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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Magnificent Marrakech

Telegraph, 10 October 2006

Magnificent Marrakesh

Vibrant, colourful and, best of all, still pleasantly warm, Morocco's exotic city is now easier to get to and easier to get around, says Fred Mawer.

Why go?

Because this Moroccan city is about as exotic a destination as you could find within three hours' flying time. It's also pleasantly warm and dry right until December. Even now, in mid-October, temperatures are in the low 30s.

Within the walls of the Medina (the old city) lies a network of puce-coloured lanes and alleys, many wide enough for only pedestrians and donkeys to pass. On the endlessly entertaining main square, Jemaa El Fna, snake charmers ply their trade alongside Berber musicians, charismatic storytellers, acrobats and child boxers.

Old hands bemoan the fact that Marrakesh has become more touristy. "Better than Jamie Oliver!" declare the lads by their food stalls on Jemaa El Fna. But in some ways, this is no bad thing. Over the past decade, hundreds of riads ? traditional Moroccan town houses set around courtyard gardens ? in the Medina have been turned into guest houses and small hotels, many of which are so stylish they look like sets for fashion shoots. There are also a number of good restaurants, and a crackdown on pesterers means there is far less hassle for visitors.

The influx of tourists from the UK is set to soar, thanks to new flights from the budget airlines announced this year. Book far enough ahead, and you can get a return fare, including taxes, for around �70.

Fly there with?

EasyJet from Gatwick; Ryanair from Luton, from Oct 31; Thomsonfly from Manchester and Luton, from Nov 3; British Airways from Heathrow and Gatwick; Royal Air Maroc from Heathrow; and Royal Air Maroc's Atlas Blue from Gatwick. Note that some Heathrow services go via Casablanca, lengthening the travel time.

I travelled with the tour operator Best of Morocco , which offers a wide choice of quality accommodation in Marrakesh, including Villa des Orangers and Riad Kaiss.

Sleep in?

A riad. Consider: Villa des Orangers , a luxurious small hotel set around three beautiful courtyards. Selling points include excellent service, a stunning swimming pool with sun loungers arranged between olive trees, a good restaurant, and many bedrooms with private terraces and vast bathrooms.

Riad Kaiss , for its gorgeous jungly courtyard, which is romantically lit at night with candles and lanterns, and its eight bedrooms, with wrought-iron four-posters and striking Moroccan art and furniture.

Spend the morning in?

The southern Medina. Marrakesh isn't big on conventional sights, but here you will find the empty 19th-century Bahia Palace; the atmospheric, stork-topped ruins of the Badii Palace; and the Saadian Tombs ? elaborate mausoleums for 16th-century sultans.

Lunch in?

Chez Chegrouni. This simple, alcohol-free restaurant, with a terrace overlooking Jemaa El Fna, serves tasty, substantial plates of couscous and tagine.

Stroll around?

The souks. On the dense, covered lanes and passages north of Jemaa El Fna are thousands of pint-sized shops. Specific areas are devoted to the sale of one commodity carpets, olives, lanterns, slippers.

Buy?

Locally made goods that are easy to transport home, such as slippers, leather bags, pottery and inlaid cedar boxes. In the souks, you need to haggle ? aim to pay around half the asking price.

If haggling sounds stressful, go to Ets. Bouchaib Complexe d'Artisanat, off Rue de la Kasbah just south of the Saadian Tombs. An Aladdin's cave of Moroccan handicrafts, it has fixed prices, and a professional-looking shipping service.

Have dinner at?

Dar Moha. Arguably the Medina's best Moroccan restaurant, it serves delicious, inventive dishes, such as pigeon pastilla on a bed of mint; lamb tagine with quince; and (as a pudding) melon couscous. Ask for a table by the pool.

Le Foundouk is also a good bet, for its courtyard setting as well as its French and Moroccan food.

Stay up late in?

Jemaa El Fna at its liveliest late in the evening, when large crowds gather round the entertainers. Then take a five-minute taxi ride to one of the city's hottest nightspots, Comptoir. The plush bar/restaurant in the Hivernage district has belly dancing and a DJ most nights.

Recover in?

A hammam (steam bath). Those used by the locals are single sex and often basic. A more enjoyable option is Les Bains de Marrakesh (www.les bainsdemarrakech.com), in the Medina, a casual spa complex where couples can use private steam baths together. An hour's session including a scrub with black soap and a loofah mitt.