The medieval charm of Marrakech
Walking around the winding, bustling medieval lanes of the old Medina of Marrakech is like stepping back in time, finds Natasha Langan.
Arriving in the old Medina of Marrakech, and walking around the winding, bustling medieval lanes, is like stepping back in time. The famous central square, Djemaa el Fna, with its snake charmers, acrobats and food stalls, is a real draw for tourists and locals alike. And at dusk it comes into its own, with groups of traditional storytellers surrounded by large crowds who join in and argue, and people gathered around one of the many food stalls for dinner or cake with mint tea.
By day, the main attraction in Marrakech is the souks, where you can stock up on carpets, slippers, pottery, jewellery and leather goods, among much else and all for very little if you're a skilled haggler. Don't be surprised if you get lost as you attempt to navigate your way around the lanes just keep an eye out for the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, with its iconic Moorish minaret, which will help guide you back to the main square. Within the old Jewish Quarter of the Medina you will find the spice markets, where the smells of amber, cinnamon and the famous spice blend of Ras el Hanout mingle with that of the donkeys that ferry carts around the narrow alleyways.
But there is much else to do in Marrakech besides shopping. Outside the walled Medina lies the Menara gardens, built in the 19th century by Sultan Abdul Rahman as a summer retreat from the heat of the city. Or there is the famous Jardin Majorelle, designed by the painter Jacues Majorelle in 1924. It has since been restored by Yves Saint Laurent and is famous for its distinctive plant collection. It also houses the Museum of Islamic Art, with a collection spanning Maghreb, the Orient, Africa and Asia.
We stayed in Maison MK, one of over 400 converted riads literally garden house within the old Medina and just a short walk from Djemaa el Fna. Despite assurances that Marrakech offered year round sun it was suprisingly cold, but the thick walled bedrooms, with their amazingly comfortable beds and bathrooms stocked with luxury beauty products, were incredibly cosy. The six bedrooms are arranged around a central courtyard with pool and two treatment rooms for inhouse spa treatments.
For food, try Le Comptoir, a legend in Marrakech. It serves Franco-Moroccan food with panache, including the traditional tajines. The upstairs bar features nightly entertainment from musicians and belly dancers (dinner for two about £50 without wine, see www.comptiordarna.com). For a cheaper option, try Chez Chegrouni in the main square. It's basic but good, and from the upstairs terrace you get a great view of the square (dinner for two around £15, 4-6 Jemaa el Fna).
Maison MK (+212 (0) 24 37 61 73, www.maisonmk.com) costs from €300 per night, or €1,500 for the whole riad.