On most Friday nights, a glass of wine or two would be on the agenda, but as a Muslim country, alcohol isn't supposed to be sold in the sight of mosques in Morocco - which should rule out almost all bars. However, more upmarket establishments do tend to serve the hard stuff. If you're looking to soak up the atmosphere of the square though, you'll find that you're much more likely to find mint tea than G & T in the surrounding bars. Several have panoramic terraces, offering a calm vantage point over the buzz of activity below. Back on ground level, it's worth taking a stroll around the square to get a flavour of the various performances that contributed to making the Djemaa el Fna a UNESCO World Heritage site: story-tellers (sadly their words are incomprehensible unless your Moroccan Arabic is up to scratch, but their dramatic arm gestures and the enthralled crowds suggest they've mastered their craft) and musicians of all kinds fill the square, along with a number of over-enthusiastic henna tattoo artists who'll start the first flourishes of a flower design on your hand if you so much as hesitate when walking past.
After an evening checking out the square and the nearby minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, one of the city's most prominent landmarks, we headed back to Riad Splash for some much-needed rest. Run by friendly Scot Andy, who also has an adventure tours company, the relaxed riad is in the heart of the medina, tucked away in a quiet sidestreet. Just steps away from the chaotic whirl of Derb el Bacha, hardly a sound penetrated the riad's walls. The next morning as we sat in the courtyard under the gorgeous January sun, eating our substantial breakfast of fresh orange juice brought from the square and thick honey-soaked local pancakes, toast and cereal, my friends and I felt relaxed and ready to step into the the maze of Marrakech's souks (markets). Partially covered streets which wind away from the Djemaa el Fna, the souks sell everything from leather goods to lanterns to chickens, and it's still possible to catch sight of craftsmen at work as you wander through. Difficult to navigate (unless you're an expert map-reader, like one of our party), the best way to enjoy the souks is to dive in, wander through and not worry about where you emerge, hopefully with a bargain or two in tow. Haggling is essential here, so be sure to unleash your best bargaining lines before parting with your dirhams.
|Ali ben Youssef Medersa|
Although more famous for its atmosphere than its sights, those seeking an itinerary offering more than food, shopping and wandering the medina's alleyways won't be disappointed by Marrakech. Historical sights include the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, a former Quranic school set around a beautiful central courtyard featuring intricate plasterwork and colourful mosaics. Upstairs, you can step inside the students' quarters and marvel at the fact that 900 students were once housed in its 132 tiny dormitories. In addition to the King's Marrakech residence, the city has two other palaces which are open to the public: Bahia and the ruined El Badi. We chose to visit the latter on a sunny Sunday morning, and were charmed by the beauty contained within its red walls. A ruined shell may not sound worth your time, but the once-glorious sixteenth-century structure is now a welcome slice of calm in the midst of the medina. Large pools lie in the centre, with palm trees and shrubberies around the edges. Visitors can join the families of storks on the ramparts, which offer a wide-reaching view over the city's rooftops and to the Atlas mountains beyond. For those looking for something a bit more modern, Yves Saint Laurent's Jardin Majorelle, a taxi ride from the medina, is a riot of colour and fun, while contemporary art can be found at a number of galleries including Matisse Art Gallery on Passage Ghandouri.
|El Badi Palace|
Surprisingly, 48 hours gave us enough time to explore the medina at a relaxed pace, although the ville nouvelle (new town) and outlying sights will have to wait until our return visit. It also proved sufficient to delve into Marrakech's culinary scene, although again, the modern trendy restaurants of the new town remained unexplored. Our dining spectrum ranged from the street food of the Djemaa el Fna and the delicious cous cous in no frills Cafe Toubkal (also on the square), to the decidedly more elegant experience on offer at Cafe Arabe on the Rue el-Mouassine close to the souks. Spread over three floors, this upmarket but laid-back restaurant is a lovely spot to while away an afternoon or an evening. Fashion designer Matthew Williamson clearly thinks so too, as he was enjoying a drink there on our visit (my excitement at this celebrity spot was only slightly dampened by my friends' chorus of 'Who?') We made for the upstairs roof terrace, sprawled on the cushion-covered benches and tucked into tagines, cous cous and pastilla washed down by white wine. For around £10 per head, this was the most pricey meal of the weekend, but well worth it for the superior setting.
Despite the constant chaotic motion of the medina, Marrakech is a relaxing destination for a weekend break. Unlike modern metropolises such as some European capitals, the hurry and bustle of Marrakech never feels stressful, and visitors can easily sit back and observe (from a safe, scooter-free vantage point, of course). Out of season, it's also an excellent value city: food is a purse-friendly commodity, and for 2 nights' bed & breakfast accommodation, we paid just £50 each. And as it's just a three and a half hour flight from London, it's not quite as far flung and inaccessible a destination as you might think.