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Markets, mountains and the medina: Exploring Marrakech

Treasure-trove souks, glorious architecture and adventures in the Atlas Mountains provide Abra Dunsby with a heady mix on a trip to Marrakech.

Marrakech_cred Shutterstock
Marrakech_cred Shutterstock

Treasure-trove souks, glorious architecture and adventures in the Atlas Mountains provide Abra Dunsby with a heady mix on a trip to Marrakech

We’re utterly lost. Again. I peer down a narrow, dusty alley to discover fruit carts filled with pomegranates and oranges.


“Hello! This way,” calls a man in a faded blue puffer jacket, emerging from a slither of a shop where shining oil lamps and silver trays hang from every conceivable surface. “I’ll give you a student price.”


In the souks of Marrakech, clients won’t need a map – losing yourself in this series of Aladdin’s caves is half the fun.


Forget New York, Paris or Milan: Marrakech is the ultimate shopping city. Its status as a hub for commerce is ingrained in its history, acting as a marketplace, caravan town and centre of the sugar trade route over the years.


The city’s beating heart is found here in its myriad souks, located within the chaotic and colourful pink-walled medina, or old town.


Walking through here is a veritable attack on the senses. Scents of leather, spices and petrol drift from alleyways.


Scooters beep, donkeys bray, tradesmen practise their English on passing tourists: “Come and have a gander,” one grins cheekily.


At first, it’s somewhat bewildering, but clients shouldn’t feel daunted. A polite “no thank you” is enough to deter a salesman, who will quickly move on to the next tourist.


My boyfriend and I walk through the labyrinth at a snail’s pace taking it all in, dodging kids, carts and mopeds in the process.


Sunlight pierces through the bamboo roof, making the filigree lamps twinkle. Emerald and scarlet scarves billow in the breeze. Piles of indigo, mint and black soap form neat triangular heaps outside apothecaries.


The goods here are painstakingly handcrafted so don’t expect dirt-cheap prices. Do prepare to haggle though – if clients get something for a third of the original price, they’ve done well.


“Wow, are you a Berber?” jokes one salesman as he wraps up a pair of leather sandals I’ve just struck a deal on. After a shaky start, I’m starting to get the hang of this...

Fashion sense

Fashion sense

Shopping in Marrakech isn’t just about the souks. The new town, with its many hotels, trendy rooftop bars and chic boutiques, is the perfect place for clients to splash some cash if haggling isn’t their forte.


It’s also the location of the new Yves Saint Laurent Museum, which features a beautiful collection of jewel and sequin-encrusted creations from the prolific fashion designer.


He visited Marrakech for the first time in 1966, and the museum’s collection reveals the huge influence the city had on his work.


For Saint Laurent, as well as countless artists, designers and musicians since, Marrakech is synonymous with inspiration, vibrancy and colour.


Ensure clients also visit the Jardin Majorelle next door, which Saint Laurent bought with his partner Pierre Berge in 1980. With its enormous cacti, fish-filled pools and cobalt-blue-and-yellow house, it’s incredibly photogenic.


Both the museum and gardens get busy so encourage clients to arrive when they open at 10am, or later in the day to avoid long queues. Also advise that they buy their tickets from the museum rather than the Jardin Majorelle, as queues tend to be much shorter.

Quiet reflection

Quiet reflection

If the hubbub of the city starts to frazzle, sanctuaries such as the Jardin Majorelle provide havens of calm.


Our riad, perfectly located in the middle of the medina, is another cool, quiet oasis. Once the home of jazz star Josephine Baker, Riad Star is now a 13-room boutique hotel complete with characterful rooms, lounge areas filled with sumptuous cushions and trickling fountains, and a terrace offering fantastic views of the Atlas Mountains.


Staff are friendly and helpful: guests are given a mobile when they arrive, so that they can contact the riad if they get lost, and they’ve created a free and hugely useful map app for guests to download.


On our first evening, we enjoy an excellent meal here: mini-dishes of aubergine and roast pumpkin scattered with raisins are followed by a smoky, hearty tagine, a dessert of almond and honey-drenched yogurt, and endless cups of fragrant mint tea.


At the riad’s hammam, we are vigorously steamed and scrubbed, emerging pink and squeaky-clean an hour later to fall promptly asleep on the sun-dappled terrace.

Mountain air

Mountain air

Taking a day’s break from Marrakech and venturing into the Atlas Mountains is equally restorative.


The Ourika Valley is an hour-and-a- half’s drive from Marrakech. The air here is fresh and cool, and our guide Mohammed tells us that in summer its many riverside cafes heave with people looking to escape the heat.


When we arrive in February the paths are quiet and the weather is fresh, with corners of the valley dusted with snow.


The waterfall hike isn’t for the faint hearted; we clamber along vertiginous ledges and climb a rickety ladder, but it’s worth it for the waterfall, the views of the Atlas Mountains and its villages, and for the Berber people we meet.


One craggy-faced man in a hooded brown tunic ushers us upstairs to meet his wife and son, and to show us the rugs handmade by Berber women.


“Each woman weaves the story of her life into the rug – only she understands its symbolism,” he says sagely, before the inevitable haggling begins. Ourika Valley day trips are offered both by Riad Star and Viator from £23pp.


Marrakech’s architectural gems pay testament to its past, from the rose-hued 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque and minaret, which emit the entrancing call to prayer, to the splendour of the Bahia Palace.


The palace was the home of vizier Abu Bou Ahmed and his wives and concubines, and is a magnificent collection of archways, geometric tiles and artfully painted wooden ceilings.


Equally impressive are the Saadian tombs, commissioned by Sultan Ed Dahbi as a magnificent marble and tile-clad mausoleum for him and his family.


If it’s living, breathing culture clients want, nothing can compare to the bizarre, raucous experience of Djemaa El Fna, the medina’s central square.


By day, it’s filled with snake charmers, buskers and pet monkeys. By night the experience is heightened further, as troupes of chefs arrive to cook everything from grilled meat and tagine to snails and sheep heads at makeshift stalls, where tourists sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals.


After dinner, suggest a walk through the square, where every turn offers a new, increasingly curious experience. Acrobats flip over ladders, musicians bang their drums and storytellers enthral wide-eyed locals.


It’s like a giant street party- cum-stage, showcasing Marrakech and its passion for the theatrical.


From the friends who shout at each other on street corners, fists flying one minute, hugs the next; to the spectacle of bartering in the souks or the snake charmers who play their hypnotic flutes, this city, basking in the heat of the African sun, is one of fascinating beauty and drama.


Book it: Super Break offers a Discover Marrakech Riad Experience from £340pp in mid-May. The price includes three nights’ B&B in a traditional riad, one three-course dinner, a half day horse-and-carriage ride around Marrakech, a hammam experience, Luton flights and private transfers to the riad.

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