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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - 4 8 Hours In Marrakech

The Independent, 30 november 2002

48 Hours In Marrakesh

Haggle for bargains in the twisting alleyways of the souks, watch snake-charmers and story-tellers, and then escape to one of the soothing gardens of this magical Moroccan city

By Cathy Packe

Why go now?

When the holy month of Ramadan ends on Friday, the Muslim world will be celebrating. During Ramadan, the faithful do not eat or drink during daylight. A collective tension builds up in the population as their hunger and thirst increase at the end of each day's fast. At sundown the streets are deserted as everyone heads home to eat; but that will change on Friday, with the three-day festival to mark the breaking of the fast, Eid-al-Fitr.

Get your bearings

Like most Moroccan cities, Marrakesh consists of two parts. The original Arab district is centred on the medina, with its network of narrow alleyways and the large open square, Djemaa el Fna . To the west stands the more modern, mainly French-built new town, Gueliz, where the avenues are wider. The main thoroughfare in the new town is the Avenue Mohammed V. At one end of this street is the only architectural landmark on the city skyline, the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque.

Check in

The classiest hotel in town is La Mamounia on Avenue Bab Jdid . Winston Churchill, who was a frequent visitor, and after whom one of the suites is named, described it as the "most beautiful place in the world". It is set in lovely, walled grounds that were originally laid out for the royal family. At this time of year, which is high season, rooms for one or two people start at Dh3,000 (???181.50); breakfast is Dh220 (???13) extra. La Mamounia is well worth a peep even if you don't stay there. Riads ? traditional Moroccan townhouses that have been turned into small hotels ? are increasingly popular. Try the Riad El Arsat, in the heart of the medina at 10 Derb Chemaa (00 212 44 38 75 67, Double rooms cost ?170 (???130) including breakfast. The Hotel Islane at 279 Avenue Mohammed V (00 212 44 44 00 81) is in an excellent location close to the medina and opposite the Koutoubia mosque; doubles here start at Dh320 (???19) including breakfast.

Take a ride

The most relaxing way to get a feel of the city is to take a ride in one of the horse-drawn carriages that wait patiently on the south side of Djemaa el Fna. Negotiate a price in advance for your stately progress alongside the ancient city walls and past the intricately carved gateways. Expect to pay Dh80 (???5) an hour, or Dh150 (???9) for half a day.

Take a hike

Lose yourself in the small squares and covered alleyways of the medina. Stop to look at the Koubba Ba'Adiyn, a small domed structure that is the only remaining monument from the 11th century, when the Almoravids founded the city. Just outside the walls beyond Bab Debbagh are the tanneries where animal skins are treated and dyed according to traditional methods. The tanneries were separated from the medina because of their smell; if your nose can bear it, note that most of the activity here takes place in the mornings.

Lunch on the run

There are plenty of places in and around the Djemaa el Fna to find a suitable snack. One possibility is the restaurant at the top of the Grand Hotel Tazi on rue Bab Agnaou (00 212 44 44 27 87), for a selection of tagines ? meat or vegetables with couscous, stewed over an open fire ? and other local dishes at reasonable prices.

Cultural afternoon

Two of the city's most interesting museums are conveniently close together. The Dar Si Said Museum just off rue Riad Zitoun el Jedid (00 212 44 38 95 64; open 8.30am-11.45am and 2.30pm-5.45pm; closed Tuesday; entrance Dh10/60p) contains a number of collections of both everyday and more unusual artefacts, including jewellery, carved boxes, guns and carriages. The nearby Maison Tiskiwin in rue de la Bahia (00 212 44 38 91 92; open 10.30am-12.30pm and 3pm-6.30pm; closed Tuesday; entrance Dh10/60p) displays a collection of carpets, costumes and jewellery. Tucked away in the heart of the medina is the Ibn Youssef Medersa, an old student building that was once part of the Koran school ? and the oldest of its kind in Morocco, dating from the 14th century. It opens 8am-noon and 2.30pm-5pm daily, admission Dh20 (???1.20).

Bargain hunting

Head into the souks, in the medina behind Djemaa el Fna, and have some fun finding anything you could possibly want ? pottery, spices, jewellery and carvings ? and a great deal you don't need but will be under pressure to buy. Do not get into negotiations about an item unless you are seriously interested. For larger items such as carpets, you are likely to be served a glass of sweet mint tea while you finalise the deal. Remember that UK Customs assiduously enforces the limit of imports. If you prefer your shopping to be more conventional, head along Avenue Mohammed V into the Gueliz district.

Take a view

The scene in the Djemaa el Fna as daylight begins to fade is one of life's great experiences. During the day, the medina's main square is an unimpressive sight, bereft of a real focus and architectural landmarks. But as the lights come on and the space fills with a colourful collection of salesmen, entertainers and locals, a magic begins to pervade the place. Snake-charmers, fortune-tellers, musicians and story-tellers are surrounded by eager audiences.

Dinner with the locals

Djemaa el Fna is full of makeshift caf???s that are set up at night. Food is cooked over charcoal burners, whose smoke drifts across the square. Hungry customers eat meat, rice and vegetables at long trestle tables under hurricane lamps. If your own stomach is too delicate for this, retreat to the Caf??? de France in the corner of the square, order one of the local dishes, and watch the scene from the terrace.

A digestif

Alcohol is available, but usually only in hotel bars or in the French-influenced brasseries in the newer part of Marrakesh. Avoid offending the locals by drinking mint tea with your meals, and then adjourning to the bar at La Mamounia for a glass of the local beer to round off the evening.

Sunday morning: see the mosque

The most prominent religious building in Marrakesh is the Koutoubia mosque, identified by its minaret. This typically Moroccan tower was built by the Almohad dynasty in the 12th century; it is older and better-preserved than two other similar minarets in rival cities, the Hassan tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville. On one side of the buildings is a pleasant garden and the remains of the pillars of the original mosque. Non-Muslims are forbidden from venturing inside the mosque.

Out to brunch

There are plenty of good brasseries and restaurants in Gueliz, many of which serve French rather than Arab-style food. A popular favourite, which serves tasty food in pleasant surroundings, is Le Jacaranda at 32 Boulevard Zerktouni (00 212 44 44 72 15), open daily noon-2.30pm; 7.30pm-10.45pm. Alternatively, nibble honey-coated almond pastries with an espresso in one of the restaurants overlooking the Djemma el Fna.

A walk in the park

Marrakesh is famous for its gardens, the loveliest of which is the Majorelle. It opens daily 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm during the winter, Dh40/???2.50. It is a riot of tropical vegetation with pots, pergolas and a small museum. The garden is owned by Yves Saint Laurent, and the Museum of Islamic Art within it contains some of the pottery he has collected, as well as paintings by the garden's original owner, Jacques Majorelle.

Write a postcard...

...from beyond the grave. The Saadian tombs (9am-11.45am; 2.30pm-5.30pm; closed Tuesday; entrance Dh15/90p) comprise a late 16th-century royal mausoleum containing the graves of 66 kings from the Saadian dynasty. They are contained in the two buildings of a purpose-built palace; around it rambles a lovely garden, filled with palm trees and rose bushes ? a peaceful haven in a congested part of town.

The icing on the cake

Marrakesh resides beneath the High Atlas mountains. A trip to their slopes is easy, and a complete contrast to the frenzy of the city. The journey to Oukaimeden, a starting point for mountain walks in the summer, and for skiing during the winter, is easy. You can get there by "grand taxi" ? this is the term for the collective taxis that wait at Bab er Rob and leave as soon as they are full. The fare is around Dh20 (???1.20) each way.