The festive season is the perfect time to visit Marrakech, to top up on Vitamin D and to experience a culture that remains steadfastly exotic and holds on to positive aspects of its past without seeking mindless modernity. The central square within the Medina (or ancient walled town) Jemaa el-Fnaa, is still the magnet that draws visitors from all over the world to its charming chaos. It is a starting and ending point to experience this fabulous city. This was our fourth visit, and the charm never fails to win us over once again.
During the day the square teems with visitors and locals standing and talking, mopping up the atmosphere, emerging from or entering the magical adjoining Souk, or watching the traditionally dressed Berbers with their flamboyant orange hats and bright costumes pose for photographs. Groups of visitors stand rooted to the spot next to the snake charmers blowing on trumpets and goading their collection of pythons, vipers, grass snakes and, most compelling of all, Cobras, their heads and caped necks hovering mesmerically in the air. These are such a draw, that the monkey tamers hardly get a look in.
At night the square is transformed into a giant communal outdoor refectory, with numerous mobile kitchens and plastic covered tables and benches. The waiters compete to attract would be diners to their individual pitches. The endless variations on Moroccan tagines, along with kebabs and spicy sauces eaten with flat bread, is surprisingly delicious. Eating at communal tables also encourages relaxed conversations with visitors of all ages, hailing from all over the world.
The symbol of the City is the Moorish minaret of the 12th Century Koutouba Mosque, which overlooks the square. After a few days taking in the charms of the City, including the glorious Majorelle Gardens, restored by Yves St Laurent, one is ineluctantly drawn to escape the constant hubbub of the City and drive up to the Atlas Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks loom over Marrakesh like a distant mirage. A day trip is easily organised, and perhaps the most stunning trek is to visit the mountain-top village of Archain at the foot of Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. At the heart of the village, nesting on a rocky outcrop in a monastic setting, is the magnificent Kasbah du Toubkal.
Indeed, its very monastic feel was exploited by the film maker Martin Scorcese in 1996, when he had the Kasbah transformed into the Tibetan monastery of Dungkhar, to which the Dali Lama fled from Lhasa in Tibet from the invading Chinese. The Kasbah was clad with stonework, prayer wheels, wooden doors and Tibetan domes. 100 Tibetans, 45 horses and 2 yaks, along with 33 SUV’s were imported to impart the impression of an authentic Tibetan monastery.
The Kasbah retains that magical feel. Improbably, it was built by an English ex-geography teacher, Mike Smith, as an upmarket hotel in partnership with a local entrepreneur. It easily outshines Sir Richard Bransons later constructed Kasbah Tamadot. This is located further down the mountain and has neither the views of Mount Toubkal, nor the breathtaking outlook across three valleys that the Kasbah Toubkal enjoys. It is good to see the small guy win occasionally, as he does here, in great style.
Back in Marrakesh, nothing could be better than staying in a Riad in the centre of the Souk. This connects one with the lifestyle of the local people. To be woken by the Muezzin prayers erupting on all sides at dawn is a truly singular experience, like no other.
A recent addition to the well-known attractions of the souk, which include the well known attractions of the Medersa Ben Yousef medieval Islamic school and the Saadian Tombs, is Le Jardin Secret o Secret Garden. This is a project completed in 2016 that was the initiative of Lauro Milan, with the assistance of Karim el Achak and English landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith. It involved the restoration of the original Riad dating back to the Saadian Dynasty more than four hundred years ago. The Riad fell into dis-repair in 1934 and the work begun in 2008 involved the restoration of the Riadin and re-creation of two courtyard gardens, a larger Islamic garden and a smaller Exotic garden. Like the Medina itself, the two gardens are irrigated through underground pipes originating in the Atlas Mountains 50 kilometres away.