Marrakech is a mediaeval city with a modern twist: you can be woken at 5am by the combined call to prayer from at least five mosques in a 200-metre radius but, if you prefer, you can come stumbling back from Pacha nightclub at around the same time. Sometimes you lose yourself in unnamed, time-soiled antique alleys. Then, just as you’re thinking you could be in any century of human civilisation, around the corner will come a man tugging a horse piled with plastic cases full of Coca-Cola bottles.
For those tired of the Med sun and the usual round of Eurobreaks, Marrakech offers something different. Something undisputably foreign. At first glance, that may seem an odd remark, since everywhere outside your native country could be described as foreign. But when Mrs Smith and I step into Djemaa El Fna at twilight, Marrakech’s main square provides the sort of culture shock you’d usually associate with somewhere more than a quick jaunt from Europe.
Whether it’s a stall selling suspiciously stained false teeth, a gaggle of Marrakshis listening to a wizened storyteller or the acrobats tumbling past the snake charmers, here is somewhere truly foreign. If I turned around to see a small boy climbing a rope rising up unsupported from the pavement, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Well, OK – I’d shriek like a girl, but you get the gist – Marrakech feels like a living Indiana Jones movie. And we love it.
My lady is blonde, and we are clearly European tourists. This, friends have told us, will mean no end of hassle. ‘She’ll probably have to cover her hair,’ they said. ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, and you can’t wear shorts.’ Wrong on both counts. Mrs Smith’s hair got the odd appreciative word or double take but, as she points out, walking past a British building site can be far more intimidating. And as for my shorts? Not one wolf whistle. Very upsetting.
The locals are almost always courteous, and often highly entertaining. Yes, you’ll receive a few offers from guides, and several young men tell us they can take us on a tour of the tanneries (the smell of these leather-curing workshops is enough to convince us that this is a cultural experience worth missing) but, generally, a polite la shokran (no thanks) sees all but the most persistent chaps push off.
Islam came to Morocco in the seventh century and, although the country is 99 per cent Islamic, the interpretation that rules is far from strict. Alongside ladies top-to-toe in black are others with hem-lengths unlikely to win approval from fierce mullahs. Despite its mediaeval appearance, Marrakech is a progressive city. For evidence, look no further than its home-grown wine. Despite the Koran’s prohibition of alcohol, Morocco makes some excellent wines, which we enjoyed time and again while guests at Dar Les Cigognes.
Located in the heart of the old town of Marrakech, with the royal palace on its doorstep (and the palace’s famous storks’ nests visible from the roof terrace), this riad is the definition of tranquil luxury. A discreet door leads through to two beautifully maintained courtyards with fruit trees, palm-trees and fountains. The hotel’s 11 rooms and suites are arranged around this area, on the first and second floors. Within its thick walls, on balconies overlooking the courtyard (traditionally, riads do not have windows to the outside world) we are spared the noise, smell and, remarkably, heat of the city, and find ourselves in a quiet, reflective space – perfect for new arrivals to this bustling destination.
Ever the busy executive, Mrs Smith is delighted that, despite the building being centuries old, the owners have thoughtfully fitted it out with a WiFi network. And so, while I scrub myself down at the hammam, she spends a pleasant hour on the balcony, sipping mint tea and answering emails. Such is the meditative calm of the place, she claims to have done more work in an hour that she could possibly achieve in a busy London office. The modern/mediaeval thing is a powerful force indeed.
The bedroom is as cute as a button, with walls finished in the silky-smooth tadelakt plaster, which also covers the dining and lounge areas downstairs. Even our bath is covered in this, surely the most tactile finish in the DIY world. To the touch, it has a Teflon-like lack of friction; embarrassingly, Mrs Smith walks into the bedroom as I’m rubbing my cheek on the wall. My explanation of checking the noise levels for review purposes are met with a confused nod.
Dinner is served in the open-air courtyard, with orders to the chef put in earlier on. This is common at the better riads, and indicates that everything has been bought fresh from the market today. If you’re of a mind, the chef at Dar Les Cigognes is even happy to let you help prepare the dinner. (You’re later given the recipe so you can try to recreate your culinary efforts at home). Although tempted, we plump for the traditional trencherman option of simply sitting down and being brought course after course of stunning Moroccan food. From minty, fruity salads to juicy pigeon pie and, of course, lamb and chicken tagines, the four-course spectacular leaves us groaning with delight.
Despite the lure of our bed within olive-throwing distance, we decide to go in search of some late-night fun. The bar scene in Marrakech is surprisingly slick, with almost all the bars located outside the medina, in the new town, Gueliz. A short taxi ride away, this is the modern face of Marrakech, with chain hotels, wide boulevards and a far more western feel. We sank a few cocktails among the designer-clad clientele of Jad Mahal, a sumptuous lounge bar, before heading off to the faded opulence of the casino at La Mamounia hotel. The click of roulette balls, the murmur of French from the croupier, and the heady smoke of a dozen cigars instantly puts us in mind of an old Bond film. From Indian Jones to 007 in one day – not bad. The wish-fulfilment theme continues back at our boutique riad, where calm and luxe replace the excitement of Marrakech until the morning.