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Discover the city of Marrakech – the capital of the mid-southwestern economic region of Marrakech-Tensift-Al Haouz, near the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Known as the “Ochre city”, Marrakech is the most important former imperial city in Morocco’s history.
The January skies are grey and uninviting, and whilst the lure of the piste is a strong one, this year I feel like a complete change ? somewhere where the skies are bright and the atmosphere is vibrant, and above all the culture is in complete contrast to Europe in January.
Morocco has a beautiful temperature at this time of year ? the days sometimes reaching 24C ? and the gentle winter sun provides the ideal climate to fully investigate and absorb this beautiful and intriguing city. Admittedly the evenings are colder in January, but there are numerous restaurants, bars and nightclubs to add some heat to your evening, and the absence of the daytime crowds means that it really is possible to meander around this bewitching city at a relaxed pace, taking the time to visit souks, bazaars and markets without the pressure of the summer tourists.
There are 2 ways to stay in Morocco ? there are some stunning and luxurious hotels that will indulge your every whim, and of these my favourite (and that of many others) has to be La Mamounia. With breath-taking views over the Atlas Mountains, this is an ultra-glamorous hotel and the stuff of lifetime memories. Set in acres of fragrant grounds tended by an army of gardeners, this lavish hotel has an art-deco meets Moorish style and its 4 restaurants and stunning setting will leave you hard-pressed to leave the resort. However, to really get to grips with Moroccan style, the Riads in the heart of Marrakech can offer superb value for money and a more authentic experience. Generally located inconspicuously down winding alleyways, these town houses have tardis-like proportions and are generally built surrounding central courtyards that offer a surprising cool, and a welcome retreat from the sights, sounds and smells of the town outside. Some Riads have alcohol licenses whilst others do not, but all offer the opportunity to step off the street and into another world ? splash out and you will be blown away by the service, ambience and fantastic value for money.
“An entertainer?s mecca, this is the point where snake-charmers, dancers, acrobats, pedlars and market sellers all come together in the most eclectic and bohemian atmosphere I think I have ever encountered.”
I stayed at the Riad Farnatchi and it is one of my most treasured experiences. With just 8 suites and a refined modern style, it was roomy, chic and extremely romantic ? being hidden amidst a warren of winding alleys and without reference to its surprisingly spacious and luxurious interior. The courtyard was also the evening setting for some glorious local cuisine ? a selection of pastries and pickles leading into one of the most wonderful tagines I have ever tasted, and reflective of the immaculate attention to detail that I found here.
The Djemaa el-Fna is Marrakech?s central square and a must-see destination for all tourists both first-timers and regulars. Surrounded by numerous cafes to enjoy freshly-squeezed orange juice and a handful of dates, the square is somewhere to go, sit and soak up the atmosphere ? the onslaught to your senses quite magnificent. An entertainer?s mecca, this is the point where snake-charmers, dancers, acrobats, pedlars and market sellers all come together in the most eclectic and bohemian atmosphere I think I have ever encountered.Be prepared to be asked for money to take photos of the performers here ? and take an additional memory card as your camera will quickly be full. This is also a great spot in the evening as an army of food-vendors arrive with their barbecues to delight you with their beautiful and authentic delicacies.
A visit to a Hammam is also a must, and again there are 2 ways in which to participate. If you like a gentle and relaxing massage with soothing Argan oils, you will not be disappointed, but the authentic Hammam is something altogether more rough, brusque and invigorating ? performed without the gentle touch and leaving your skin positively tingling from the exfoliation! Les Bains de Marrakech is a great place to while away a morning with an exhilarating scrub and massage, and couples also have the option of mixed steam bath cubicles. A smattering of French will help you engage with the impeccable staff, but alternatively ask your Riad owner or concierge to book and all arrangements will run smoothly.
Shopping will again assault your senses, the barrage of carpet traders, pedlars and master craftsmen all eager to sell you a bargain, and even non-shoppers will find a visit to the souks and fondouks a cultural experience. Guides are easy to come by, but venture out with a male friend or partner and you will be able to enjoy getting off the beaten track without fear and enjoy seeing where the path takes you. You will inevitably find you have an African print tunic or wooden bowl in your suitcase on return, and your surprise at finding it there is all part of Morocco?s beguiling charm.
Nightlife in Marrakech doesn?t disappoint. The new Pacha www.pachamarrakech.com outpost is the pinnacle of hedonism and a veritable resort of its own, with its swimming pool and 2 restaurants, although true clubbers will still flock here for the top DJs that are regular fixtures. Thursday night is ladies? night with free cover and drinks for girls.
Waking the next morning, the mayhem of the Djemaa el-Fna can be swapped for a gentle amble around the Majorelle Gardens. Opened in the 1920s by two French artists, these delightful gardens are now owned by Yves Saint Laurent, and they are truly stunning – colourful and fragrant, but also surprisingly tranquil, and open daily.
The Saadian tombs are also well worth a visit. Home to the remains of 66 members of the Saad dynasty during the 16th and 17th century, the tombs were sealed shortly after this time. Discovered only in 1917, they are consequently well-preserved and show some beautiful examples of intricate Moorish mosaics. Located in the medina, the approach is extremely hectic, but the surrounding gardens are quiet and lend an ambience of peace and serenity that is in stunning contrast to the cacophony outside.
A Mustang chartered from Tag Farnborough Airport can get to Marrakech within a matter of hours requiring only one fuel stop, and three or four nights away will be enough to awake your senses from their Christmas inertia and give your new year a great kick start. Spend a night at Aviator on your return to ease yourself back to normality and reminisce on your experiences over dinner in the Brasserie – the grey January skies will reappear all too soon.
A 4 night break away in one of the hotels mentioned, with overnight stay in a Sky Suite at Aviator with dinner in the Brasserie and private transfer will cost from £1498. A Mustang chartered from TAG Farnborough Airport will cost from £26,300.