We leave a grouchy London, all grey skies and scattered showers, and arrive 3.5 hours later in Marrakech’s tiny airport. We’re welcomed by a taxi driver who brings us to Riad du Bonheur, the place we’re staying in the old, walled Medina district (a UNESCO World Hertiage Site) and where we are greeted by a lovely, respectful and slightly nervous young man. He leads us through a labyrinth of sandy roads lined with high walls and eventually stops in front of a tiny wooden door which looks like the secret entrance to some hidden world.
Indeed, once unlocked, we enter a cool, beautifully decorated “cave” several storeys high. Our young host serves us delicious hot menthol tea while we chat with the other guests – two Frenchmen – and relax on benches adorned with plush mirrored cushions.
The whole riad smells of incense and burning wood, courtesy of a small fire in the guest lounge. We are made to feel welcome immediately, and are shown to our room which is charmingly carved from rough-hewn stone. That night, I shower in what feels more like a waterfall, hot water cascading around me while I stand in a dark marble basin.
On our first morning we eat a breakfast of yoghurt, fruit salad, Moroccan pancakes, lemon muffins, fresh bread, jam and coffee. This is served for an extra €4 by the riad, and we eat up on the roof terrace which overlooks the city as the sun climbs brilliantly higher above us. The sky is the clearest blue; it reaches 23 degrees C that day.
The souk that we wandered through at 11am wasn’t particularly busy; we had braced ourselves for an onslaught of salesmen vying for our cash, but it seems Moroccans start late! We were curious about everything, but we did quickly learn to avert our eyes – even a cursory glance at a product will send an eagle-eyed stall holder straight after you.
They sometimes shout the funniest things to get your attention. “Air-conditioned trousers?” one offered, pointing to his colourful array of harem pants. “Lady GaGa?” another said, motioning towards his box of baby chameleons and tortoises (we fell for that one – turns out his favourite chameleons are named Michael Jackson, Lady GaGa and Shakira).
It reminds me a lot of Istanbul, just much smaller. The same sense of organised chaos pervades; the same mix of smells, both pungent and delectable; the reams of brightly coloured carpets and pashminas, the mountains of incense cones and barrels of spices; the stray cats; the call to prayer several times a day.
We stopped for fresh orange juice (4 dirhams/30p) in Place Jamaa El Fna, the main square and apparently the busiest in the whole of Africa. There we saw monkeys on leads, birds of prey and large snakes toted by old men sheltering from the sun.
What we didn’t see much of were other tourists. Obviously you can spot them a mile off here, yet we haven’t encountered many at all. I guess it must be low season, though it seems perfect to us.
Something I really came to love about Morocco is the opportunities it presents to practise French. As all Moroccans speak Arabic and French (and sometimes Berbere and a little English, too), yet are not remotely snobby about their linguistic skills, I felt confident trying out even my schoolgirl French. I could find common ground through what is a second language to both of us and make myself understood, as they generally speak a slower and simpler version of French than what you find in Paris or elsewhere.
After hanging out on a rooftop terrace in a hip European cafe in the south of the Medina, we walked back through the teeming Saturday night streets and got an early sleep.
We awoke next morning at 8am. This is no mean feat, as our chilly stone bedroom is more like a cavern, and is pitch dark at any time of day when the shutters are closed. We had the same breakfast as the first day, and headed out to catch our 30-minute ride to the city outskirts – dry, scrubby, desert – where a line of camels is waiting for us.
They’re actually single-humped dromedaries, and are gentle as anything. There’s even a baby, a 9-month-old named Shakira (apparently that name is popular around here).
The ride itself was a laugh, as everyone was finding their own position sat upon the docile animals hilarious. We walked in a line for about an hour each way, stopping halfway to eat some crepes at a little farmhouse in the middle of the desert. It was hot but breezy, and the long-lashed dromedaries were very well-behaved. I’d recommend the company, which was professional but still gave us what felt to be an authentic experience: it’s called Dunes & Deserts.
We spent a few hours basking in the late afternoon sun back on our rooftop terrace, me listening avidly to Serial, to which I have recently become addicted. Our inner thighs ached from the straddling. By chance, we managed to get a booking at a nearby spa, the Heritage, due to a last-minute cancellation (and it’s got some of the best reviews on TripAdvisor) – so we were able to relax and work out the aches and pains in true Moroccan style!
We’ve been to a Moroccan hammam before, here in London, but the one in Marrakech was much better. It cost 650 dirhams (about £40), so it wasn’t cheap, but this spa comes highly rated and it was wonderful. For 45 minutes we stripped in a steam room and had our skin scrubbed bare by two unabashed, smiling women. Then they slapped on layers of grainy black mud and left us to bask in the heat for a bit. It was so hot my cheeks throbbed, and I could see the ceiling sweating above me.
After that we had a one-hour massage, which was pure bliss. The whole experience was entirely comfortable and didn’t feel at all rushed; we were given the usual menthol tea and little honey-flavoured sweets to nibble on while we waited for our massage, sat upon big bejewelled cushions on the floor of a deep red, candle-lit room which smelt of incense.
Our final day was a little improvised, but turned out to be the best. The caretaker of our riad, the sweet, nervous man I mentioned earlier (his name was Dila), offered to take us out on his scooter after we expressed interest in hiring one for the day. So, armed with blankets to keep us warm on the back, Dila and his friend picked us up on the back of their scooters and headed 60km south to the Atlas Mountains.
I’d heard about the Atlas Mountains; they were meant to be incredibly beautiful, dotted with Berbere villages and stretching over 4,000 metres high in parts. We spent the day speeding through the Ourika Valley, the most accessible part of the Atlas Mouuntains, stopping for food here and there and climbing hundreds of metres to see the views. It was the perfect escape from the mayhem of Marrakech; our drivers were courteous and kind, and I felt so lucky to get to see the Atlas Mountains, which really are amazing.