One of the biggest regrets I have in my life thus far is that I didn’t get bitten by the travel bug until I was well into my twenties. It was a trip to Istanbul that did it, suddenly opening my eyes to the exhilaration that comes with discovering a new place. Only after that did I truly understand the meaning of ‘wanderlust’.
So when my soon-to-be-married best friend Antoine suggested that he and I, his sister and another best friend spend four days in Marrakech for his ‘hag’ do, there was no way I was going to turn it down. Four days away from a wet, cold English April in a city full of sunshine, colour and amazing food? It was a no-brainer.
Which is how I found myself in the departures lounge at Gatwick airport at 4.30am on a Wednesday morning with a tummy full of butterflies and a head full of daydreams. A few hours later, after failing miserably to catch up on a few hours’ kip, we stepped off the plane into the full glare of a Moroccan spring morning – just in time to be welcomed with a spectacular display by the Marche Verte, the Moroccan Royal Air Force’s aerobatic display team. Sadly I only managed one rubbish iPhone photo from the cab as we headed off to our hotel …
Within minutes of leaving the airport we were weaving along dusty streets lined with the distinctive pink buildings from which Marrakech takes its nickname ‘the Red City’, thanks to the coral-coloured clay that has been the local building material of choice for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The densely-packed streets widened into avenues lined with roses and hibiscus in every imaginable colour as we drew closer to our hotel, a fairly new four-star outside of the main centre in the south of the city.
As we rolled up to the entrance, we saw two beautiful vintage cars parked either side of the door and knew we’d made a stylish choice. The Kech Hotel & Spa is a small, airy and pleasant modern-style residence on Avenue Mohammed VI in what’s known as the ‘tourist zone’ of Agdal, opposite the far larger Kenzi Menara Palace hotel complex. It’s also a short walk from the Marrakech outpost of Pacha, but since the club scene in this city apparently doesn’t really get going until the small hours of the morning, we gave it a miss on this trip …
Antoine’s sister Catherine had arrived from France on an earlier flight, and was already stretched out on a sun lounger by the pool when we arrived. We didn’t need asking twice to join her – although taking the plunge into the inviting-looking but freezing cold water took a little more encouragement.
Before long we decided we’d relaxed long enough and were impatient to see the real, old city of Marrakech. So after a quick change, we headed off for our first adventure of the trip: a wander around the souk.
The old city of Marrakech, the medina, essentially comprises what feels like hundreds of tiny little streets lined with traders selling spices, babouche slippers, perfumes, argan oil, lamps, tea sets, hats, handbags … and just about everything else you can imagine. It’s a feast for the senses, as every twist and turn brings a new sound, smell, colour or texture – or a kamikaze scooter or bicycle that will brush past you by a hair’s breadth.
It can be alarming for the uninitiated (that’d be me, seeing as the other two had been before), so we sought refuge in a quieter side courtyard, where we saw a sign for Terrasse des Epices and realised it must be high time we stopped for a drink. Terrasse des Epices is a charming little restaurant in the middle of the medina that we’d probably never be able to find again in a million years, with a sun-drenched rooftop above the madness of the souk. It’s pretty much obligatory that everyone dons one of the hats you find on all the tables, partly because it’s so bright and partly because if the cap fits …
Despite the 35º heat we did the Moroccan thing and ordered mint tea, a surprisingly refreshing choice served with delightful little traditional pastries by our handsome, smiling waiter. The revitalising tea and sugar-soaked morsels were just the job for getting us back on our feet to wind our way back through the souk and to the main square of Jemâa el-Fnaa, where a few stalls were beginning to set up for the main evening trade.
There must be a hundred of these stalls selling freshly-pressed juices – all the same blends, all the same price, but the guys at number 24 just made us smile. And when a glass of delicious, cold juice is just 10 dirhams (less than 75p based on the exchange rate of roughly 14 dirhams to the pound at the time of writing), it’s all the sweeter – especially when you think what it would have cost you back in London.
Our thirst deliciously quenched, we wandered to the road at the edge of the square in search of a cab. Taking a taxi in Marrakech can be one hell of an ordeal, and our experiences with haggling for a cab ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. On this occasion we were lucky enough to find the man who later became almost our personal driver – we were so impressed with him that after a couple of particularly awful encounters with the ‘petit taxis’ we agreed we’d only call him for all our transport needs. Should you be heading to Marrakech yourself, his name is Mr. Driss and he can be contacted on +212 (0) 6 61 56 91 71 or by email – he has a clean, modern, comfortable car, charges fair (sometimes ridiculously low) rates and doesn’t scare the crap out you while navigating the frankly bonkers Marrakech traffic.
We arrived back at our hotel just in time for the final member of our party to join us. Amah had flown in from Paris, and had made it with just enough time to brush up and change before we all headed out to dinner at Le Foundouk. Another rooftop destination tucked away in the labyrinthine medina, Le Foundouk can’t be reached by taxi so our driver took us as far as he could before entrusting us to one of Le Foundouk’s traditionally-dressed guides. It’s one of the best-known and best-regarded restaurants in the old town, and after our earlier excursion we were ravenous.
The rooftop is a spectacular place to watch the sunset – or at least, I imagine it is. After poring over the cocktail menu, and finally deciding to each have something different so we could try a selection, we ordered Couscous Royale and devoured the bread basket without taking much notice of what was going on around us. And then our food arrived … You’ll find Couscous Royale on almost every restaurant menu in Marrakech: it comprises a mound of couscous and vegetables topped with kefta, merguez sausage, chicken and lamb. It’s an absolute banquet in a bowl and even though we were famished, we couldn’t finish it all.
Satiated and slightly merry (the Moroccans do a pretty decent, if pricy, bottle of red), we skipped down the stairs and out into the now twilit street, where our fez-wearing guide escorted us back along the narrow lane by the light of his lantern. And after a protracted haggling battle with the ‘grand taxi’ drivers and a hairy ride home, we fell into deep, pleasurable sleeps and dreamed of what tomorrow might bring …