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A whistlestop tour of Marrakech

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Despite being only a few hours away by plane, there’s a definite feeling of landing in a faraway land as soon as you touch down in Marrakech.  Ornate silver lanterns hang in their hundreds outside tiny shops built into the city walls. Scooters zip around the dusty lanes at top speed, weaving in and out of tourists, children and the occasional chicken. Lines of barbeque stalls fill the main square, sending fragrant smoke into the sky as stall holders compete to get your attention.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in a city that seems to have crammed itself into too small a space. This may be down to the ancient city walls which barricade the Medina, where you’ll find the souks and the square of Jemaa el Fna. Outside of these walls the city breathes a little, and you can wander through some of the numerous gardens dotted around.

The Marjorelle Gardens are a botanical oasis to the north of the Medina, with vivacious cacti and flowers. They’re also home to the ashes of Yves St Laurent (which explains the daily presence of pilgrimaging fashionistas) and a lovely, though pricey, café.

Once night falls, Jemaa el Fna is the only place to be. Pick one of the many restaurants dotted around the sides of the square, and enjoy the view over the hustle and bustle while nursing a tagine and cous cous. Afterwards, get a freshly squeezed orange juice for 40c and stroll around, keeping an eye on the ground for strays from the numerous snake charmers.

I quickly learnt to listen for the sound of the flutes that indicated a charmer was close by. This was my signal to move as quickly as I could in the opposite direction.

While the barbeque stands can look intimidating, they are also difficult to resist. For a few euro, you can fill up on succulent meats and seafood, cooked in front of you over hot coals. The tables are cheap and cheerful, and you’ll often find yourself moved along if more people arrive, but it’s an experience not to be missed. Order a healthy variety and tuck in, scooping up your supper with the flatbreads that accompany every meal in Marrakech.

When the commotion of the square becomes too much, the best thing to do is retreat to one of the many Hammams spread throughout the Medina. These traditional bathing areas can often be found within the Riads (guesthouses) and consist of a variation of steaming, scrubbing and soaking.

On my last night in Marrakech I made my way down the alleyways and side streets and through the nondescript door of Mille et une Nuits Hammam.

As with most of the buildings in the city, the inside opened up like a tardis to reveal a huge space, with decadent day beds and thick stone walls. I stripped down and was led to a smaller side room, where a bucket of warm water was sluiced over me.

Black Moroccan soap was scrubbed into my tired limbs before I relaxed in the steam room, the commotion of the city melting away as the steam washed over me.

Just before the heat became overwhelming, I was led back for my ‘gommage’ or scrub. The therapists worked away the grime of the city in long motions, leaving me squeaky clean and rosy cheeked.

The experience drew to a close with a spritz of rose water and a mint tea as I laid back on the day bed, waiting to re-join the never ending activity outside, as the city came to life for another evening.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent. 

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