x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The mosaic that is Marrakech

My Kind of Place: The colourful medina is a cultural microcosm of Morocco.

Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech's main square, brings together snake charmers, food stalls, dancers and storytellers. Abdelhak Senna / AFP Photo
Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech's main square, brings together snake charmers, food stalls, dancers and storytellers. Abdelhak Senna / AFP Photo

Why Marrakech?

At the desert's door and the foot of the High Atlas, the peaks of which are visible throughout the city, the oasis of Marrakech is a showcase of Morocco's ancient culture. The climate is sublime: mornings are fresh with mountain air, afternoons are all sunshine, summer evenings are balmy and winter nights are nippy. All Moroccan cities have a colour theme, and Marrakech's is faithfully red. Built in harmony with the shade of the regional soil, both the fortified old town and flourishing new town show off their crimson walls. At sunset, the city assumes a breathtaking deep, burnt hue.

A comfortable bed

The legendary Hotel de la Mamounia (www.mamounia.com; 00 212 524 3886 00) has supremely opulent rooms, suites and riads finished with carved wood, stucco, marble and leather. Peep out of your window for spectacular views of the Agdal gardens, Koutoubia mosque and the Atlas Mountains. Prices are equally legendary - the most reasonably priced room is available for 6,000 Moroccan dirhams (Dh2,778) per night, while a riad may clean out your life savings at 80,000 dirhams (Dh34,044). There also is a tax of 50 dirhams (Dh23) per person, per night.

A little too grand? Make a short visit to the Mamounia before booking a room at one of the medina's charming riads, where you'll be right at the heart of activity with the riad close at hand when in need of a break. At Riad Malaika (www.darmalaika.com; 00 212 524 38 7976 500), comfy rooms are dotted over several floors around a courtyard and cost from 600 dirhams (Dh278) per night, including taxes. The restful yet stylish Riad Origines (www.riadorigines.com; 00 212 524 3863 76) is a first-rate choice, with traditional hammam, pampering treatments and a pool. The superb terrace is a great place to savour the views and a homemade Moroccan breakfast of msemen (honey-drizzled pancakes) and mint tea. Rooms cost from 1,120 dirhams (Dh518) per night, including taxes.

Find your feet

The notorious Jemaa el-Fna square can be visited only on foot. The heart of Marrakech, it lies adjacent to the great minaret of the Koutoubia mosque and at the mouth of the old medina. At twilight, the place becomes a circus, unchanged for centuries, with snake charmers, storytellers, musicians, henna artists and traditional dentists. In no time, you'll find yourself wearing a fez, entranced by a group of gnawadancers and slurping a bowl of harira, Moroccan soup.

Plunge into the old medina, a car-free zone, to explore the hundreds of stalls. Don't miss the leather tanneries, whererobust Marrakechi men heave huge skins in and out of dyeing troughs day in and day out - a centuries-old tradition. Another must-see is the 16th-century Ben Youssef Madrasa, the oldest in Morocco. It contains perfectly preserved carved stone, marble and wood walls and doorways decorated with exquisite mosaic.

The more contemporary Gueliz area of Marrakech is also worth investigation. Only a couple of kilometres from the medina, it's laid out over a grid of shady streets filled with cafes, bakeries and small boutiques. Sundown amid the roses and pergolas of the grand Boulevard Mohamed VI - in honour of the current king - is also a pleasant walk. There are countless cafes to stop at if your feet begin to hurt.

Meet the locals

It's difficult not to meet locals throughout Morocco, and Marrakech is no exception. Whether you're lounging in a cafe or shuffling along a medina passage, expect the odd unsolicited "hello".

Book a table

If you've already tried the Jemaa el-Fna benches, serving everything from sheep head to aubergine salad, there are scores of good - and not-so-good - eateries in Marrakech. Dar Moha is a famed establishment set in a beautiful riad within the medina's walls. The refined dinner menu (price fixed at 530 dirhams; Dh244) features superb Moroccan food, so expect national staples - couscous, tagine, pastilla - with Moha's inventive, fragrant twists. Kechmara (www.kechmara.com; 00 212 524 42 2532) is a restaurant, cafe and music venue with a pretty roof terrace. Food is more French than Moroccan - steak tartare and tarte aux pommes - and sincerely good. Main courses cost from 90 dirhams (Dh41).

Morocco's deep-rooted cafe culture means that you trip over them all the time. Yet there are some extra-special places. The Café des Epices (www.cafedesepices.net; 00 212 524 39 17 70) in the medina is a favourite, overlooking a square filled with basket weavers and spice stalls.

To plunge into local history, try the Café de la Grande Poste (www.grandcafedelaposte.com; 00 212 524 433 038), a former pacha's favourite haunt. Open all day, it serves everything from breakfast to citron pressé to multi-course dinners in the most splendid and renovated 1920s building. Main courses cost from 70 dirhams (Dh32).

For the more ambitious, there's the road to the Ourika Valley, a less than 30-minute drive out of town and full of delightful places wedged in olive groves where local cook up aromatic, bubbling tagines.

Shopper's paradise

The medina is a shopper's eighth wonder. Slippers, ceramics, jewellery, wooden objects of every kind, bags and rugs, are very lovely to look at, haggle over and take home. Visit Abderrahman Bidda's cosy rug place, La Petite Boutique du Tapis, for some quality purchases and some sincere Moroccan warmth. Abderrahman is always ready to offer great tea, stories and trusty help - oh, and magnificent carpets. For quirky purchases, head for the Moroccan-British pop designer and photographer Hassan Hajjaj's Riad Yima. Decorated entirely in his own handcrafted Moroccan-nuanced pop art, Riad Yima is a showcase of Hajjaj's work, much of which is for sale.

What to avoid

It's not worth risking any food that looks or smells even slightly iffy.

Don't miss

The parks. The Jardin Harti and nearby Jardin Arsat Moulay Abdessalam are calming gardens showcasing local flora - shady palms, creeping bougainvillea and pretty hibiscus - with all genus neatly labelled. Both parks are open to all and entry is free.