, version of the Chez Ali dinner, at Dar Marjana, an elegant restaurant in the medina, reached by walking through a long lantern-illuminated tunnel, with better food and a much more sedate, yet elegant floor show. But one of our favorite meals of the week was at Le Foundouk, a riad converted into a restaurant around a courtyard with a roof terrace. To the children it seemed magical, from the dark interior, lit only by lanterns and candelabra, to the doorman, dressed all in black, who led us out of the medina by candlelight to a waiting taxi.

Lingering on our final night at Café Arabe, the terrace now bathed in a tangerine glow from the setting sun, we suddenly heard the call to prayer in all its glory. Emanating from at least five mosques, the voices of the muezzins rose up over the city, overlapping before us like a dissonant song sung in the round.

Cool,” Florence whispered. “Awesome,” Charles said. Two words from my kids that told me this trip had been an unequivocal success.

by Jennifer Conlin for the New York Times

Modern ways amid old customs in Marrakech

MARRAKECH, Morocco - The same exhortations to prayer have been called from this city's minarets five times each day for a millennium before Graham Nash's lilting lyrics etched this rose-walled medina into the imagination of a generation of baby boomers.

Except of course that these days, the chants of "Allah hu Akbar " are amplified.

Founded in 1070 on the dry, stony plains along the Tansift River at the base of the Atlas Mountains, the fortified city was conceived as the capital of the Kingdom of Marrakech, as the conglomerate of Berber tribes in the Mahgreb, as the northwest shoulder of Africa now called Morocco was then known.

Derived from Berber "Mur (n) akush" for land of God, the walled oasis was conceived on a royal scale. A governmental center of commerce and craft, the streets of the walled medina were studded with private but palatial mansions and secret gardens, hidden amid the maze of souks and stalls clogging the lattice of narrow lanes lacing around Djemaa el Fna, Africa's busiest open square. All of it was overseen by the magnificent, 221-foot-high minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, which was the model for countless others around the Islamic world.

Although the seat of Sultanate power shifted to Fes just two centuries later, Marrakech managed throughout the centuries as the gateway to the Sahara and the city of seven saints, gathering a reputation as a center of Islamic culture and sophistication despite a succession of European encroachments. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the city again became the capital and experienced new prosperity.

In 1904, when Morocco fell into France's "sphere of influence" and the national capital was moved to Rabat, a new city, Gueliz, grew outside the medina of Marrakech. Ironically, that development spared the architecture within those walls where daily life continued to proceed much as it always had. To a considerable degree, it still does.

By day, the Marrakech medina still throngs with mundane activity, starting with the first call to prayer at dawn. Then, as its residents go about their daily activities, traffic quickly becomes intense. Cars and trucks whiz through the wider ways, while intense swarms of motor scooters, bicycles, and donkey carts compete with pedestrians for the right of way on tighter streets.

Djemaa el Fna bustles with all sorts of commerce, along with continuous entertainment, acrobats, storytellers, musicians, and snake charmers. At night, its food stalls fire up, offering exotic treats that range from snail soup to spicy barbecued meats. Unlike so many other places in the world that somehow look the same and familiar, the medina remains distinct and authentic.

One measure of this is that while the urban sprawl of modern Marrakech now houses more than a million people, the medina's entire five square miles has been designated a World Heritage Site, defined by the United Nations as a place of importance to the common heritage of humanity to be preserved for the ages.

As my wife Sari and I discovered during a four-day visit in November, the medina of Marrakech can also be a uniquely accommodating place.

The riad is a typical design for Moroccan houses or palaces. Generally two-story structures, they are built around a central courtyard, with all rooms opening to the interior. Windowless walls facing the narrow, featureless streets conceal private paradises within. The riads provided the well-to-do with refuge from the clamor of the street and protection from summer's heat and winter's cold. In lieu of hanging art, the interior walls of riads were adorned with elaborately carved plaster and tiled mosaics of intricate designs.

Other hallmarks include the mashrabiyya, the wooden or metal latticework over the balcony and window screens. Combined with rich fabrics, piles of cushions, and a fountain in the central courtyard flanked with small orange or lemon trees, riads were places of natural repose.

The noble and wealthy of Marrakech constructed dozens of riads in the medina over the centuries, ranging from palatial to pedestrian. Recent decades have seen renewed appreciation of these traditional structures. Crumbling riads have been purchased and restored, some as private residences, but more often as a small inn or restaurant.

Greater Marrakech has numerous modern hotels, which offer the amenities discriminating travelers have come to expect. More rare, however, are those opportunities to experience authentically exotic accommodations of another era. That is the promise of staying in a riad.

We happened upon Riad Si Said, one of the properties in the Angsana Collection, a recent venture funded by Banyan Tree, the Singapore-based, premium resort and hotel company. The riad was constructed in the 1880s for the brother of the prime minister of the Kingdom of Marrakech, where he housed his harem. It is one of six once grand riads Angsana has renovated on quiet back streets in the medina. Each has six or eight guest rooms and features five-star amenities, with an asterisk.

That asterisk comes because while these riads reflect all the Moroccan beauty and grace of their original decors, and they are carefully serviced, there are also idiosyncratic elements inherent in staying in 130-year-old buildings in a neighborhood that itself is more than 1,000 years old. It is wonderful to lounge on a pasha's rooftop terrace and hear the evening call to prayer, with a faint incense of cedar smoke wafting in the air. On the other hand, negotiating a narrow stone stairway and rooms that all open to the interior provide for a different type of intimacy among guests, while intermittent lapses of water and electricity are always part of life in the medina.

La Maison Arabe: has achieved significant status since it opened in 1946 as the first Marrakech restaurant to serve foreigners, attracting a clientele that included Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Jackie Kennedy.

In 1995, Fabrizio Ruspoli, a descendent of Roman nobility, purchased the restaurant and an adjacent riad. He spent three years transforming it into Marrakech's first boutique hotel, with 13 rooms and suites. A more recent acquisition allowed the expansion to 26 guest rooms, most with private terraces and fireplaces overlooking the central pool. In addition, there are three restaurants, a piano bar, and a cooking school, as well as a new spa including traditional hammam baths, where only natural products from the region are used.

Its flower-filled patios and abundance of traditional Moroccan craftsmanship (tadelakt walls, chiseled plaster, cedar wood ceilings), give La Maison a refined and exotic atmosphere.

While we didn't spend the night there, we thoroughly enjoyed the cooking class offered at La Maison, where we learned the intricacies of preparing chicken tangine and carrot soup. Another evening, the dinner we had at La Maison was among the most memorable I've ever had.

La Mamounia:. Erected in 1923 on the 15-acre garden of Prince Mamoun, a scion of an 18th-century sultan, this grand hotel has hosted the rich and famous, from Charlie Chaplin and Omar Sharif to more modern muses such as Mick Jagger, Kate Winslet, and Nicole Kidman.

La Mamounia was the Marrakech hotel where James Stewart and Doris Day stayed in Alfred Hitchcock's mystery The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Reopened last September after a three-year, $176 million makeover, it is again resplendent, with 136 guest rooms, 71 suites and three riads - each with private terrace, swimming pool, and Moroccan-themed rooms. Its four restaurants serve a mixed fare of classic French, modern Italian, and Moroccan cuisine.

The sparkling new spa executed in traditional tiles, sculpted plaster, and carved woods complements the hotel's traditional rooms, such as Churchill's Bar, where the great man himself used to sit, smoke cigars, and listen to jazz. It is indeed a palace of pleasure, an oasis of green both removed entirely from the hurly-burly of the medina outside, yet just two blocks from all the action......

By David Bear for the Block News Alliance

Take the Tizi-n-Test road from Marrakesh

To Agadir, you can drive the coastal road and be stuck in traffic - or take the hair-raising road over the Atlas

Guidebooks describe it as “spectacularly scary”, “unbelievably impressive” and “not for the faint-hearted”. A quick glance at the map, at its sheer drops and serpentine twists and turns, confirms that this is no hype.

The Tizi-n-Test has a reputation as one of the most challenging roads in a region that isn’t short of hairy drives. So why do it? Because it makes sense, and this is why.

If, as I did, you want to drive from Marrakesh to Agadir, there are only two roads you can take.

The lowland route used to be the obvious choice. A relatively flat and fast two-lane road, it allowed you to cover the 150 miles between Marrakesh and Agadir in less than three hours.

Progress, however, in the shape of a multimillion-pound plan to widen the road — an attempt to boost traffic, trade and tourism between the cities — has turned it into a nightmare.

I drove it recently and, stuck in the middle of a convoy of a dozen trucks, unable to overtake for miles at a time, I ended up spending more than five hours behind the wheel. I was not a happy person when I got out. This option is only for people who need more fumes and frustration in their lives.

If, on the other hand, you want the open road, the big views, the odd adrenaline burst — and, above all, if you want to get to Agadir on time — you’ll want to take the slightly longer high road that snakes right up into the Atlas Mountains. Strapped in? Right, follow me.

Nothing about the departure from Marrakesh suggests what lies ahead. A simple avenue of eucalyptus trees cuts through olive groves and fields of stubble. The Atlas Mountains were a mere shadow in the blue haze beyond. An hour or so up the road, apple and almond orchards announced the village of Asni.

Long before the Kasbah du Toubkal and Richard Branson’s Tamadot opened in the nearby Imlil valley, this was the main crossroads in this part of the High Atlas. Its no longer Grand Hotel has closed, but Asni still hosts a lively weekly market and remains the sort of place where, on other days, villagers in jellabas have time to watch the world go by.

Beyond Asni, fast-growing Berber villages cling to the mountain slopes as the road winds through pine-clad valleys. Jebel Toubkal, at more than 13,000ft the highest peak in North Africa, looms off to the left, but my road curves away from it, towards the village of Ouirgane, and lunch.

Here, I found the Roseraie hotel. Its name is appropriate: in the flowering season, its chalet-style rooms are set in sprawling gardens of rose, bougainvillea and palm. I stopped for lunch on a terrace overlooking the hotel’s inviting pool, then continued up the winding road into the red-earth mountains.

Next, it’s into Goundafi land and a broad upland valley, cut through by the N’Fis river. It is a blessed place, high above the world, its river full of fish, the orchards lush, the valley floor littered with flowers in spring. At its heart is a village called Tin Mal.

For a while, in the 12th century, it served as home to a reformist cult, the Almohads. They eventually took control of the Moroccan empire, which stretched as far as Libya in the east, and included Andalusia. They lost power as quickly as they gained it: all that is left to remind us of them in their heartland is the roofless shell of a beautiful mosque.

You can see the mosque from the road, and it is tempting just to slow as you pass. But that would be missing another highlight. If you drive across the river and up to the village, you come to a perfect observation platform — there are kasbahs, or fortified granaries, at either end of the valley. The mosque itself repays the effort of hunting down the guardian in one of the nearby houses, for it is the building on which Marrakesh’s Koutoubia and, subsequently, almost all mosques in Morocco, as well as many in Andalusia, were based — including the Giralda in Seville.

The road becomes ever more winding as it climbs up beyond Tin Mal towards the Tizi-n-Test pass. A plaque at the top, at 6,800ft, commemorates the French engineers who completed the project. Like them, and their Moroccan workforce, you are advised to take a break at the cafe-restaurant just beyond the pass and admire the view — and the drop. From here the only way is down, and it is steep, in places practically vertical, ridiculously sinuous and, most alarming for passengers, who will be looking over sheer drops, without a crash barrier. By the time I reached the bottom, my arms were aching and I longed for a straight stretch of road.

Taroudant, 50 miles or so from the pass, has earned the dubious privilege of being known as “little Marrakesh”, but apart from encircling mud-brick walls, the two places don’t have much in common. Taroudant is a sleepy agricultural town, with nothing more taxing to fill your day than a small souk. You could, as many do, use Taroudant as a base to visit the mountains and the coast. Or you can do what I did and carry on to Agadir.

The seaside resort was little more than an easy hour across the flat, fertile plain. Near Agadir, the Taroudant road merged with the highway from Marrakesh, giving me the great pleasure of knowing that drivers on the direct lowland route had been stuck for hours behind convoys of trucks. I, on the other hand, had had all the memorable joys of passing the twisting, turning, beautiful Tizi-n-Test.

by Anthony Sattin for The Sunday Times

City style: Marrakesh

Shopping and sensory overload in Morocco’s capital of cool. Choices by Laura Lovett for The Times


This stylish, candlelit restaurant is hard to find, so doormen located around the area light the way with lanterns and candelabra. Dine on classic Moroccan fare or, if you tire of the traditional tagine, they even serve foie gras and steak with béarnaise sauce.
55 Souk Hal Fassi, Kat Bennahïd (00212 524 378190

Wit two beautifully domed rooms with streaming taps and perspiring walls, this typical Moroccan hammam is a hidden treat. First you get covered in a black-soap, then scrubbed with an abrasive mitt, followed by detoxifying mud, finally lathered up and washed off. You’re guaranteed to leave glowing and relaxed. Riad Laksiba get special rates for their guests.
Rue Bab Aganou, next to Jemaa el Fna (Main Square)

Too hot even to contemplate visiting during the day, the main market turns into an entrancing square of magical proportions when the stars come out. Under a haze of smoke and kerosene lamps, merchants, fortune-tellers and snake charmers compete for attention in an experience not to be missed.
Place Djemaa El Fna.

A rich den of antiquity, Emrani Art specialises in traditional homewares and accessories that you’ll want to grab by the armful. Richly textured wall hangings, bejewelled bags and chunky jewellery all vie for your dirhams, so barter with confidence or you will be outwitted at the first opportunity.
19 Derb N’Khal Rahba Lakdima (00212 524 44 28 54).

The Medersa was an Islamic school from the early 14th century until the Sixties. Now a museum, it houses examples of the golden age of Moroccan art and architecture. From the grand courtyard to the intricately carved cedar-wood panels and mosaics, it makes for a wonderful history lesson, and had a more recent brush with fame in the Kate Winslet movie Hideous Kinky.

by Laura Lovett

La Mamounia - Morocco's grand dame

My friend Abdelmalek sells second-hand spoons on a side-street in Marrakesh. He squats on the ground all day with them laid out before him on a tired old quilt, whisking away the dust with a rag.

From time to time I crouch there with him, sip sweet mint tea, and catch up on conversation. Nobody understands Marrakesh like Abdelmalek. He has seen it all — the ups and the downs, the floods of tourists, and the drought.

Last week he cocked his head at a column in the local newspaper. “It’s happened, at last,” he said.

What has?”

Marrakesh's most famous hotel La Mamounia was the grande dame of the city - and she’s back, with a £100m face-lift

The grande dame of Marrakesh is reopening.”

I frowned. “La Mamounia, the finest hotel in the world, a butterfly woken from her cocoon. Once, in the Sixties, I peered over the wall . . .”

How was it?”

A fragment of paradise.”

Hotels are a preoccupation in Marrakesh. In the ancient medina alone there are well over 800, mostly small riads, with dozens more in the new town, and in the ritzy suburbs of La Palmeraie and beyond. Some are nice. Others are even better than nice. But few, if any, reach the heights of perfection of which over-indulged travel writers dream.

Things were different when La Mamounia opened in the 1920s. It was one of the world’s great hotels, like Raffles, The Peninsula, and the Taj Mahal Palace in Bombay, a hideaway for celebrities, heads of state and royalty.

Over the years the gem lost its sparkle, through botched renovations and a series of eye-watering colour schemes and styles. The last time I visited, only a few days before the hotel closed for renovation, I was propositioned by a gaudily dressed hooker in an equally garish salon near reception.

When I refused her advance, she scowled, halved her price, and said: “Monsieur, do not think you will have a better bargain than that. This is La Mamounia, after all.”

Now, after three years of work costing more than £100 million, the grande dame of Marrakesh is back. This time the buzzword is exclusivity. The first hint of this comes with the hotel’s sign or, rather, the lack of it. Anyone who can’t find La Mamounia might be best off staying elsewhere, along with those who have to check the price.

Jacques Garcia, the French designer responsible for the overhaul, studied old photos to see the hotel in its glory days. He improved the symmetry, opening up the reception areas, creating an Andalucian-style colonnaded courtyard, with mosaic, marble and crisp pools of water. He added an underground spa, a large pool and an equally large pavilion, as well as three exclusive riads for VIPs.

Garcia’s ambition was to restore the hotel to a state that would have been familiar to its best-known champion, Winston Churchill.

Over the decades, Churchill visited repeatedly to paint the Atlas mountains, moving along the balconies with his easel. He even coaxed Franklin D. Roosevelt to join him at La Mamounia after the 1943 Anglo-US Anfa summit, calling it “the most lovely spot in the whole world”. (Churchill’s 1948 painting Marrakesh, presented to President Truman, fetched £468,500 at auction in 2007.)

The visitor’s book at the hotel is a roll-call of 20th-century celebrity, including Charlie Chaplin, Omar Sharif, Nelson Mandela and the Rolling Stones. Alfred Hitchcock filmed parts of The Man Who Knew Too Much in the hotel lobby in the 1950s. When Charles de Gaulle spent a night there a special bed was commissioned to accommodate his 6ft 5in (1.9m) frame.

La Mamounia was named after Prince Moulay Mamoun, who was given the garden area as a wedding gift in the 18th century. Strolling around the plantings is still an indulgence — there are 400-year-old olive trees and flowerbeds planted with aloe vera and banana, hibiscus, datura, cacti and acacia trees. In the middle is a menzah, a little pavilion in which to take tea or simply admire the view.

The renovation’s real achievement has been to bring a sense of gravity back to the hotel, plus a warmth that makes you yearn for it when you have left. There is a delicious feeling that nobody is watching you. But, of course, they are. Drop your napkin in the Michelin two-star French restaurant and a waiter will hurry over with a fresh one. As with all the staff, he will address you by name.

A few streets away, Abdelmalek jabbed a finger in my direction. “How was it?” he shouted out.

Closing my eyes, I sighed: “A fragment of paradise.”

Did you ever doubt my lips spoke the truth?” he said with a smile.
written by Tahir Shah for The Times

Extracts from: Magical Marrakech

In 1938, George Orwell and his wife made their way to a Marrakech villa for the winter to help improve the author's health. Located in the fashionable Palmeraie district, the rent was £3 a month. Even then, the high-minded Orwell thought the population has "been hopelessly debauched by tourism," though he later confessed to a friend that he had "seldom tasted such bliss" as with the young Berber girls.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Winston Churchill was also seduced by the charms of Marrakech, though in his case it was La Mamounia Hotel. He described the hotel, with its 17 acres of gardens and views over the Atlas Mountains, as "the most lovely spot in the entire world." Half a century on, the Mamounia has just undergone a €100 million refit -- and other major international hotel groups are flocking to the Moroccan city.
Last year, Prince Albert of Monaco flew in to lay the inauguration stone for the €95 million Jawhar Estate development, which will be managed by the prestigious Société des Bains de Mer, which controls the Monte Carlo Casino.
The Samanah Country Club, designed by Jack Nicklaus, also recently opened and will offer private villas starting at €2 million.
Perhaps the most lavish new hotel of all will be the Royal Mansour, owned by King Mohammed VI, with suites from €1,500 a day.

Aman Resorts was the first upmarket hotel group to open here a decade ago. The Four Seasons, Mandarin-Oriental and Raffles, plus boutique groups such as Rocco Forte and Gordon Campbell Gray, are all expecting to open over the next two years.
At the same time, the Medina, a Unesco World Heritage medieval walled city, has seen hundreds of foreigners purchase and restore riads, the traditional high-walled residences with internal courtyards or gardens.
What makes this sprawling city within a city so appealing is the complete lack of any modern buildings, the burying of all overheard electricity and other cabling, and the rigorous implementation of a law stipulating that structures can't be more than two stories high, save for the occasional traditional mosque towers. The only blight on this compelling vista are the thousands of television dishes, all obediently pointing toward their satellite transmitters in the sky.
The most vital component, though, is the existing culture to be found throughout the Medina and the vast Djemaa el Fna, Africa's largest open-air square, with its fire eaters, storytellers, snake charmers and musicians.

Individuals have also created comfortable hideaway hotels in the Medina, with the most renowned one being Vanessa Branson's Riad El Fenn. Ms. Branson, sister of Sir Richard, recently hosted the third Marrakech Arts Festival, with guests such as artist Julian Schnabel, film Director John Boorman and actress Kim Cattrall. Other part-time residents of the Medina and the Palmeraie now include Paloma Picasso, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and fashion entrepreneur Pierre Bergé. This new generation of expatriates and travelers has helped establish Marrakech's status as the most sought after and stylish destination in all of North Africa.

Apart from the mystique and excitement of the Medina, there are several other reasons that explain the growing appeal of Marrakech:
It is the most accessible exotic destination for European travelers, reachable in little more than three hours by plane; it has a variety of accommodations ranging from €50 riads to luxurious hotels and private villas in the Palmeraie that can cost €15,000 a week; and it offers a carefree lifestyle with perfect winter weather, where foreigners can own property relatively easily.

Straddling both the resort nature of the Palmeraie and the intensity of the Medina, there is the zone called Guéliz, or the New Town, which French colonials developed in the Thirties. Despite the recent erection of rows of apartment buildings, it still has elements of French provincial charm, with its wide tree-lined avenues and a sprinkling of attractive bistros and quality retail outlets. A meeting place for Moroccans and the foreign community is Café du Livre, a pleasantly relaxed Internet café cum second-hand bookshop next to a three-star hotel that is run by Dutch born Sandra Zwollo, whose husband was headmaster of the American School in Marrakech.

Close to the Guéliz central market, Italian Lucien Viola has opened Gallerie Rê, one of the most sophisticated art galleries in Marrakech. He exhibits local artists and normally has six or seven major exhibitions a year; he also runs a Berber textiles museum on the outskirts of Marrakech. He says that on his arrival 20 years ago, Marrakech was an entirely different expatriate scene, dominated by the Rothschilds, the Hermès and the Agnellis. Foreigners tended to drive around in Rolls-Royces and had scant interest in the local culture. "Now people are interested in good art and good living -- and the gallery also has concerts, book signings, music evenings," he says. "Next year we are having a yoga performance with accompanying musicians."

Many Western artists or members of the so-called cultural crowd tend to live in the Medina, where they have purchased run-down riads for relatively cheap prices and made them into their own fantasy residences. One of the most spectacular modernist ones is owned by Dietrich Becker, the prominent London-based German banker, while nearby artist and writer Danny Moynihan and his wife, actress Katrina Boorman, have created their own local residence. "The Moroccans all want to move out of here to the leafy suburbs because they consider the Medina to be cold and damp," Mr. Moynihan says.

Next door to the Moynihans, Wasfi Kani, the British Opera impresario, has carved her house out of a section of the old pasha's palace. "I love the fact that there are still amazing craftsmen working in the souk and a feeling that the local culture is incredibly strong and vibrant," she says. "There is also the rather appealing way that store owners will only beseech you to buy their wares when you are directly in front of their shops and not otherwise."

Ironically, the success of the budget airlines appears to have driven other carriers off the route. Currently there are no direct flights from British Airways or Air France while Royal Air Maroc only flies via Casablanca. With the coming explosion in luxury accommodation, partially inspired by the modernist King Mohammed VI, there threatens to be a shortage of flight capacity to Marrakech. One luxury-travel specialist in London says many of its clients refuse to travel on budget airlines to hotels that cost upward of €1,000 a night. "People have to make up their mind because it really comes down to either easyJet or private jet," travel consultant Alice Daunt of Earth London said.

Marrakech however, has shown impressive resilience, regardless of all the development in the past decade. Despite the thousands of expatriates who have arrived, traditional cohesive values are strong and the markets still retain their original allure. Vanessa Branson says she began the Marrakech Arts Festival as a bridge between Islamic and Western cultures -- and also as a way of paying back the city for being so generous to her. "You have to be careful not to get too nostalgic about the disappearance of the wizened old men on their donkeys or complain because a KFC opens for the Moroccan market. Infant mortality is falling and literacy is rising with a lot more women graduating as doctors and lawyers. People love to moan, but you can't stand still -- I really respect Marrakech for that."

by Bruce Palling a writer based in London.

Marrakesh beyond the medina

Picture the scene: an old house, a riad, full of beckoning arches and curvaceous carvings, with a cool pool and a picture-book palm in the courtyard. Orange juice and pancakes on the roof for breakfast, couscous and salads under the stars at night. And all this in the middle of the medina, the old town of Marrakesh, where the call to prayer rings out every morning and the sun shines all year round.

It’s no wonder we love Marrakesh, and no wonder that more than 400 riads offer rooms in the medina. Up to now, however, this has been very much a weekender’s city, overflowing with atmosphere, but a little short on diversions. Once you’ve seen the Saadian tombs and the Bahia Palace, excavated the souks and wriggled among the snake-charmers on the Djemaa el Fna, you’re done. What next?

Plenty, actually. There’s a host of activities on offer beyond the medina, more than enough to make a week’s break here a tempting proposition. Here are some of the best.

Take me to the beach: a few days in Marrakesh is bound to mean UV overload, and cooling off is compulsory. Until lately, you had to make do with a dunk in the narrow pool at your riad, or endure a 100-mile drive to the Atlantic coast at Essaouira. Now, though, in the city’s hinterland, the Nikki Beachclub complex at the Palmeraie Golf Palace (00212 524 36 87 27, ) brings a touch of St Tropez to North Africa.

With its outsize pool, nubile young things and surprisingly tasty Mediterranean food (once it comes - the service is slow), it attracts Marrakeshis and visitors in search of chilled days and hot parties. All-day admission costs £17.

If that sounds a little slick, try Oasiria (Km 4, Route du Barrage; 00212 524 38 04 38, ), Morocco’s first water park. Hurtle down a water chute, catch a wave in the surf pool or just splash about, all for £12.50 a day (£7 for children). Usefully, Oasiria runs a free shuttle from the medina.

Head for the hills: it’s just an hour’s drive from the centre of Marrakesh to the cool kasbahs of the Atlas Mountains. Imlil is your obvious target. The approach, along a slinking valley road, is beautiful, and waiting at the end is the Kasbah du Toubkal ( ), where the rooftop restaurant dishes up traditional Moroccan tagines and immense views of Jbel Toubkal - at 13,671ft, the highest mountain in North Africa.

The same kasbah organises what it calls “a day with the Berbers”, mixing a stop at a rural souk with village visits, a walk in the mountains and lunch (£70pp, including your pickup in Marrakesh).

For proper treks, head for the city’s Bureau des Guides (00212 524 48 56 26) or contact the Atlas superguide Mohamed Aztat (00212 668 76 01 65, ), who can arrange day trips and longer hikes into the mountains, with your transfers from town laid on.

Ride out: there is no shortage of stables in and around Marrakesh, but finding one where the horses are properly kept and the tack is up to scratch can be a headache.

Bensassi Ranch (Zaouiet Bensassi, Route de Fes; 00 212 661 43 74 79) stands out. Swedish-born Jenny Angman and her Moroccan colleagues work to the highest standards and have collected a stable of fine horses. By all means join them for a short ride in the country (from £17 for 90 minutes), but their full-day expeditions are much more fun - they’re proper back-country adventures. Prices start at £50, which includes a picnic lunch.

Go clubbing: we don’t mean the down-and-dirty kind of urban clubbing, though you can find that close to town at the enduringly hip Pacha (Boulevard Mohamed VI; 00212 524 38 84 00, ), where the Michelin-starred Pourcel brothers recently took over the Crystal restaurant.

For something more serene, try the Beldi Country Club (00212 524 38 39 50, ), amid rose gardens and olive groves, a 10-minute drive from the medina. The club welcomes all-comers for a set-menu lunch: served on the fringes of its garden, it tends to feature light and fresh salads, grilled fish and a tagine or couscous dish. That costs £17, or £24 if you’d like to use the pool as well.

Ourika: A 45-minute drive from the medina, the Ourika valley is not as close to the High Atlas peaks as Imlil, but it has long been a bolt hole for Marrakeshis seeking a day’s escape from the city. Its principal attractions are the village of Setti Fatma, with its line of roadside stalls and simple restaurants, and the Jardin Bio-Aromatique d’Ourika.

The garden (00212 524 48 24 47, ) nurtures some 50 varieties of aromatic plants and herbs - you can stroll and sniff on your own (£1) or take a 45-minute guided tour (£4) and learn about their traditional medicinal uses. Either way, be sure to visit the shop, which sells home-grown Nectarome essential oils and organic beauty products.
by Anthony Sattin for The Sunday Times

Extracts from: Marrakesh for second-timers

Marrakech is perfectly positioned for a spot of adventure. There are spectacular valleys leading up to the snow capped High Atlas Mountains, remote villages where Berber shepherds still live a traditional way of live, and less than three hours away, there is terrific windsurfing at Essouira.

How about a nine-day "Moroccan Experience"?
You start in Marrakech, and then head off in a 4WD vehicle across the 7,400ft high Tizi-n-Tichka pass to the remarkable Kasbah at Ait Benhaddou. This magnificent 15th century stronghold is built on steep rock overlooking a river and was used as a film set for the Gladiator and more recently Prince of Persia. Next it's southwest to the red-walled market town of Taroudant, with its refreshingly tourist-free alleyways and souks.

After another scenic mountain drive, you're in the Anti Atlas range, where you'll stay for a night in a small Berber village (with accommodation in basic communal rooms). Sipping mint tea at sunset in such a peaceful and remote setting is an unforgettable experience.

On the way to the coast you'll see the iconic sight of what looks like goats growing on trees ­ actually they climb the Argan trees for its fruit. You've a couple of days in to chill in the atmospheric coastal town of Essaouira, before heading back to Marrakech, with enough time to shop, before catching flying home.
by Sunday Times travel expert Richard Green

Instant Weekend

Why go now?
Marrakech is always a fascinating place to visit, but it's also the perfect place to escape the commercialism of Christmas and the excesses of a European New Year. What's more, with the euro soaring, Morocco's more moderately priced currency, the dirham, makes it an extremely economical destination right now. The city is served by no-frills flights at fares much the same as many European destinations.
Hit the streets
The city's real delight is a wander through the ancient souks, where shopkeepers ply you with mint tea while you haggle at leisure over a kaftan or a carpet, and you can watch artisans at work dyeing, tanning, carving or hammering their various wares. The Café des Epices on Place Rahba Lakdima is an excellent place for a tea or a juice with a rooftop vista over the busy marketplace below. Pick up a map there to direct you to its hard-to-find sister establishment the Terrasse des Epices ( in souk Cherifia. It's a funky rooftop restaurant with great views up to the Atlas Mountains.

It's a cliche, but in the evening it is essential to visit the Djemaa el-Fna, the main square in the heart of the old city, which comes alive with storytellers, snake charmers, acrobats, musicians and medicine men, and stalls selling ginseng tea, stewed snails, hearty soups and even cooked sheep's heads. The ruins of the El Badi Palace are unforgettable, with storks nesting all around the walls. To see the stucco and tilework at the city's famous Saadian Tombs, go early, as the site is small, and quickly gets swamped once the tour groups arrive. And don't forget to check out Yves Saint Laurent's magnificent Majorelle Garden with its cactus garden and stunning cobalt blue pavilion.

Retail therapy
You're spoilt for choice among the amazing range of traditional craft items on sale in the souks, but you'll need to haggle. Off-beat items include crafts made from recycled car and bike tyres, which you'll find at the southern end of Rue Riad Zitoun el Kedim. Of the pointy-topped Moroccan casseroles known as tajines, the best, in glazed red earthenware, are from the coastal town of Salé, and one of the best places to find them is a shop called Herman on Rue Moulay Ismail. For olives, there's a marvellous little souk just off the Djemaa el-Fna, with dozens of varieties.

Worked up an appetite?
The place for a classic Moroccan meal is Al Fassia at 55 Boulevard Zerktouni (00 212 524 434060; As well as succulent lamb tajines, don't miss out on the pastilla, a sweet pigeon pie with cinnamon that's the speciality of Marrakech's rival imperial city, Fez. In the evenings, you can eat at food stalls in the Djemaa el-Fna or, better still, dine at a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the action in the square. The best is Les Prémices in the south-east corner, which serves up a tasty chicken tajine, or couscous if you prefer, at very moderate rates.

Big night out
Nightlife in Marrakech is surprisingly sophisticated. There's even a branch of the famous Ibiza club Pacha (00 212 24 388400; south of town in Aguedal. In town, the Diamant Noir, inside the Hotel le Marrakech on Rue Oum er Bia, is an unpretentious locale that combines western disco sounds with Algerian Rai music.

Escape the city
Check the snowfall first (but at the moment there's lots about) and pop up to Oukaïmeden in the Atlas Mountains for a day's skiing. Get down to the taxi stand at the southern Bab er Robb gate by around 9am, and either charter a taxi (around £55 for the round trip), or take a place in a shared one (£8). The trip takes around two hours and equipment can be hired when you get up there. The skiing is limited, the kit ancient, but, hey, you're skiing in Africa.

by Daniel Jacobs Author Roughguide Directions Marrakech