‘You know what?’ asked the gangly stallholder. ‘You, you are just like Moroccan woman!’ I took it as a compliment since I’d definitely gotten the better part of the bargain. For the price of £40 and half-an-hour of haggling, I was now the proud owner of a pair of tan camel leather boots, complete with gorgeously worked red and cream embroidery on the shanks. Before arriving in Marrakesh, I’d fallen in love with a near identical pair by hip US label, Cobra Society. Theirs cost £500, mine less than a tenth of that. Result: one very happy shopper.
Though getting my retail therapy in Marrakesh was a new experience for me, the city has hosted more than one satisfied shopper during its 951 years in existence. Founded in 1062 by Berber chieftain, Abu Bakr ibn Umar, the city began life as a trading post deep in the Sahara desert and in many ways; it’s changed little over the years. The central Medina, redolent with the mingled scents of saffron, sweat and leather, is at the heart of the old town and has been thronged with merchants plying their wares for as long as anyone can remember.
Hardly a surprise, then, that its bustling crowds of shoppers and salesmen know what they’re about. ‘Come, try!’ is the refrain that you’ll hear every few metres, whether from behind a pile of slowly toasting pistachio nuts or next to a neat rank of brightly coloured babouches. In Djemaa el-Fna, the bustling square on the edge of the Medina, it’s hard to know where to look first. In one corner, there’s groups of cobra tamers, scaly companions peeping balefully from their woven baskets, while weaving through the crowds are the monkey men, each of whom trails a miserable ape wearing a child-sized red fez. Behind are the fruit sellers, their stalls piled high with golden grapefruits and spiky green pineapples. Under a row of flowering jacarandas wait the carriages, all pulled by pretty pairs of Berber Arab horses; some skinny, some sleek and well fed.
One such well fed Berber Arab was Azir, a dapple grey stallion at Club Med’s La Palmeraie resort. Not for this horse a lifetime of toil between the shafts: instead he, and the rest of the hotel’s stable of horses and camels, spends his days giving travellers a closer look at some of the dusty villages and flat, barren land around the edge of the city. Dull yellow and scarred with scrubby bushes, it’s a world away from the lush gardens and neat buildings of the resort, which – despite local staff and Berber names – feels more European than Arabic.
Nevertheless, it’s a quiet haven from the city’s bustling alleys, with sun-dappled swimming pools, a soothing spa and gargantuan squashy beds. It’s good too for getting a taste of Morocco’s food culture without having to brave the Medina. El Kébir, one of the resort’s smaller restaurants, specialises in local fare and it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to Moroccan eats than bowls of couscous and heaps of dates. For a start, there are steaming dishes of tagine, a heavily spiced meat stew enlivened with a sprinkling of pistachios and a handful of dried apricots. Then an oddly tasty tomato concoction cooked around an egg, served up with fragrant coriander studded salads and a neat little dish of dried fruit. To finish, bitter Arabic coffee, thick and black and spiced with cardamom pods, which reappeared the next morning, at breakfast.
Few things are nicer than a lazy breakfast outside under a shady Jacaranda tree and La Palmeraie does this brilliantly. But just as lovely is lunch in the heart of the souk, where you can watch the locals bustle past, interesting looking packages in tow. Perhaps the most fascinating of all though, were the tiny pharmacies dotted throughout the souk, each of which looked more like Dumbledore’s office than a medical establishment thanks to shelves piled high with jars containing mysterious rainbow coloured liquids. You could spend hours inspecting the baskets filled with shells, powders and rocks, although if you’re smart you’ll go straight to the musk: a traditional solid scent that smells a little like Bond No.5’s Nuit de Noho and lasts just as long.
Away from the sensory overload in the Medina, Marrakesh does have some quiet places; among them, the Bahia Palace. Built by the Grand Vizier, Si Moussa, and named after one of his wives, the building looks innocuous from the outside with its plain white walls broken only by a simple turquoise door. Once inside, it’s a different story with courtyard after courtyard, each with its own intricate mosaics and central fountains, leading to a series of breathtakingly ornate rooms. Every inch of space within is decorated with filigree mosaics, brightened with splashes of crimson paint and blots of gold leaf. Ignore the crowds, and just for a moment, it feels like you’ve stepped through the pages of Arabian Nights. The local men, many of whom sport unusual hooded cloaks that wouldn’t look out of place on Lord Voldemort, flit between the columns, inadvertently heightening the effect.
As with the Medina, it’s hard to know what to look at first when strolling through the Bahia, but the same confusion applies wherever you go in Marrakesh. It’s an overload of colour, sound and smell, whether you’re strolling through the jasmine scented gardens at Yves St Laurent’s primary coloured villa or elbowing your way through the crowds underneath the Bab Agnaou; the medieval red sandstone city walls. It feels relentlessly exotic in a way that Dubai or Cairo never quite manage, despite their own bustling souks and proudly Arabic outlook. But Marrakesh isn’t really Arabic either: it’s Berber with a dash of the Middle East and a heavy dose of French. It’s unique, fascinating, irritating and insane all in one go. I’m going back as soon as I possibly can.
A week in Marrakesh, staying at Club Med Le Palmeraie, staying in the 5* Le Riad starts at £1,225 per person, including flights from London Heathrow, all meals and resort activities. For more information and to book, see clubmed.co.uk or call 08453 676767.