Getting lost in the markets of Marrakesh

Marrakesh's La Sultana hotel is a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of Morocco, says Chris Carter.

“Don’t go into the souk,” warned the gentleman in the bright red livery of the La Sultana Marrakech with a smile. “You will get lost.” True, the sun was already setting over this most North African of cities. But the pull of a twilight walk around the Djemaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s bustling market square, was too much to resist. First, however, you have to get there.

An oasis of calm

Stepping outside the five-star hotel comes as a shock. That’s because La Sultana is an oasis of calm in a city of frenetic activity. It is formed from five adjoining riads, nestled in the heart of the famous medina, and furnished with impeccable taste. It is like walking into the centre pages of a style magazine. The traditional tadelakt sculpted plaster and the creaminess of the marble is in perfect harmony with the greenery of the succulents and cactus plants dotted around the ornamental pools in the courtyards, and the orientalist statues in the alcoves. The attention to detail extends into the 28 rooms and suites.

My impossibly luxurious “Jaguar” suite featured a delicately painted mural of Berber maidens above the Jacuzzi in the pink marble bathroom, under which a vaulted staircase curved round and down to the entrance on the ground floor. More statues in the alcoves guided the way. In the master bedroom, carved wooden ceilings ran into the lounge, where the tight red brickwork was lit up by low lighting. From the lounge, you could access the terrace, or the twin room via a short, atmospheric passage. Or step up in to the snug study to peer over the balcony at the indoor swimming pool and restaurant, shaded by palms. In the evening, a musician sat by the water, softly playing his lute-like oud.

Into the melee

Throughout the maze of tranquil courtyards, passages and stairs of the hotel, there is not so much as a speck of dust. That might sound obvious in a hotel such as this, but it is easy to forget how close you are to the action. As I say, stepping outside comes as a shock. Whining scooters zip by, cats and dogs run in the street and locals go about their business, stopping to chat, or carrying boxes of barbary figs to market. The Djemaa El Fna is a ten-minute walk, passing the beautiful 12th-century Moulay el Yazid mosque on the way. On one of its chimney stacks, a pair of white storks was nesting high up, out of the noise and dust.

A place to roost

Night had transformed the Djemaa El Fna into a miasma of smoky lights and the savoury sweet smell of stews cooking on charcoal. Mixed up in the market din was the kazoo-like melody of the snake charmer’s pungi, playing to the crowds of hypnotised tourists. Narrow lanes lead off behind the square into the bazaar, enticing those same tourists with their tantalising flashes of burnished copper. Brightly lit boutique recesses display everything from metal plates, teapots and trumpets to colourful fabrics, Moroccan spices and leather bags. The cries of the shopkeepers pull you in deeper. Soon, it was time to turn back, but not before taking a leaf from the nesting storks by heading to a rooftop café overlooking the square. After all, the best way to make sense of Marrakesh is to rise above the hurly-burly.

The rooftop terrace back at La Sultana, the biggest in the medina, offers another such vantage point. It’s quiet too. One explanation is the hotel’s immediate neighbours to the north, just before your eyes arrive at the Moulay el Yazid mosque, with its beautiful blue-tiled minaret. They are the long-dead sultans, sultanas and viziers, who ruled Morocco centuries ago, now resting in the Saadian Tombs. In the distance, with a preprandial glass of Moroccan wine in hand, the snow-capped Atlas Mountains sit on the horizon. Dinner that evening was in the gorgeous poolside setting of the La Table de La Sultana restaurant – the one below my balcony. First came a selection of little meze dishes: aubergine, carrots, sliced cucumber and lentils. Then came a lamb tagine in a velvetine apricot sauce.

But the most peaceful spot in Marrakesh is La Sultana’s inner sanctum – the spa. Five columns supporting a vaulted ceiling frame a shallow pool that runs down the middle. Everything is in pink marble save for the Moorish metal lanterns and the heavy wooden doors of the treatment rooms. A massage there really is the perfect way to relax and lose yourself.

Chris was a guest of La Sultana Marrakech. From £289 a night, see lasultanahotels.com. EasyJet flies to Marrakesh from London Gatwick, Manchester and Belfast with prices starting from £68.48 per person (return, including taxes). All flights can be booked at www.easyjet.com.

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