Wednesday, 2 February 2011

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 (terrassedesepices.com) 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; alfassia.com). 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; pachamarrakech.com) 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

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