Marrakech is a place to drink in the sights, sounds and smells of North Africa, writes Richard Norman
The mosques are fewer, but the singing is poorer: however, Marrakech is just as interesting a holiday destination as Istanbul. It is said the Master of the SSC considered my description of the Turkish baths there near-pornographic — what, I wonder, will he think of the details of my afternoon in the La Sultana spa hotel, with its star-domed marble Jacuzzi?
My general feeling is that the more uncomfortable and life-threatening any treatment is, the better must be the benefit to my health. Beckoned out of the Jacuzzi, I was led into a very dark and very warm steam room, and locked in for what seemed like hours. I survived by sitting in the basin at the end of the room and splashing handfuls of cold water over my body as the temperature climbed steadily upwards: my travelling companion, remembering that heat rises, lay on the floor for most of this time.
When finally we were rescued, two very courteous young women led us to another room where we lay face-down on cool marble slabs. As in Constantinople, a vigorous gommage (rubdown) with an abrasive mitten followed, and then an argan-oil massage. Not willing that the fun should end there, I descended into the basement of the spa, where an equally courteous young lady whispered into my ear that I was to relax — and then spent forty-five minutes beating the stuffing out of me. Very good for the joints, I assure you.
The heart of the city
The La Sultana hotel is just south of the Kasbah mosque, and next to the Saadian tombs, sixty-six royal burial monuments which date from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The tiling and woodwork are gorgeous and very opulent. It isn’t allowed for non-Muslims to enter the mosques in Marrakech, but they can be marvelled at from outside: the most impressive is the Koutoubia mosque, a twelfth-century building south of the main Jemaa El Fna square. This is very much the heart of the city, and at night is alive with activity — food-stalls are erected in the centre of the square, and around them a dizzying array of market traders, storytellers and snake-charmers. A drink (unfortunately non-alcoholic) on the roof-terrace of one of the cafés which surround the square is a splendid start to the evening.
The food is top-notch. One can eat simply and heartily for very little money, or indulge in a banquet. We did both. Moroccan cuisine is heavy on couscous and slow-cooked casseroles or tajines. Two (higher-end) restaurants which stand out in my memory were Al Fassia in the New City, and Le Tobsil, accessed down a warren of narrow alleyways in the west of the city centre, serving a never- nding succession of meze, pastille, tajines and pastries. The Moroccan rosé (or grey) wine is perfectly palatable.
I do not need help getting lost, which is particularly easy in Marrakech. The buildings are tall, the streets are narrow, the road-signs are few, and the traffic (including scooters and donkeys and carts) is heavy. Somewhat annoyingly, at the first hint of indecision a swarm of local boys will appear offering (for a fee) to lead one to the nearest landmark (regardless of one’s actual intended destination). The disorientation deepens as one enters the souks (covered markets), a rambling maze of shops and side-streets.
There isn’t really a huge amount to see, in purely touristic terms. Avoid the Majorelle Gardens so feted in the guidebooks: most recently the property of Yves Saint-Laurent, these botanical gardens are frankly unremarkable, and a very long walk from the city centre. Marrakech is, rather, a place to go slowly: to drink in the sights, sounds and smells of North Africa, and to enjoy the happybuzz of the city. Stay not in a hotel but in a riad, large private houses converted to receive guests. I could not have been more satisfied with the Riad Dar Attajmil, a minute’s walk from Le Tobsil. It has only four rooms, beautifully decorated and furnished, with a cool ground-floor courtyard and a roof-terrace (with its own hammam for daily scrubs and massages) where one can breakfast on cactus honey and pancakes.
Travelling at the end of May summer heat was already upon the city: during the afternoon the temperature could reach 36C, at which point it was best to retreat to the courtyard with a book and a beer (from Casablanca). Marrakech is a beautiful place, and an excellent choice for a holiday.