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What to do in Andalusia


The Royal fortified district of Marrakech's ancient medina offers a microcosm of all that the city has to offer, from authentic riads, a contemporary arts and music scene, to storybook architecture and plenty of chic luxury
27.03.15 - 11:39 -
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Take me to the Kasbah
A view of the Marrakech Kasbah from La Sultana. :: WWW.LASULTANAHOTELS.COM
I was feeling slightly harried, but as I took a generous bite into the sweet cake, my mood swiftly improved. Having spent far too long haggling over a traditionally woven breadbasket, I wanted to escape the claustrophobic alleyways of the market and get something to eat in a recommended café.
Yet a small hole-in-the-wall shopkeeper offered a compelling sight that made me lose my focus once again. Hundreds of Moroccan sweetmeats, piled high, on trays displayed one above the other, created a cascade of colour and texture that looked delicious. Like a child I approached the vendor with eyes as broad as saucers, and within a moment I was being offered a plump almond filled cake, sticky with syrup. Little did I know though, that the minimum order, a ‘mélange’ assortment of cakes, was almost the equivalent of ten euro - but it was too late, I had engaged in friendly banter with the shopkeeper.
Shopping in the Marrakech medina is like getting engrossed in a Las Vegas casino, before long all sense of time and perspective is lost and you are cajoled to part with your money.
Djemaa el Fna Square
Bright sunlight filled the alleyway ahead, as I emerged from the souk, stepping out into the vastness of Djemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakech. The previous night it had been hard to move for the amount of people and the number of tightly crammed food stalls, surrounded by the steam and smoke from their grills and stoves.
Today though it was fairly empty and to be honest somewhat lacking appeal. A few snake charmers sat on low stools looking bored, as their docile reptilian slaves lay curled-up on Berber rugs, waiting to be coaxed or ‘charmed’ into action for tourists. The midday dhuhur call to prayer began to be amplified by speakers on the surrounding mosques. Although after a few days in the city I had become accustomed to these regular adhan prayer calls that punctuated the day, here the cacophony of multiple muezzin announcers made me stop in my tracks and just listen. Beside me a handful of men were taking off their shoes and bowing down on carpets and rugs laid out by the side of the square, but most people seemed to be going about the day apparently oblivious to the blaring megaphones.
I continued towards the Kasbah district. This fortified district, within the UNESCO-recognised old town was once the home of the Sultans and is still where one can find the Royal Palace and other notable architecture that will fill your imagination with tales of Arabia.
The directions I had been given to my destination seemed straight-forward enough, but after a few turns I was disorientated. The sweet aroma of smoke drifted across the street from food vendors preparing lunchtime lamb skewers over charcoal grills; mopeds and taxis weaved amongst the pedestrians as we all negotiated the narrow street, an urban ballet of people and traffic that somehow flowed without incident thanks to seemingly intuitive choreography.
Riad Laksiba
I was heading towards Clock Café, for a lunchtime bite to eat and a refreshing tea. The trendy eatery in the Kasbah district of Marrakech was a recommendation from my hosts at Riad Laksiba, a small guest house tucked away down a dead-end alleyway within this fortified district of the mediaeval medina old town. My first night in Marrakesh was spent in the relaxed B&B; a welcome opportunity to transition into the Moroccan lifestyle.
Riad Laksiba has been renovated, well, almost rebuilt, by Brit Simon Hawkesley and his family and captures the essence of a typical Riad courtyard home. Its traditional style and decoration reflects Moroccan artisan craftsmanship, whilst being understated, simple and uncluttered. The style here is to ‘go native’, to get under the skin of this now super-fashionable city and be immersed in the everyday life of Marrakech’s old town and Kasbah.
My initiation started well, with a tasty traditional Riad Laksiba supper of fresh Moroccan salads, delicious bread, and a tagine of slow-cooked, fall-off-the bone lamb with dried fruits and lemon.
Then the next day my hosts equipped me with plenty of suggestions for local cafés, street food vendors and restaurants where I could continue to experience the authentic flavours of Morocco.
However Marrakech has no shortage of chic eateries for those wanting an excuse to dress up. This fashion-conscious city has a progressive European nightlife. Head a few minutes by taxi out of the ancient medina and one passes luxurious resorts, golf courses and residential developments. On the way are the stylish restaurants, pool clubs and lounge bars for which the city is now famous.
Bô-Zin is one of the most established lounge bar restaurants that combines sensual French chic with the warmth of the North African aesthetic - thick walls of ochre and terracotta, sofas and chairs in brown suede and tan leathers, all illuminated by flattering candles and subtle lighting. Cocktails and dinner soon turn into a classy party night here, as the playlist ramps up the energy and guests spill out into secluded gardens.
Clock Café
Before long I made it to Café Clock. It has a fun and relaxed atmosphere, full of the sound of chatter and music. The café seems an established part of the contemporary social and arts scene in the old town, a bringing together of international and local culture, from food, story-telling, art and music. It’s a good place to start to discover the Marrakech beyond the touristy souks and well-visited museums.
Even if your focus is simply to soak up the atmosphere of this red city, enjoying the cuisine and contemporary nightlife it’s still worth paying a visit, even briefly, to some of the extraordinary palaces and gardens that help tell the city’s story. From the ruins of El Badi Palace, to the romantic Bahia Palace with its beautiful Fez craftsmanship and peaceful gardens, there are plenty of options for combining some culture with moments to escape the noise and bustle of the medina.
My favourite place remains the Jardin Majorelle, found just outside the medina. Created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s, and later saved in the 1980s by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, the garden with its iconic cobalt blue modernist villa and exotic planting is a truly special place.
La Sultana
Yet this evening I was to head back to my hotel. After a day walking the medina, there is nothing better than taking a relaxing shower and then indulging in a cocktail on a roof terrace overlooking the city.
I was ending this visit with a few nights at La Sultana Marrakech, a top-notch hotel right in the heart of the Kasbah. Almost hidden down an alleyway, evocatively laid with Berber carpets, and lined with lamps is this remarkably beautiful property. Five authentic, historic riads have been painstakingly restored and sympathetically brought together to create an intimate five-star hotel. With guest suites over-looking tranquil courtyards with pools and small gardens, and an acclaimed restaurant serving French and Moroccan cuisine it’s a temptation to stay put and not leave the premises. From the roof terrace bar and restaurant, one can view the remarkable Saadian Tombs from the dining tables, or look a little further and one has the quintessential springtime view of Marrakesh old town rooftops, the city’s ancient ramparts and in the distance the snow-capped Atlas mountains. Sitting here, thoughts of haggling in the souk melt away; it’s impossible not to relax here.