Sunday 18 November 2018

Marvellous Marrakech for an exotic winter break

Moroccan mix

Jamaa el Fna also Jemaa el Fnaa, Djema el Fna or Djemaa el Fnaa is square and market place in Marrakesh's medina quarter.
Jamaa el Fna also Jemaa el Fnaa, Djema el Fna or Djemaa el Fnaa is square and market place in Marrakesh's medina quarter.
Le Salama restaurant, Marrakech
Dar Fakir hotel, Marrackech
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

Mark Evans was as charmed as the local snakes as he fell for the Moroccan city with an enticing mix for all.

Most travel writers don't give Ryanair credit where it's due - opening up cities from Britain to the Baltics that most cash-conscious travellers would otherwise never be able to visit.

And with this year's Irish winter definitely outstaying its welcome, an escape to the sun needn't cost the earth.

On the budget airline's extensive timetable, one destination - Marrakech - should stand out for the sun-lover and culture-hunter alike.

The ancient Moroccan city is a delve into the exotic, without half a day spent in the air. It's a spicy mix of old Islam, culture and history. And if you're hesitating, don't: it's also family friendly, female friendly and has enough western influence too if you're not feeling all that adventurous.

Getting a taxi from the modern airport to the heart of the city provides you with a culture shock. From the moment you set foot in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the Unesco-listed square that's the soul of the city, you know you've left Europe far behind.

Around for more than a millennium, this place has seen spice-carrying Saharan caravans, slave traders from Timbuktu and beyond, and also served as an execution area in early Medieval times.

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Dar Fakir hotel Marrackech

Das Farkir Hotel, Marrakech

Nowadays it's a lot more fun, with the only torture that I could find was the sight of open-air dentists offering their services.

By night this square teems with life - watch you don't trip over a snake-chamer's cobra or two - in a place that's a mix of Moore Street market and food court.

Storytellers recount tales in Arabic or Berber dialects, vendors sell everything from nuts and spices to squeezed orange juice and the stall food has anything from kebabs to the more exotic. Sheep's head, anyone?

Book the best value packages to Morocco on Independent Travel here.

Hotels are usually just for sleeping - and getting out as soon as soon as possible next morning. Not here, where your residence is a highpoint in its own right. Marrakech is a city of riads, basically boutique hotels before the term was ever coined by some western marketing whizkid.

Set around a central courtyard, typically complete with fountain or water feature, they're miniature palaces mixing the luxury of a hotel with the homeliness of a guesthouse.

Dar Farkir, centrally situated in the old city around from Jemaa el-Fnaa, is a great example.

Featured in posh TV reality show Made in Chelsea, it's got a seductive mix of Moorish architecture and western cool. Its small, so meeting with others guests is a pleasure, and it's run by German-born (and English-speaking) Kerstin Brand, who fell in love with Marrakech and who's a mine of information about the city.

The rooftop commands a good view of the surrounding city, and it's also a lovely setting for a spot of mint tea as the call to prayer echoes around the Medieval metropolis.

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Le Salama restaurant marrakech

Le Salama restaurant, Marrakech

From Athens to Persia, food is exotic and is some of the best on the planet. If you're used to Turkish or Tunisian cuisine, you'll be right at home in Morocco.

Le Salama restaurant (www.lesalama.com), a few minutes' walk from the riad, isn't just a restaurant, it's an experience.

If you like tagine (melt-in-the-mouth meat dishes with couscous), look no further. In a city where alcohol can be pricey, it's got a good range of wines to accompany your meal. The ambience is timeless and upmarket, but the prices are reasonable. Diners tend to be fellow travellers, and it all gets a bit madcap and fun when the belly dancers arrive and you put on the fez on your table.

The rooftop balcony has superb views of the surrounding countryside, it offers a happy hour and shisha pipe, and there's a loud mix of locals and tourists.

There's plenty of sightseeing - and if the hustle and bustle and heat gets too much, head to Majorelle Gardens (www.jardinmajorelle.com), the beautiful work of a French expat that was beloved (and later bought) by designer Yves St Laurent.

If you like history, the ruined Badii Palace, built for a sultan, and the Bahia Palace, complete with harem, are amazing examples of Moorish/Islamic architecture.

Sadly, non-Muslims can't go in to the city's highest - and most famous - landmark, Koutoubia mosque, but it's worth a detour for a photo op outside.

But if history's not your thing, the biggest pleasure here is haggling in the souks (the pushiness was nowhere near as bad as feared), and just getting lost in the mazey little alleyways around them.

And if all that shopping's a bit tiring, check out the hammams - the perfect way to unwind in a city to blow the senses.

Getting there

Book the best value packages to Morocco on Independent Travel here.

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies between Marrakech and Dublin every Wednesday and Sunday, making it handy for a long weekend trip. Fares average out at €79 return, but keep an eye our for special offers.

The Dar Fakir riad has seven bedrooms, so you can book a room or even the entire property. Rooms can be got from €80 upwards per night, but €110 is about average for the winter months. Suites are available at a small premium.

For more information, see www.visitmorocco.com

Read more:

Morocco: Surfing the souks Morocco: Making waves with a yoga and surf break Tunisia: Discovering culture and kisses in a sun-soaked land of Kaboul-mania

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