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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Weird And Wonderful

The Guardian, 28 July 2001

Weird and wonderful

Its mix of the exotic and the downright bizarre make Marrakech the perfect weekend escape. Katharine Viner tries its top hotel

I knew I was going to have a happy time at La Mamounia when I got up on my first morning. We'd arrived at night, in the dark, so I had no idea about the exact location of Morocco's most famous hotel - favoured by famous names from Churchill to Clinton, Joan Collins to Nelson Mandela. But, having been woken by the muezzin at dawn, I opened the tall glass windows to a bright and beautiful day, the Atlas mountains shimmering in the distance, the desert asserting a red glow, perky palm trees framing the view.

When the white curtains started billowing gently in the breeze, and I was brought pastries and thick coffee and orange juice on the balcony, I wondered if someone was playing a trick: surely a morning couldn't be this perfect?

I was right. I hadn't banked on the birds. There were hundreds of them - twittering, screeching, pecking and then joining me on the balcony with my pastries. It was no surprise to discover that Hitchcock decided to film The Birds after a stay at La Mamounia. They constitute one of its most celebrated, but least glamorous, features.

In this way, La Mamounia is just like Marrakech: beautiful, sultry and with a weirdness pulsing underneath. Take the town square, Djem el Fna, at night. In this gay-intolerant country, men go there after dark, dress up as women and perform dances for the entertainment of other men. People tell stories while others sit in a circle, listening, rapt. The equivalent of the British pub in Marrakech is this square, and it is fabulous; although some don't like the snakes, and others find the monkeys on chains just too upsetting. It can be a little tricky, too, if you're a Western woman unaccompanied by a man; the pinching of bottoms is quite fashionable here. But a good put-down (eg "haram" - forbidden) usually sorts it out.

Apart from the square, there's not a huge amount to do in Marrakech apart from absorb the atmosphere; it's the perfect size for a short break. The main thing there is to do is shop. I hate shopping, but in the souk it's a real pleasure; the bartering system, the negotiatons, the setting of a top price in your mind, feels like a more honest, if more laborious, way of doing business. And the stuff is lovely; I bought some wonderful ceramics, gorgeous tea glasses (hip wine glasses over here), a couple of djellabas, some sandals, a basket... And I hate shopping!

It's good to take an empty suitcase if you're serious about the shop. (Oh, and a tip: taking a guide with you is good fun, and means that you don't have to cart your goods around - he can arrange for you to pick them up later. But bear in mind that everyone will know the guide, and which hotel he's with. So while we were wandering around like scruffs, hoping that would mean cheaper prices, every seller in the souk knew that we were staying at La Mamounia, and no doubt adjusted their prices accordingly.)

The very best thing you can do after a day in the souk - in fact, the very best thing you can do in Morocco - is go to a hammam, the public baths. The hotels have their own, but they're expensive and not the real thing. Much better to go to one frequented by locals - ask at your hotel reception for the nearest - but you must be brave.

Here's what happened. I went late on Friday, and the place was packed with women and children. As I'd paid for the Rolls-Royce treatment, I was assigned a big woman in wet knickers who spoke no English. She started to rub me with the famous black soap and what felt like a scouring brush. She rubbed me hard. She rubbed me everywhere. She rubbed me in places no man has gone before. She was scraping off sheaves of dead skin in huge quantities - I was, apparently, embarrassingly filthy - and all the children kept coming to look, and laugh. They were pointing. I was in pain.

Next came the "massage", which involved some very mean pinching on her part. She rolled me over, pushed me about - the hammam echoing to the not unkind laughter of my fellow hammamees. She made me stand up, and then she threw a bucket of ice-cold water over me; I screamed and the whole place erupted. Believe me, you must be prepared to sacrifice your dignity.

But, of course, afterwards I felt wonderful. That night, we went to an old palace in the medina for dinner - the Restaurant Yacout on Sidi Ahmed Soussi - and I felt glowing with health and cleanliness. Another good choice for dinner is Le Restaurant Marocain in La Mamounia, complete with local music and dancers. We did try to have a clubbing night out, but were thwarted by the emptiness of the discos (you really need to know someone who knows, and we didn't). We even went to La Mamounia's casino, which makes you feel like a James Bond villain.

The next day called for something a little more relaxing, so we headed for some of Marrakech's famous gardens: the glamorous and subtropical Jardin Majorelle, maintained by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and boasting some very impressive cacti; the Jardin Menara, an olive grove with a hypnotically relaxing water basin in the middle; and, finally, the fragrant gardens of La Mamounia itself, with gorgeous orange and lemon groves, olive trees, jacarandas, palms and rose bushes with overwhelming scents. After a swim looking up at the mountains, not even the terrifying birds could ruin our stay.