Africa / 3 January 2011, 10:38am / Gareth Huw Davies
Marrakech has been transformed from dusty hippie outpost to one of North Africa’s swishest destinations, a vital call on the glitteratis’ grand tour.
This magical boom city boasts boutique hotels furnished in high style, celebrity chef-run restaurants and deluxe hammams. But inside its sophisticated wrapping, the old city is little changed, with its masterpiece 11th century minaret rising above a sea of terracotta roofs and an ancient square saved for the world. Here is a list of six things you must do in Marrakech.
1 THE SQUARE’S A STAGE
The real-life human tableau played out over centuries in Djemaa el Fna - the square celebrated in the Crosby, Stills and Nash song Marrakesh express with its cobracharmers, drummers, acrobats, dancers, storytellers and spicecake sellers - was dying out. Then the locals campaigned to save it and their protests were heard at the highest level.
The UN’s cultural body Unesco came up with a completely new designation - “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible heritage of humanity”. This square is the very first one so titled. They moved out the bus station in 2000, and the beat, and the bustle, goes on.
2 RIAD DEALS
Morocco, and especially Marrakech, sets itself apart with its own version of seductive boutique hotel accommodation.
Riads are compact townhouses with a cool, secluded central courtyard, often smothered in greenery.
They come with designer panache and many pampering touches, from scattered rose petals and pastries in your room to embroidered pillows by the pool.
There is top-of-the-range cosseting, too, in the city’s big, opulent hotels. In the ritzy royal Mansour, new in 2010, Art Deco meets traditional Moroccan design. La Mamounia, haunt of celebrities down the years, recently reopened after a lavish makeover.
3 SITES TO SEE
A typical day’s sightseeing in Marrakech takes in Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, the 16th Century Ben Youssef Medersa, for its mosaic tiles and cedar panels, and the sumptuous Bahia palace, built for a grand vizier’s four wives and 24 concubines. And all this under the shadow of the wondrous 70 metre minaret of the 11th century Koutoubia Mosque.
Late afternoon, as you begin to flag, head for a hammam, a stress reliever across the Middle East and North Africa.
At smart places such as Les Bains de Marrakech, standard luxuries include a lathering with black Moroccan beldi soap flavoured with sesame seeds, and a four-hand massage. The upmarket hotels have their own hammam.
4 SEEK THE SOUK
Take a walk through the tangle of alleys in the souks of Marrakech. You can see craftsmen at their centuries-old skills - in the Babouche (slipper) Souk, the Dyers’ Souk with its riot of colours, the Ironworkers’ Souk, and the Carpet Souk.
There’s a European variation on the local produce in a string of smart boutiques and emporia dotted around the Medina (Old Town).
Look for sleek ceramics, Arabesque embroidered blouses, striped hammam towels and djellabas (hooded robes).
5 AMAZING GAZE
You can read the soul of a nation through its eyes. In the wonderful new Maison de la photographie (house of photography), Moroccan tribesmen, wrapped in their woollen haiks (blankets), fix you with their proud and noble gaze. These portraits are part of a private collection of 3 500 photographs dating from 1870 to 1950.
A star exhibit is the first colour documentary, made in 1957, of the tribal Berbers of the nearby high Atlas Mountains. After this visual bounty, climb to the roof terrace cafe for good food and splendid views over the Medina (http:// maison-delaphotographie.com).
6 STREET EATS
Every evening they fire up a feast in Djemaa el Fna square. Join a queue to be served the latest superior street food from grills and steaming cauldrons, which could be bean soup, sizzling aubergine, and chicken tagine with caramelised pumpkin.
Tomorrow, you might want to compare the new crop of celebrity chefs’ take on the perfect simplicity of Moroccan cuisine. So much of it is based on that elegant grain made from semolina, couscous.
My local favourites include pastilla - pigeon cooked in flaky pastry with pistachios and almonds, topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. I like the recently renovated Grand Cafe de la poste for French fare with a Moroccan accent. - Daily Mail