Surrender to the seductive sights and sounds of Marrakech

I'm lost in the labyrinthine souks of Marrakech and I've just had a revelation. My life needs a makeover. Out with Scandinavian restraint, in with North African chic. 

It's all here: ochre and indigo carpets in tribal zigzags, beaded leather cushions, brass lightshades cut like lacework, pretty leather slippers from the tanners' souk, stripey cotton blankets, glazed pots and plates. Interspersed with mountains of dates, olives, argan oil and a thousand more life-changing treasures. The souks of Marrakech are a bedazzling, baffling voyage for the senses: weird, chaotic and compelling, just like the city itself.  

Ringed by rust-coloured ramparts, with the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains in the background, Marrakech has always been a place of mystery and magic, where wild tribesmen coughed up from mountain villages once traded with exotic cameleers whose blue robes were still splattered with Saharan sand – a teasing place for the Western mind.

For a certain generation, heading for Marrakech was slightly risqué. Mick and the Stones came, awaiting trial after two of them were busted for drugs, as did Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Marrakech was and is a flirt with the devil, even with just a long weekend to spare. Hop on a plane in Paris and three hours later you're here.  

Among those who fell under its spell was Yves St Laurent, who found a home in the Jardin Majorelle, a botanical oasis now open to the public. Enter through the gate, and a bubbling pond lined with blue and green tiles establishes the contrast with the hectic world outside. 

Deeper in, a small pavilion exists only to frame cacti and palms, mirrored in a pond. Spears of bougainvillea add splashy colour, but for the most part the garden relies for contrast on the varying geometry of its palms, aloes, euphorbias, bamboos and agaves. 

The colours are electrifying: ochrered paths, yellow and green terracotta pots and a rich, silky royal blue that climaxes at the double-storey art deco villa with a pond at its feet. There, bulbuls gather at dusk and sing in a chorus that reduces even the Marrakech traffic to a polite whisper.

Gardens are one of the unexpected delights of Marrakech, rare but intensely satisfying. Buried deep in the city's medina, Le Jardin Secret is a modern marvel. 

Rescued from a site that had been taken over by squatters, half the recently restored garden is a collection of dry climate flora from continental Africa, the island of Madagascar, Asia – and even a couple of boabs from Australia. The second chamber is a symphony of waving grasses surrounding olive trees, serene and seductive.


In complete contrast, Jemaa el-Fnaa is the great square at the heart of Marrakech. Throughout history, this has been a trading city for Berbers, Ghana. Along with gold, salt and slaves, they brought their ideas, culture and music, and all converged in Jemaa el-Fnaa, as they do still. 

The crowds begin to gather at about sundown and the noise in the square becomes ever more eruptive. It's a cacophony of drums, amplified gimbri (the Moroccan lute), violins and the frantic clashing of the double cymbals of the Gnaoua musicians, the redrobed musical wizards of Morocco. Whether you have your fortune told, listen to the storytellers or have your hands painted with henna, Jemaa el-Fnaa is a full-frontal sensory assault, with special attention to the ears. 

More than any other city in this country, Marrakech is the home of the riad – a traditional townhouse two or three storeys high, built around a central courtyard left open to the sky. Riads are uniquely Moroccan, a confluence of Arabic and Berber styles, and staying in a riad is one of the greatest pleasures the city offers. 

Inside could be a palace of wonders; the courtyard tiled in a geometric pattern with a marble fountain as its centrepiece, surrounded by arcaded walkways with exquisite plasterwork. There might even be a harem if you were rich and powerful enough – not that you'd know if from the outside. Those typically blank, rendered, windowless walls give nothing away. 

Riads were once shunned by the locals. Who wanted to live in a house with primitive plumbing on a narrow alley when you could have a modern apartment on a boulevard with cafes and smart shops in the new city? But a few Europeans headed in the opposite direction, snapping up dusty riads for a song and installing proper bathrooms, not to mention rooftop cafes and spas that take their cues from the traditional hammam, the communal bathhouse. These days, a stay in a riad is essential, injecting romance and poetry into the Marrakech experience. 

A riad is where I end my day, sipping mint tea. The jangly, lollipop colours, the cool tile-work under my feet, the splash of the fountain, the glazed verdigris pots with agaves … I want it all, although I've drawn the line at installing my own private hammam.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale April 7.