Marrakesh: A visit to this city will shock you

Madonna has a house there and so does Leonardo di Caprio while couturier Yves St Laurent fell in love with it, bought a villa and was inspired by its moods and colours.

Its exclusive nightclubs draw the idle rich from across the Mediterranean while in the narrow streets that radiate out from the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, the cobras of the snake charmers sway and pack-laden donkeys still plod.

Such is Marrakesh, the Red City, the Land of God in Berber.

Like all visitors we are drawn to the Medina, the old town founded in 1062 and encircled by a nine-metre, ochre mud brick wall for a length of some 20 kilometres.

Within lies the square and the souk, the latter a sprawling labyrinth of stalls where thousands of artisans work and live and in which travellers can become hopelessly lost in as long as it takes to say "What's your best price?"

The square works best in the late afternoon and early evening when the food stalls, storytellers and performers appear, the smoke and aromas from charcoal fires mingling with the eerie notes of the snake charmers' flutes and the calls to prayer drifting from the minarets that pierce the skyline.

Caravans that once made the journey from Timbuktu carrying gold, ivory and slaves ended their journeys in the square, as did the criminals sentenced to death who were executed there.

We stay in two different riads, both created by joining what were once private homes and both typical of the upmarket accommodation available in the Medina.

From the street there is little to identify Les Jardins de la Medina or La Maison Arabe, just nondescript doors and unobtrusive signage, external displays of wealth being frowned upon in Berber culture.

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Stepping off the street, we enter oases of carefully tended gardens with tall palms towering over swimming pools shimmering invitingly in the 40-degree heat.

We venture outside the medina walls and the bustle of the New City with its five-star hotels, tree-lined boulevards and more or less orderly traffic replaces the world of the Kasbah.

We spend an afternoon and the next day with a guide who weaves his way through the souk where the bargaining is the fiercest I've encountered.

We enter a carpet seller's store and memories of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar recur, ones in which we spend $3000 on a rug we didn't need and which is now slowly decomposing in our storage shed.

Twenty and then 30 rugs are rolled out. I give my wife my best "don't even think about it" glare and nod towards the door.

She nods back and we escape into a nearby shop selling wooden artifacts where she haggles for 20 minutes over the price of a decorative wooden box and eventually crunches a deal.

The next day we see the same box for half the price in the Complex d'Artisanat, a fixed price shop selling a vast array of handmade artifacts. Buyer beware.

Morocco gained its independence from France in 1955 but the Gallic influence remains strong.

Schoolchildren are taught both French and English, street names are often in French, French expatriates predominate in business, particularly in the hospitality industry and much of the cuisine is a fusion of Gallic and Berber flavours.

After two days, we leave the thick walls of the Red City and venture out into the Agafay Desert to a tented camp at Scarabeau, about an hour's drive from Marrakesh.

The cool heights of the Atlas Mountains shimmer in the distance but in the Agafay, it's hot.

There is some debate over the temperature. Some of the staff say 46, others 48. One says the temperature in his parked car reaches 85 degrees.

What is agreed is that it's hot. Damned hot. In the late afternoon we are offered the choice of a camel ride or a dune buggy safari.

Having once fallen from a galloping camel and broken five ribs, I opt for the dune buggy and we follow a guide through a maze of tracks that leads through sparsely populated villages that suddenly appear in the stony wastes of the Agafay.

In the evening a slight breeze stirs the tents and after dinner we take our wine glasses, sit back, gaze at the stars and submerge ourselves in the darkness and absolute stillness of the desert.

Back in Marrakesh we check into La Maison Arabe, a riad once favoured by Winston Churchill who was a regular visitor to the city.

At breakfast, a woman sits cross-legged in the corner of the courtyard cooking rghaif, a Moroccan flatbread, on a cast iron hot plate.

We cover it with butter and honey and roll our eyes in appreciation.

Lamb features large in Moroccan cuisine and one of the best and cheapest meals we have is at Chez Lamone, a streetside cafe with laminex tables and wobbly chairs.

The lamb is slow cooked in a tangia or clay pot, not to be confused with a tangine, and served with lentils, chilli sauce and flatbread.

It is, undeniably, the most flavoursome lamb I've ever eaten.

At the other end of the culinary scale there are scores of expensive restaurants.

We dine at two, Dar Rhizlane and La Villa des Orangers, both serving French-Moroccan food in opulent garden settings and of which the latter delivers the better culinary experience.

We find it difficult, but not impossible, to get a drink in the Medina but in the New City, the after-dark bar scene at places such as Le Comptoir, Le Palace and the Churchill Bar is vibrant.

On our last day we visit Jardin Majorelle, a sprawling garden complex of exotic succulents, shrubs and palms gifted by Yves Saint Laurent to Marrakesh to preserve the vision of its creator, the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and to ensure it was kept open to the public.

In a shaded grove there is a plaque that reads simply: "In Memoriam Yves Saint Laurent. Couturier Francais. Oran 01-08-1936. Paris 01-06-2008."

Adjacent to the gardens is what is destined to be one of the city's most popular attractions.

It is the newly opened Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakesh, a $23 million, 4000-square-metre museum housing exhibits from Fondation Pierre Berge in Paris, including 5000 of Saint Laurent's haute couture garments and 15,000 accessories and sketches.

Describing his first visit, Saint Laurent said: "A visit to Marrakesh was a great shock to me. This city taught me colour."

It's a lesson still taught and one that the visitor cannot but help to absorb.

See also: Inside the Yves Sain Laurent museum

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN MARRAKESH

BEN YOUSSEF MADRASA

Built almost 500 years ago and once the largest Islamic school in North Africa, it is now an outstanding example of Hispano-Moresque architecture

THE PHOTOGRAPHY MUSEUM OF MARRAKESH

Enjoy the collection of more than 8000 postcards, glass plates, maps, newspapers and documentaries dating from the mid-19th century, followed by lunch on its rooftop terrace

BAHIA PALACE

A vast 160-room example of Eastern architecture complete with harem.

VISIT A HAMMAM

There are many, ranging from local and mid-range to the seriously expensive. It's the cleanest you'll ever be.

THE ROOFTOP BAR OF THE PEARL HOTEL IN THE NEW CITY

This is an ideal spot for sunset drinks and watching peak-hour Marrakesh-style.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/marrakesh

marrakesh.travel/en

bypriorarrangement.com/

FLY

Qatar Airways, Etihad, KLM and British Airways fly to Marrakesh's Menara Airport

STAY

Les Jardins de la Medina. See lesjardinsdelamedina.com/En

Hotel La Maison Arabe. See lamaisonarabe.com/

Mike O'Connor was a guest of Moroccan travel specialist By Prior Arrangement. See bypriorarrangement.com/

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