48 Hours In: Marrakech

This corner of Morocco is the perfect mixture of ancient and modern. And don't worry about getting lost here, it's all part of the fun, says Harriet O'Brien.


WHY GO NOW?

Spring is the best time to visit this wonderfully exotic and hip-yet-ancient city. Visitor numbers thin after Easter, and you'll enjoy optimum conditions, with balmy days and astonishingly clear skies.

TOUCH DOWN

Fly non-stop to Marrakech from Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton on GB Airways (on behalf of British Airways), easyJet, Ryanair, and Royal Air Maroc and its no-frills subsidiary Atlas Blue. Fares of £114 return are available for travel in May via www.opodo.co.uk.

Marrakech's Menara Airport is handily located about 6km south-west of the city centre. Bus no 11 runs erratically to the old town's hub, Djemaa el Fna. The ride costs Dh20 (£1.25) and takes about 20 minutes.

A taxi is more reliable. Marrakech has two sorts: a shared "grand taxi", usually a Mercedes, takes up to six passengers and is not allowed far within the walls of the old town, or medina; a "petit taxi"(yellowy-beige coloured and often a Peugeot 206) takes three passengers and can travel further within the medina. From the airport the 15-minute journey to the centre of the medina by grand taxi costs around Dh100 (£6.25) and by petit taxi around Dh70 (£4.40) - though drivers often quote much higher fares to new arrivals.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Dating back about a thousand years, and inevitably much rebuilt over the ages, the red walls of the medina form a 10km circumference around a map-defying labyrinth of medieval-like alleyways. In the south is the kasbah, or royal quarter, with the King's palace (1) and two former royal residences, Palais El Badi (2) and Palais de la Bahia (3). West and slightly to the north of these is the city's most striking landmark, the minaret of the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque (4); like all mosques in Marrakech, non-Islamic visitors are not allowed in. It towers over Place Djemaa el Fna, the vast triangle that is the city's great meeting point, just to the east. The religious heart of the medina is around Ali Ben Youssef Mosque (5) further north, with more dense alleyways beyond.

To the west, outside the medina walls are the newer areas of Gueliz and Hivernage, their leafy avenues built during the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956. Somewhat perversely, Marrakech's tourist office (6) is in this part of town, far from the most popular visitor sites: set on Place Abdel Moumen Ben Ali on Avenue Mohammed V (00 212 44 43 62 39; www.tourism-in-morocco.com), open 8.30am-noon and 2.30-5pm Monday-Friday.

CHECK IN

Exquisite Riad Farnatchi (7) at 2 Derb Farnatchi, Qua'at Ben Ahid (00 212 24 38 49 10; www.riadfarnatchi.com) lies in the northern part of the medina and offers some of Marrakech's best service and decor. The nine suites cost from Dh3,900 (£237) including breakfast.

In the south of the medina, near the royal palace, Palais Calipau (8) at 14 Derb Ben Zina Kasbah (00 212 24 37 55 83; www.palais-calipau.com; doubles from €220/£157 including breakfast) opened in March last year. Comprising three old riads (townhouses) that have been revamped, it offers 12 bedrooms, small pool, hammam and ample roof terrace.

Leafy Gueliz, to the west of the medina, has plenty of hotels. For example, the Kenza (9) on Avenue Yacoub El Mansour (00 212 23 44 8330) is around €61 (£44) per night for a double, including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

Try the main souk, or market, area. The most colourful part of town is the web of bazaars stretching from the north side of Djemaa el Fna more or less to Ali Ben Youssef Mosque (5). Meander these narrow lanes lined with stalls selling pottery, woodcraft, spices and endless varieties of baboush, or slipper-like shoes, and you'll feel as if you've walked back in time. The densely packed alleyways bustle with donkey carts, traders with barrows, pedestrians - and motorised bicycles. Attempting to follow a map is pointless, just go with the flow.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Bougainvillea (10) on 33 Rue el Mouassine (00 212 24 44 11 11) is a brightly coloured courtyard café serving the likes of aubergine and mozzarella panini (Dh35/£2.20) and avocado milkshake (Dh25/£1.55), which is a surprisingly tasty Moroccan speciality.

WINDOW SHOPPING

If you haven't had the stamina to haggle while walking around the main souk area, head to the Centre Artisanale (11) on Rue de la Kasbah. In this complex you can buy rugs, jewellery, pottery, slippers and more at fixed prices (although asking for a small discount may prove fruitful).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

For a view of sublime craftsmanship and Moroccan architecture with an Andalucian twist, make for Ben Youssef Medersa. Now a museum, this Koranic school is attached to the great Ali Ben Youssef Mosque (5). It was built in the 16th century, complete with stunning stucco ceilings and carved wooden screens. The Musée de Marrakech (12) alongside is also well worth a look for the building itself, a grand 19th-century palace now housing exhibitions. Its cool café is a quiet haven for a refreshing pot of mint tea (Dh10/63p).

Both the Medersa and the museum are open 9am-7pm daily; a ticket to both costs Dh60 (£3.75).

AN APERITIF

Kozybar (13) at 47 Place des Ferblantiers is one of the few places within the medina that has a licence to serve alcohol. Make for the roof terrace for a sunset drink and watch the sky turn pink over the storks' nests and rooftops of the city. A Casablanca beer costs Dh60 (£3.75).

DINING IN STYLE

Head beyond the medina walls to Hivernage and the brand-new La Villa restaurant (14), just off Avenue President JF Kennedy (00 212 24 42 19 69; closed on Sundays and Monday lunchtime). In a gracious art-deco-style building with funky touches, French chef Didier Beckaert serves starters such as langoustine soup (Dh70/£4.40) and mains including rich pavé de boeuf à la Marocaine (Dh160/£10) which you can wash down with a glass of the surprisingly good local wine.

SUNDAY MORNING: A WALK IN THE PARK

To the north-west of the medina walls lies a real treat. Jardin Majorelle (15) was created as a private garden by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. After a period of neglect it was bought by Yves Saint Laurent who restored it as an urban oasis in the 1980s. Today you can wander through palms, tree ferns, bamboos and cacti; open 8am-5pm daily, admission Dh30 (£1.90).

SPIRITUAL INSIGHT

Within the Jardin Majorelle, the artist's cobalt-hued studio has been transformed into the small Musée d'Art Islamique (same opening hours as the garden; admission Dh15/95p). This beautifully lit series of four rooms contains wall hangings, richly textured fabrics and lithographs by Jacques Majorelle as well as 14th- and 15th-century Korans and illustrated books of prayers.

OUT TO LUNCH

Back in the southern part of the medina, Le Tanjia (16) at 14 Derb J'did - Hay Essalam (00 212 24 38 38 36) opened earlier this year. This is a laid-back chic place with exotic wooden furnishings and a great roof terrace. Dishes include tagine of lamb with prunes, and chicken with lemon and olives (both Dh130/£8.15).

WRITE A POSTCARD

In the courtyard of the old spice market, Café des Epices (17) at 75 Rahba Lakdima (00 212 24 38 17 70) allows you to order a freshly squeezed orange juice (DH10/65p) and sip it on the roof terrace where you can recline on cream sofas in the dappled shade of wicker umbrellas as you compose your thoughts.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

At dusk the Djemaa el Fnaa becomes like a medieval pageant, filled with snake-charmers, storytellers, dancers and medicine-men. Drums are beaten, pipes are played, and the west of the square sizzles with a host of barbecued-food stalls serving kebabs, sausages and aubergine salads to diners at long trestle tables. Expect to pay all of DH50 (£3.15) for a generous plate of barbecued chicken, a salad or two and a mineral water.

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