Sunday, 26 February 2012

Morocco's bright lights: Romance, riads and arresting exoticism in the Red City

Djeema el Fna Square
The Red City yanks you from the 21st century immediately. So much so, it seems impossible that my day began in gloomy London. I stand paralysed, ink from the map clutched in my hand imprinted on my fingers and the bedlam of Marrakech ringing in my ears.

Burning bright: Marrakech has inspired visitors from Winston Churchill to the Rolling Stones I am not the first to discover the delight of swapping a grey city for the bewitching sounds, smells and colours of Marrakech, which is only a four-hour flight from the UK. Its arresting exoticism has captured many in the past - the Rolling Stones in the 1960s were among its most notorious visitors (tales of their infamous stays at La Mamounia make up a large part of the hotel's guided tours). 

Sir Winston Churchill was another regular - he came to regard the imperial city as his winter home. Churchill is in my mind on the first evening when I see the expansive Jemaa el Fna square. Arabic music, bartering and snake charmers' flutes drum up an orchestra that reverberates around one of the world's biggest open-air restaurants. What would the great statesman have made of this urban clearing?  I feel part of a Mexican wave. Waiters from the 50-odd food stalls run rings serving hundreds of customers a steaming selection of meat, fish and vegetables from their roaring barbecues. 
Minaret and Koutoubia Mosque
Spiritual centre: The beautiful Koutoubia Mosque calls locals to prayer

In the background, herbalists, storytelling halakis and belly-dancers do their best to compete with the deafening sound of excited children and motor engines, while plying their trade nearby. In a city that seems effervescent at all hours, visitors can at least be thankful for the tranquillity of its Riad guesthouses.  
There are now said to be more than 1,000 of these serene city sanctuaries built into the cool walls of the Old City, each with courtyards, exotic greenery and heart-shaped fountains. I seek refuge at the superb Dar Les Cigognes, which sits quietly behind a gold-studded door along an otherwise anonymous street. 

    Breakfast on the roof in view of les cigognes - the storks that live in gargantuan nests atop the 16th century former Sultan's residence, Palais el-Badi - is a daily treat. El Fna, by day, is quiet. 
    To the north of this now empty space are the labyrinthine alleys that make up Morocco's most celebrated experience - the souks. 'Souk Safari' is now on offer at all of the district's entry points. I turn down a guide's help, deciding instead to wander solo down the maze of shops and stalls. 

    Chaotic crush: Djeema el Fna Square comes alive in the evening with entertainment and market and music
    It's hard not to be taken in by the hand-welded musical instruments, fabrics and spices I am sure to have no use for back home. But the sellers never fail to entice with their smiles and mocking repartee. 'Come and have a butcher's,' one hollers in perfect Cockney. 

    Shopping, though, is not restricted to the souks. On another ramble through the Medina, I spot a man ushering people down an almost obscured corridor. Inside is a vast seven-room, two-storey emporium of handmade lanterns, pots, belts, candles, leather-bound mirrors and hulky armchairs. I don't escape empty handed. 
    The French colonial new town Le Gueliz is a sparkling contrast. It is full of high-rise malls, cafe culture and coach tours. This Westernised area - overrun with international brands and modern apartment complexes - lacks the thrill of the Medina. 

    It might be awash with luxury hotels and golf resorts, but the result is sterile. For me the scruffy, ancient streets of Marrakech hold greater appeal. And there can be no better tonic in the chill of winter than this feverish Moroccan jasmine-scented city - even with its hullabaloo. 

    Travel Facts

    Dar les Cigognes has rooms from £153 (00 212 524 38 27 40, BA flies from London Gatwick to Marrakech from £139 return (0844 493 0787,