x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The markets, music and magic of Marrakech

A weekend guide What Rabat is to politics or Casablanca to commerce, Morocco's third largest city is to tourism.

Djemaa el Fna, Morocco's largest market, is a shopper's paradise where interesting items from different parts of Africa can be found.
Djemaa el Fna, Morocco's largest market, is a shopper's paradise where interesting items from different parts of Africa can be found.

What Rabat is to politics or Casablanca to commerce, Morocco's third largest city is to tourism. The majority of visitors pass through here and it is only by experiencing this city that you understand how Moroccans see themselves and the world sees them. Marrakech has been at the crossroads of history for hundreds of years: it has served as the capital of three dynasties and is the place to see remnants of age-old civilisations, the influence of the French colonial period and the most modern side of Morocco in one place.

And of course, there is the shopping: Marrakech's medina is a shopper's paradise, one of the great bazaars of the Arab world and the largest souq in the country. Anything you want, from authentic Moroccan clothes and ceramics, to Berber carpets, handicrafts from West Africa, and all manner of lamps and jewellery, can be found in the winding, sprawling souq, all offered to you for a "special" price.

Navigating the Marrakech medina is like learning to swim: you jump in at the deep end and see what happens. Pick one of the streets heading north or east out of the Djemaa el Fna and follow it to discover a cornucopia of opportunities to bargain. And be warned: Marrakechis bargain hard. Afterwards, take in some of the historical sights of this ancient city: visit the 12th-century Koutoubia mosque, so named because of all the booksellers that surrounded it during the time of Sultan Yacoub el-Mansour. Enter the Ali bin Youssef medersa and marvel at the intricate mosaics of its courtyard. And lose yourself in the immense Bahia Palace, which has 150 ornate rooms.

Get back to the Djemaa el Fna after sunset in time for the greatest show in Morocco: the nightly performance that occurs spontaneously in the medina. Gnawa musicians, snake-charmers, donkeys and motorcycles, belly dancers, acrobats, healers and storytellers all mix it up in this open public square until the early hours of the morning. As midnight approaches, head over to the ville nouvelle for a selection of restaurants, bars and nightclubs that equal anything in Europe or the Gulf. The nightlife here begins late and parties hard: a night at Pacha, Africa's largest nightclub complex, will take you until the morning dawns.

If you are feeling sore the next day, check into a hammam for some pampering. Some hotels and riads will have their own private hammams or offer a discount on a particular one. And when the heat and the crowds of Marrakech get to be too much, slip away an hour to the south to the area around Jebel Toubkal, North Africa's highest mountain. Here, trekkers can experience the cool mountain air and snow-capped ranges of the High Atlas, while those who want to relax can do so in the calm of Asni and Imlil villages.

Budget The professionally run Hotel Sherazade is just two minutes from the Djemaa el Fena. This hotel, housed in a traditional riad, has several different types of rooms, from doubles with shared bathrooms up to private suites. Double rooms with air conditioning cost from US$30 (Dh110) per night, including taxes. Hotel Sherazade, Derb Djama 3, Riad Zitoun l'Kedim (www.hotelsherazade.com; 00 212 5 24 429 305).

Mid-range Marrakech is a prime tour group destination and there are many hotels just outside of the medina, all part of large international chains catering to package holiday groups. But the current craze is for riads, converted guesthouses with rooms set around courtyards and often other amenities (such as restaurants or spas) in-house. Rates are not as cheap as hotels, but the experience is often more authentic and there are savings to be had: relaxing on a private terrace overlooking the city is an enjoyable way to spend an evening that many hotels would struggle to provide. Riads can be particularly good for families because they provide several spaces for children to play in. One worth checking out is the Maison Mnabha. Doubles rooms cost from $143 (Dh525) per night, including taxes. Maison Mnabha, 32 Derb Mnabha (www.maisonmnabha.com; 00 212 5 24 389 993).

Luxury For the ultimate in Marrakech luxury, check out Riad Farnatchi, set inside the medina, which manages to make you instantly forget the noise, heat and chaos of the city. There are no rooms here, only suites, all with a flatscreen TV, CD player and thoroughly modern amenities. With an in-hotel hammam and swimming pool, it is no surprise this place has enticed Hollywood celebrities to stay. Suites cost from $403 (Dh1,480) per night. Riad Farnatchi, Derb el Farnatchi, Rue Souk el Fassis, Qua'at Ben Ahid (www.riadfarnatchi.com; 00 212 5 24 384 910).

Breakfast If you get sick of the pastries that seem to make up the bulk of every hotel breakfast buffet, Cafe du Livre is the place to escape to; a haven of calm interiors, free Wi-Fi, coffee and cakes. Set in the French quarter of the city, the cafe is also a bookstore, where customers can browse the shelves and take a book to read over their breakfast, which ranges in price from $6 to $10 (Dh23 to Dh37).

Lunch Try something unconventional at Narwama, which is often called the only Thai restaurant in Marrakech, but in fact is a fusion of Moroccan and Asian food. Situated in a riad, the soft lighting and red walls help warm up the appetite for the combination Asian curries with Moroccan vegetables, or authentic Thai soups and Moroccan salads as sides. Expect to pay upwards of $22 (Dh84) for main courses.

Dinner You are spoilt for choice in Marrakech for evening meals. Even if you decide not to dine there, you must check out the al fresco seating areas in the Djemaa el Fna after sunset. Small restaurants with long wooden seating (and gregarious proprietors) appear as the light fades; the noise and the neighbourliness add to the meal. Expect to pay between $10 and $15 (Dh37 and Dh55) for all manner of grilled meats, served with bread and salad.

Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from $1,035 (Dh3,800). From Casablanca, nine trains per day travel to Marrakech, a distance of three hours, with tickets costing from $11 (Dh 40).

An offbeat choice is The Voices of Marrakesh, by the Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canetti. The book was published long after Canetti's death, but describes in concise detail the author's reflections on Moroccan life during the French colonial period. travel@thenational.ae