Wednesday 23 October 2019

Marrakech: Medieval magic now just three-and-a-half hours from Dublin

A direct flight from Dublin takes Lynne Kelleher to one of North Africa's greatest cities...

Lynne Kelleher

Walking around the labyrinthine alleys in the souks in Marrakech feels like being flung back a few centuries to biblical times.

The heaving souks in the heart of the Medina, the old walled part of the red Moroccan city, are a maze of ancient stone passages lined with stalls crammed with everything from brass lamps to rugs to spices.

Wandering through the twisting and turning narrow laneways is an assault on the senses... this is the magical Moroccan city which has cast a spell on everyone from Madonna to Eddie Redmayne.

It’s just three and a half hours on a plane from Dublin – less time than it takes to fly to Lanzarote - but the head-spinning Djemaa el Fna square leading to the city’s famous souk markets is exotic on steroids.

Water carriers dressed in blood-red traditional robes wander around ringing gold bells, the sound of Arabian music wafts from snake charmers and tiny, stringy monkeys are perched on the shoulders of tourists in Africa’s busiest square.

Then it’s a deep breath and into the warren of corkscrew alleys where you are jostled along with donkeys rumbling along with carts, kamikaze moped drivers revving their engines and locals wearing Arabic hooded djellaba cloaks - all adding to the medieval air.

Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Les 5 Dejellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Desert camping...
On the camel's back...
Enjoying the Atlas Mountains...
Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech
Les 5 Djellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Le Foundouk Restaurant

Our guide, Ravi, dressed in a long amber and cream robe – at a cost of €40 for half a day - was a reassuring presence amidst the chaos of the hawking and haggling of the 11th century souk.

There is a sense of magic about the age-old streets with Ravi knocking on one of the famous wooden doors and announcing it was “Ali Baba’s Cave”.

Minutes later, one of our party emerged from one of the upper floors of this shop after having €25 conjured from her wallet for a silver keyring in the shape of a fish. Cautionary tale.

After the mayhem of the Medina, it was back to the oasis of African calm that is the Les 5 Djellabas - a beautiful luxury boutique hotel set in an olive grove on the outskirts of Marrakech.

Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech
Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech
Desert camping...
On the camel's back...
Enjoying the Atlas Mountains...
Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Les 5 Dejellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Les 5 Djellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Le Foundouk Restaurant

The suite had an African-style conical bamboo roof, four poster bed with white muslin curtains and an ornate free-standing bath and monsoon shower in the sumptuous bathroom separated from the bedroom by a limestone wall.

The décor is a blend of Africa and French with one hallway ceiling decorated with a profusion of bulbs with the distinctive Marrakesh terracotta walls on all the buildings.

In the morning to add to the exotic, you are awoken at dawn by the sound of the azan, the plaintive call to Muslim prayer with its opening “Allahu Akbar” ringing out into the night sky.

The palm-fringed heated, outdoor swimming pool with luxurious rattan beds covered in cream mattresses in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains is far from the Medina crowd, the perfect antidote to a day haggling in the traditional souks.

The breakfast at Les 5 Djellabas was an array of mouth-watering delicacies and tasting dishes from succulent coconut cake to pancakes and fruit, honey and yoghurt and freshly squeezed orange juice and delicious silver flasks of steaming Moroccan coffee.

It is a city of contrasts - all peppermint tea and tagines and frenetic souk markets in the backdrop of the cool blue Atlas Mountains – and then there is the desert.

On the camel's back...
On the camel's back...
Le Foundouk Restaurant
Les 5 Djellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Les 5 Dejellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech
Enjoying the Atlas Mountains...
Desert camping...

Just 20 miles outside the city is the Inara Desert Camp, where overnight visitors can have the ultimate bucket list experience of sleeping in traditional nomad tents under a sky full of millions of stars.

Sitting eating lunch at a beautifully laid out table in a billowing Bedouin tent looking out on to the vast expanse of the North African desert feels like you are an extra on the set of The English Patient.

There was the vague expectation that a dashing pilot would land a 1920s plane and climb out of the cockpit wearing goggles and a vintage flying suit.

A smiling Moroccan called Yusef with flowing white robes and a burnt orange turban poured mint tea from a silver teapot in one of the camp’s luxurious tents furnished with antiquated trunks, old binoculars, rattan and rugs and lanterns.

After a delicious five-course meal of marinated Moroccan beef and an array of spicy vegetable dishes served with crisp white wine and finished off with a mouth-watering bowl of yoghurt and crumbled biscuits it was time for a camel ride.

Getting on board these desert creatures is not a straight up-and-down experience, more of a lurch forward before you are pitched backwards as the animal rises so best to hang firmly to the handle attached to the saddle.

Desert camping...
Desert camping...
On the camel's back...
Le Foundouk Restaurant
Les 5 Djellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Les 5 Dejellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech
Enjoying the Atlas Mountains...

Traversing the desert in a train of camels as dune buggies zoom by filming us on their camera phones is a surreal experience.

Not quite as surreal as the previous night when we were dropped off in the heart of the old-walled city at Place du Moukef for the dinner at the hip French Moroccan restaurant, Le Foundouk.

This is entirely a dinner date with a difference.

The high-octane adventure begins when you are met at the pick-up point by the restaurant’s black-cloaked porters with red fez hats to guide you through the old town's streets which are too narrow for cars.

The lantern-carrying porters expertly chaperone us on an exhilarating jaunt through the throng of donkey carts, packed stalls and beeping moped drivers until we reach the uber fashionable three-storey dining den.

A knock on a high-arched ancient door opens out into the breath-taking two-storey high restaurant with huge white pillars, dark wood shutters and a huge wrought iron chandelier.

Enjoying the Atlas Mountains...
Enjoying the Atlas Mountains...
Desert camping...
On the camel's back...
Le Foundouk Restaurant
Les 5 Djellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Les 5 Dejellabas Hotel, Marrakech
Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech

Then up a narrow staircase and into a luxurious red booth.  All very Da Vinci Code. All very mysterious.

The menu was full of delicious tajines and salads, meat skewers, fluffy couscous and seafood dishes and an à la carte menu of European fare.

The award-winning restaurant with grape-coloured décor throughout – which housed camels and horses in ancient times – is lit by flickering candles.

It has been voted one of the world’s best sky-high and rooftop restaurants by CNN thanks to its stunning lantern-lit rooftop overlooking the bustling old town. 

For the fashionistas or anyone looking to take a breath from the mayhem, there is the new Yves Saint Laurent Museum in the heart of the city he used as his muse.

Down the street tourists can also visit the beautiful Majorelle Gardens restored by the designer which are full of giant cacti, fountains, big pots in bold colours and vivid blue buildings.

The cosmopolitan colour of the stylish restaurants and riads on terraces overlooking Marrakesh couldn’t be more different from the simplicity of the cool blueness of the mountain range in the backdrop of the red city.

Hiking to the seven waterfalls through High Atlas Mountains with the Berber people is a somewhat spiritual experience.

Our guide, who nimbly helps us across the tumbling water and rocky cervices, explained how they still live a tribal way of life in the villages built into the side of the mountain.

Halfway up on a rocky outcrop balcony is a mountain bar with colourful couches serving up freshly squeezed orange juice and mint tea with spectacular views out over the misting waterfall below.

The village of Setti Fatma neatly nestled in a canyon beneath the mountain range is the scenic stop before you set off on foot with your guide.

On route was a stop at a divorced women’s argan oil cooperative where a group of infectiously good-humoured middle-aged ladies burst into a chorus of traditional song ending with a flourishing yodel.

A headscarf-wearing, Berber lady with a twinkle in her kohl-rimmed eyes then launched into a ninety-to-the-dozen chat on argan oil and all its properties including one bottle perfect for “sexy massages”.

During her breezy, fast-paced talk through the merits of the famed local oil my wandering attention was sharply focused when I got a spritz of beauty mist straight between the eyes.

But I must have been sufficiently charmed by the spiel as I’m now the proud owner of an array of lemon smelling argan oil products stacked in my bathroom cabinet.

Their skin is beautiful but it could have something to do with their clean-living mountainside lifestyle - and remarkably sunny disposition.

It seems like almost everything in the dusty city is done with a smile.

From the waiter who lifted the lid on a dinner dish wickedly announcing it was snake tagine to the patiently good-humoured driver, Hicham, who gamely tried to hide his amusement at our very ungainly attempts at mounting camels.

With temperatures of mid to late twenties throughout the winter and spring and a Ryanair flight running from Dublin Thursday to Sunday it is a must-see mini-break destination for travellers looking to add a bit of spice to their lives.

Hotel Les 5 Djellabas 3.jpg
Les 5 Dejellabas Hotel, Marrakech

When to go

General consensus is that springtime is best, but august and winter also have lovely balmy weather. Temperatures rarely get below 20 degree, but in July and August regularly reach over 40 degrees, although it's a dry heat rather than humid.

Where to visit

Definitely do a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. A guide to bring us up around the waterfall cost under €20, while a driver for the entire day was less than €80. Don't forget to tip. The Inara Desert Camp is amazing and a return trip for an overnight stay to see the stars is on the bucket list. See inaracamp.com for details. 

Where to stay

Les 5 Djellabas Hotel was truly special. A perfect oasis of Aftrican luxury away from the madness of inner city Marrakesh. If you stay three nights or more you get free transfers from the hotel into town. Visit hotel-les5djellabas.com

How to get there

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct from Dublin to Marrakech twice a week. Sundays and Thursdays. Our flights took less than three and a half hours each way and cost around €140 return.

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday World.

Read more:

Reining in Morocco: A fantastic family adventure in Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains

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