Our travel correspondent Yashmin Ismail heads to Morocco to explore the enigmatic Red City.
A city of rich sub-Saharan spirit, spices and sounds, Marrakech is the jewel in the sand, to be absorbed through all the senses. The fortified Red City is set against the majestic backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Central to the Moroccan experience is the choice of residence, and the riad is the residence of choice. These compact townhouses, set around secluded central courtyards, can vary hugely.
La Sultana sits just off the hustle and bustle, in a tranquil bubble and league of its own. The walk up the lantern-lined red carpet towards the majestic gilded doors sets the scene for a traditional welcome, with pastries and mint tea by the pool. The aromatic oud permeates throughout the diminutive palatial complex.
There are five courtyards and 28 individually styled, voluptuous boudoirs, each with exquisite attention to detail. Each riad is an Aladdin’s cave of levels and spaces, and the Interiors are a handsome marriage of North African and Asian styles.
Riad Bahaia is a minimalist and serene mix of intricate stucco and hand-carved woodwork. Riad Sheherazade is nostalgic of the lush African savannah. Riad Saadia has cedar wood balustrades and zellige tiles – very old school Fez.
At Riad Almohade, a long ochre-coloured corridor opens up on to a tranquil swimming pool set under skylight, in a patio with shady colonnades, palm, banana and sica trees. High brick walls covered with virginia creeper frame this central space which hosts breakfast by daylight and a fine-dining restaurant by night.
The storm after the calm arrives a stone’s throw away from our tranquil pied a terre. The souks are a network of ancient emporia filled with craftsmen, dotted around the medina – or old town; they are connected to the Djemaa el Fna – a vibrant central square that’s also a Unesco World Heritage site. The chaotic, beating heart of the city sells everything from livestock to carpets, ceramics and street food; with snake charmers, fortune tellers, musicians and acrobats adding to the bustle and fantasy. This is the place to grab a bargain, but be prepared to haggle; for industrial shoppers with metal.
Away from the chaos, 150km northeast of Marrakech are the stunning cascades of the Ouzoud Waterfalls – the highest in North Africa. Just a 3-hour drive from the city centre restores calm by transporting the senses back to nature. The trek through lush olive groves leads to the gorges of Oued El Abid for a thoroughly refreshing finale. The water drops more than 100 metres down from the mountainside, leaving dramatic rock formations.
The trek to the falls has certainly whetted the appetite and the tasting menu at La Sultana does not disappoint. In a quaint, candle-lit setting by the pool, the traditional artisan dishes arrive one by one; each more impressive than the last, with the slow roast leg of lamb being the star of the show – falling off the bone against a medley of vegetables. All in all, a veritable feast for the eyes, palate and soul.
After reconnecting with nature and resurrecting my taste buds, today I’m in the mood for some pampering. A long jade green corridor leads into the spa where ancient doors open out onto a turquoise pool surrounded by crimson marble, illuminated by wrought-iron lanterns. The vaulted ceiling is suspended on majestic pink marble columns, framing the pool.
I opt for the traditional Royal Hammam with signature massage, en route to pure bliss. The complete scrub down with clay body mask is more reviving than relaxing but gives the skin a newborn softness. The hour-long massage however, can only be described as an out-of body experience, destined for nirvana. I slowly wake up in the star-domed Jacuzzi, feeling rejuvenated.
After an epic night’s sleep, I’m in the mood for some sea air. Essaouira is a medieval walled-port city on the Atlantic coast –about two hours away from Marrakech. Rampart walks, souks, windy beaches and a quaint fishing harbour make this seaside town worth a visit. The Chalet de la Plage is the perfect spot for an early dinner by the ocean.
Closer to home, there are many noteworthy heritage sites within the old city. The 11th century Koutoubia – Marrakech’s tallest landmark monument and most famous minaret is visible from most, dominating the skyline at 220ft. The 16th century Ben Youssef Medersa boasts exquisite detail with its mosaic tiles and cedar panelling, and the Majorelle Gardens – a lush botanical sanctuary once owned by French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent – offers a leafy retreat in the metropolis. Here, rare flora from various continents thrive against the backdrop of a cobalt-blue art deco villa, taking you back in time.
Given its royal provenance, La Mamounia hotel is very much part of Marrakech’s heritage. The grande dame of hotels launched in 1923 and has been frequented by royals and the glitterati; Winston Churchill being the most celebrated, leaving Bar Churchill as his namesake. The stunning ex-palace is set within 17 acres of manicured gardens. Following a lavish £100m makeover, the regal-meets-art deco interiors are inspired by the great dynasties that once ruled there. With four culinary offerings, we opt for Le Francais, tempted by the sumptuous seafood platter reeled in this morning: fresh lobster, crayfish, clams, razor clams, oysters, chargrilled spider crabs and sea urchin adorn a silver platter; truly a feast for kings.
Our finale day-trip is a scenic 45-minute drive towards the Atlas Mountains, to the Ourika Valley, passing panoramic scenery and some quaint Berber villages along the way. The temperature drops as we ascend the foothills by the river, fringed by terraced orchards of almond and cherry, contrasting vividly against the rock walls that rise above. Seven diminutive waterfalls await us at Setti Fatma; the perfect spot for that moment of reflection.
For a heady mix of heritage and hammam; a taste of serenity, spice and spirit, the magic of Marrakech is just a three and a half hour flight from London.
Written by Yashmin Ismail