Sand & Stars: A Trip to Marrakech & Morocco

View of Marrakech’s Kutubiyya Mosque at sunset.

© Shutterstock

View of Marrakech’s Kutubiyya Mosque at sunset with Jemaa el-Fna Square in the foreground.

View of Marrakech’s Kutubiyya Mosque at sunset.

© Shutterstock

Dressed in dazzling hues and swathed with exotic colours, no city strikes a pose quite like Marrakech. Oranges dangle from fruiting boughs like balls of blazing sunshine, mounds of raging-red cayenne pepper illuminate spice shop doorways and vibrant palms tickle bright blue skies.

When French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent first visited Morocco’s bohemian artist enclave in 1966, he was struck: "The city opened my eyes to colour," the Algerian-born artist declared, reflecting on his decision to buy a property in the city with his partner Pierre Berge.

Decades later, it was restored and reopened as Jardin Majorelle – now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. A calm escape from the chaotic streets of the medina, the landscaped space is filled with hidden corners and nooks. Soaring cacti stand like sentinels at the doorway of cobalt blue buildings, ferns fan from yellow clay pots and paths wind through forests of bamboo. But walking through the picturesque place is about much more than posing for selfies. The gardens, in all their technicolour glory, sum up the allure of this mysterious, atmospheric and – at times – clandestine city.

The Yves Saint Laurent designer in 1960s Morocco. 

© Place Djemaa El Fna/Reginald Gray

Turn every corner and there is a new roof terrace restaurant or underground bar to discover. Filled with surprising sights, complex aromas and a cacophony of sounds – it is a destination that promises to challenge every sense. Neighbouring Jardin Majorelle, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (mYSLm) features a parade of mannequins wearing some of the fashion maestro’s most famous designs, serving as a visual timeline of his career. The jumpsuit and smoking jacket have become high street staples, but their origins thread back to YSL’s sketchbooks. Elsewhere, brocade jackets pay homage to Van Gogh, while hooded cloaks, tassel-fringed gowns and feminine Fez hats honour Morocco’s national dress.

Although these pieces of haute couture are no longer for sale, you can pick up your own Middle Eastern-inspired apparel in the medina’s labyrinth of souks north from the Jemaa el-Fna square. Embroidered babouche slippers in a rainbow of colours hang from stalls, along with a selection of simple shoulder bags. For more finely crafted products, head to Souk Cherifa in the Mouassine neighbourhood. Balancing old with new, there are contemporary designs at Norya Ayron, where silk kaftans by French-Algerian designer Nyora Nemiche waft from rails, along with beaded belts beloved by A-list celebrities. At Max & Jan, you find drapey dresses, straw bags and bouclé jackets, while Al Nour allows guilt-free splurges: its linen blouses and tunics are made by a team of disabled tailors who benefit directly from all profits made.

As darkness falls, a melodic call to prayer floats from minarets and smoke plumes rise from stalls selling a mixture of sizzling Middle Eastern street food. In Jemaa el-Fna, storytellers captivate audiences while snake charmers perform their ancient, precarious art. In recent years, the city’s food scene has boomed, with options ranging from laidback, modern brunch cafés right through to late-night cocktail bars – filling the once gaping gap between high-end hotel restaurants and cheap canteens.

At Le Trou Au Mur, a casual diner from the owners of boutique hotel Le Farnatchi, you choose from a menu of forgotten classics rarely served outside Moroccan homes. Mechoui, a slow-cooked lamb dish, is a stand-out favourite. Part of a renovated house buried in the medina’s backstreet, the restaurant is best reached with a guide who can escort guests from the main thoroughfare if they ring ahead.

It is tempting to fritter away days exploring the city’s sights, like the opulent 16th century Saadian Tombs, a mausoleum decorated with marble, or al-Mansour’s Badi Palace and its grand reflecting pools. But there is more to discover outside and beyond the city limits.

The vibrant colours of the spice market.

© Unsplash

Deserts, Dunes and Mediaeval Marvels

Beyond the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, visible from every rooftop on a clear day, lie the sprawling, scintillating sands of the Sahara Desert. Travelling by four-wheel-drive through Merzouga, you tumble over a rollercoaster of dunes before continuing by camel – a mode of transport favoured by Bedouin caravans for centuries – to reach your desert camp. Poured from copper pots reminiscent of a genie’s lamp, small cups of sweet mint tea are offered as you arrive at the tented domes. After sunset, a fire is lit and dancing begins as you dine on meats served in traditional clay tagines.

But the best show takes place once everyone has gone to sleep. Stepping outside your carpeted canvas home, stare up at the night sky, where stars burn brightly through a smoky trail formed by the Milky Way. With not a single electric light for miles around, it is possible to join the dots between the constellations that have guided travellers for millennia.

The story of Morocco’s past is best told through the many ruins of kasbahs, mosques and madrasas found across the country. Until the 5th century AD, Morocco remained under Roman rule. Evidence can be found at the Unesco World Heritage site Volubilis. Set on plains surrounded by wheat fields, ruins of the former walled city have since been commandeered by storks nesting on top of the grand columns. Regardless, the triumphant arches and intricate mosaic floors retain their grandeur. You step over depictions of marine creatures in an imaginary ocean and images of Poseidon’s wife Amphitrite riding a sea-horse-drawn chariot through the waves.

The site is easily reached from Fez, often described as Morocco’s cultural heartland. Scholars, philosophers and intellectuals once gathered in this centre of Islamic learning, alongside merchants selling wares collected along the Silk Road. Today, donkey carts replace cars on the engine-free streets, while mediaeval mosques and madrasas still stand tall. With 9,000 narrow lanes to negotiate, it’s all too easy to get lost in the medina, where carpet-makers weave in the back of dusty workshops and coppersmiths hammer patterns into brass lamps.

Despite the stomach-churning stench, a visit to the Chouara Tannery is fascinating. After taking a tour of the giant baths where leather hides have been washed and dyed since the 16th century, you will feel the need to scrub away unpleasant aromas with a hamman in the spa of the Maison Bleue riad. Once cleansed, retreat to a rooftop terrace to hear the evening call to prayer. End your evening at the Ruined Garden, a former merchant’s house transformed into a beautiful garden and baking school, with a dinner surrounded by rose petals and jasmine flowers, sipping a fresh glass of orange blossom milk.

Being a predominantly dry city, it is hard to find bars serving alcohol in Fez. But Riad Fès is an exception. The poolside wine bar offers tasting sessions focusing exclusively on Moroccan wines. Far greater immersion in local grapes is on offer at Domaine de la Zouina, an estate in Meknès, not far from Fez. Applauded for its fine bottles, including the popular Volubilia label, the French-owned vineyard benefits from the Mediterranean climate, with flavours defined by the Chergui – a southeasterly desert wind. Once you have toured the estate, sit down to a tasting, accompanied by goat’s cheeses from the region and olive oil produced on-site. 

There are more opportunities to raise a glass in the port city of Casablanca, the country’s commercial hub. Alongside the Hassan II Mosque, the tallest religious structure in the world, 1940s-themed bar Rick’s Café is a playful interpretation of the fictional gin joint from the 1942 movie classic Casablanca. The elegant jazz bar is filled with beaded table lamps, brass lanterns and a pianist playing nostalgic tunes on a baby grand.

Sitting in the shadows, while listening to the music, you can watch well-dressed women and happy tourists parade through the theatrical space. Based on make-believe, the whole set-up is arguably nothing more than a mirage. But it sums up the beauty of Morocco. In a place where legends and stories form the fabric of modern society, colourful imaginations freely run wild.

morocco-desert

A caravan winds its way through Merzouga in the Sahara desert.

© Shutterstock

Addresses

MANDARIN ORIENTAL MARRAKECH

Petals from more than 100,000 roses flutter in large gardens surrounding palatial villas. For cock- tails, book a table at Asian restaurant Ling Ling; for Moroccan fare try Shirvan café Metisse. Rooms from 9,520 MAD/€1,040 with breakfast.
mandarinoriental.com +212 524 29 88 88

LE FARNATCHI, MARRAKECH

A traditional home converted into ten stylish suites. A pool, rooftop barbecue area and a spa with two hammams complete the pretty picture. Rooms from 3,400 MAD/€320 with breakfast. lefarnatchi.com +212 524 38 49 10

EL FENN, MARRAKECH

Drapes billow from collonaded balconies over-looking sun-splashed courtyards in this trendy riad co-founded by Vanessa Branson. Rooms from €4,070/€385, including breakfast and afternoon tea.
el-fenn.com +212 524 44 12 10

RIAD ELEGANCIA, MARRAKECH

Faithfully restored by local artisans, this 11-room riad displays Morocco’s finest architectural flourishes. Find studded cedarwood doors, walls decorated with zelliges and hand-painted ceilings. From 929 MAD/€89 with breakfast.
riadelegancia.com +212 524 38 69 80

HOTEL SAHRAI, FEZ

Located on a hilltop, this smart five-star property is an escape from the madness of the medina. Relax in North Africa’s only Givenchy spa and enjoy late night drinks in the rooftop bar and bodega. Rooms from 2,844 MAD/€270 with breakfast.
hotelsahrai.com +212 535 94 03 32

FOUR SEASONS CASABLANCA

Listen to Atlantic waves crashing against the shoreline at this beachside property, a 10-minute drive from the city centre. Rooms from 2,640 MAD/ €250 with breakfast. fourseasons.com/Casablanca +212 529 07 37 00

LE TROU AU MUR, MARRAKECH

An intimate laidback restaurant in the oldest part of the medina, serving dishes cooked in a traditional mechoui clay oven, next door to Le Farnatchi.
letrouaumur.com +212 524 38 49 00

LE KILIM, MARRAKECH

This bistro spot in Gueliz (the New Town) has one of the city’s best brunch menus.
lekilim.com +212 524 44 69 99

L’MIDA, MARRAKECH

With rooftop views gazing out to the mountains, this is ideal for sunset meals. Chef and cookbook author Narjisse Benkabbou oversees the menu.
lmidamarrakech.com +212 524 44 36 62

THE RUINED GARDEN, FEZ

Once a crumbling mess, the secret garden of Riad Idrissy was cleared to reveal beautiful fountains and mosaic floors. Open for lunch and dinner.
ruinedgarden.com +212 643 23 00 45

SCORPION HOUSE, MOULAY IDRISS

A former maitre d’hotel at London’s The Ivy and Wolseley restaurants, Mike Richardson opened his private home for exclusive supper clubs. Menus can be personalised for two to 40 people.
scorpionhouse.com +212 535 54 47 29

DOMAINE DE LA ZOUINA, MEKNÈS

A French-owned and operated estate in the wine region surrounding Meknès. Affordable rosés are as delicate as anything you will find in Provence.
domainezouina.com +212 535 43 30 34

LE CABESTAN, CASABLANCA

Eat excellent seafood with even finer ocean views at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, entertaining diners on the corniche since 1927.
le-cabestan.com +212 522 39 11 90

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