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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - The Great Indoors

Mail on Sunday, 11 Nov 2003

The great indoors

Eyebrows were raised when I set off on April 1 for my first trip to Morocco.

The Iraq war had been raging for two weeks and the conflict - and its aftermath - had reduced holiday bookings dramatically.

Muslim countries are the worst affected so tourism in Morocco is suffering. Which means, I suspect, that the welcome is even warmer than usual. Everyone is hospitable and generous.

After a three-hour flight to Marrakesh in an almost empty plane, we arrived at our first hotel, La Mamounia.

On the balcony the air was heavily scented with orange and lemon blossom, birds sang enthusiastically and looking through the green orchards to the hot, hazy city built out of local red mud, I could see the white-iced Atlas mountains beyond.

The hotel, built in the Twenties, is in a famous garden and is by the 12th Century city walls.

There is a luxurious combination of art deco and Moorish styles, with fountains and flowers everywhere.

Sir Winston Churchill wintered here, painting, relaxing and apparently befriending the last great southern tribal leader, Thami El Glaoui, who held lavish and dubious parties.

That party spirit lives on in the main square of Marrakesh. Every day, villagers from the Atlas, southern tribesmen and a sprinkling of tourists turn up for entertainment, to trade goods and to spend.

There are musicians, fortune tellers, dancers, snake charmers and herbalists.

Food stalls sell snails out of dustbins, sheep's heads, tagines (a slow-cooked stew of mutton, beef or chicken), grilled meat, salads, nuts, dried fruit and freshly picked oranges.

We watched a group of absorbed men listening to a herbalist who was explaining one of his potions with the help of an explicit diagram from an old medical dictionary.

One customer looked up at us and said: 'It's better than Viagra.' It was certainly selling fast.

Cafes were full of men chatting and drinking mint tea. I was keen to try this traditional Moroccan drink but found its sweetness overpowering.

The sugar-and-mint combination reminded me of chewing gum. But if you fancy a cooling beer, forget it - in this Muslim country the cafes sell only non-alcoholic drinks.

There is a party atmosphere in restaurants, too, and there you can buy beer and wine.

We ate in candle-lit rooms strewn with rose petals, in calm courtyards and on cafe balconies from which we watched donkey carts, men in hooded robes and veiled women often travelling together in elegant horse-drawn carriages.

Morocco looks and feels totally different to any of the 40 or so countries I visited in my time on Tomorrow's World.

A deeply traditional way of life flourishes and there is a thriving Islamic culture.

Everywhere you can hear the cry of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, though these days they do it through loudspeakers rather than by climbing the minaret.

Most locals speak French so tourists who can remember some from their schooldays can have fun bargaining in the famous souks.

It is usual to get lost in the alleyways where one turn will take you to the working tinsmiths, into a courtyard of woodworkers, or you might find jewellers or carpet makers.

We enjoyed bartering and were happy with our three pairs of slippers, jewellery, huge leather travelling bag, eight lanterns, pottery and much more.

I had heard much about the need to hire official guides because of hustlers. But with a good guidebook we were sure we could cope.

On the first night, however, we fell for the oldest trick, being picked up by someone who convinced us he was a waiter in our hotel.

We ended up, inevitably, in a carpet shop where the non-waiter demanded a fee for taking us somewhere we had not wanted to go.

After a couple of days we moved on to a riad, an old courtyard house. In Marrakesh the riads are cool, tranquil retreats from the chaotic city.

Dar les Cigognes was described as 'inspirational' and is named after the storks that build their scruffy, sprawling nests on the ramparts of the Royal Palace opposite.

The entrance to the riad was a simple door in a dusty wall. But once inside, the architecture and interior design are stunning.

The central courtyard is a deep well of light and air. The sound of the fountain, the smell of the citrus trees and the cool mosaic floor made it the perfect place for our evening meal, lit by lanterns and the stars.

Morocco, someone said, is a world of interiors. Marrakesh has some of the most beautiful in the world.

Caravanserai was our next hotel, a few miles from the city.

The Persian name means a resting place on trading routes where merchants stopped to water their camels and sleep before going into the city markets.

The hotel is cool, stylish and simple, with floors and baths made of tadlakt, or polished limestone, fascinating herringbone ceilings of eucalyptus branches and relaxing cushions around every corner.

The roof terraces provide private sunbathing and good views over the date groves and the village.

Our final stop for four nights was Tigmi, an even smaller hotel of eight suites converted from Berber village houses in Tagadert, nearer the Atlas mountains.

It is a collection of courtyards with antique doors and furniture, gardens planted with every colour of bougainvillaea and roof terraces with views of the hills.

We used Tigmi as a base for exploring the Atlas mountains and their red-mud villages.

Our last day was spent in a valley of almond, peach, apple, cherry and walnut trees. And, of course, the roads and gardens were lined with roses.

The memories will return when we eat our Moroccan rose-petal jam, flavour puddings with Moroccan rosewater and experiment with scattering petals from our old-fashioned English roses.

But it won't be quite the same as Morocco itself, so we're already planning to go back.

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