Travel '98: February Morocco

Once Ramadan is over, head into old Marrakesh for a steam bath and a cool walk through an Art-Deco garden owned by Yves Saint Laurent, says Harriet O'Brien

It was as if we were on the edge of unreality: protagonists in a weird dream sequence about self-exposure. Stark naked, we were led by the hand by two fearsome, vast women with enormous, pendulous breasts. They were clad only in voluminous grey knickers that flapped down around their knees. Barking out orders that we couldn't understand, they took us through increasingly clamorous, misty rooms full of nude women. There was much banging of buckets, laughing, voluble chatting, and the odd double- take as we approached - objects of mild curiosity.

We, five female British travellers, were in the women's section of one of Marrakesh's many public hammams, or steam bath houses. In an Islamic country where so much remains tantalisingly veiled off, a visit here seemed a good way of getting through the closed doors and joining something of a more private side of Moroccan life.

Of course, we had also come to get well and truly clean. And we were given the full works: the grey-knickered orderlies marched us into the hottest room and indicated that we should sit down beside three large buckets of water. Gingerly, we returned the grins of the other women and began soaping ourselves, only to be severely ticked off by the orderlies in a sharp stream of Arabic. Lack of language made the experience all the more surreal as they eased themselves down on to the floor beside us, walloped us over their ample thighs and started rubbing vigorously with cloths that felt like Brillo pads. Under such circumstances, you feel as helpless as an infant, and, childlike, you can hardly suppress the urge to snigger - for which you know you'll be scrubbed all the harder. Half an hour later, we emerged, squeaky clean and feeling newly evolved, into honking, tooting mid-afternoon Marrakesh outside.

Not all hammams are as welcoming to foreigners. Some, often those beside mosques, have religious overtones as part of a tradition of ritual ablutions. You would, I was told, be politely turned away there. There's a distinct difference, too, between male and female wash houses. Men, my informant said with a shrug, have fewer restrictions in the outside world and spend much time hanging out in coffee shops, so the hammam is not such a big deal. Women, on the other hand, gather at the bath house to socialise, and to feel liberated.

As with other Islamic cities, in Marrakesh there is perhaps the greatest sense of liberation at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting that finishes with the feast of Aid es Seghir - which takes place at the very end of January. For travellers, it is best to avoid both fast and feast and head for the city just after the festivities. February being a relatively chilly month even in southern Morocco, there will be fewer visitors than at sunnier, tourist-drenched times of the year.

The heart of old Marrakesh is a place where life is intriguingly half concealed: winding, walled alleyways punctuated by shop fronts. It is in the alleys, the maze of the souk and the Djemaa el Fna - the square in front of the vast market that each evening is transformed into a carnival of acrobats, musicians, storytellers and more - that you get the greatest sense of the laid-back lifestyle of Marrakesh. This is, most of all, a city of entertainment and atmosphere, more a place for meandering than visiting old, bold monuments.

Yet there are several must-see sights that bring both past and present into perspective. For a start, take a trip around the pink city walls. Clusters of shanty towns in the shadow of the old fortifications highlight some of the city's current problems of high unemployment. In contrast to such poverty are the lavish Saadian tombs nestling within the city walls beside the El Badi Palace. More staggeringly beautiful stucco work can be seen at the other end of town in the Ben Youssef Medersa, the old halls of residence for Islamic students that were established in the 14th century.

Fast forward into the 20th century and take a taxi to one of Marrakesh's many gardens. Best of the public gardens are the huge Jardin Agdal and the Jardin Menara, set against a magnificent backdrop of the High Atlas Mountains. For the price of an expensive cup of tea or coffee you can also wander around the gardens of the famously ritzy Hotel La Mamounia. The most appealing of all, however, is the little Jardin Majorelle, laid out in the 1920s by the French Art Deco painter Jean Majorelle and now owned by Yves Saint Laurent. You pay about pounds 1 to enter this fabulous place where great beds of shaped cacti have been planted beside fountains and cool pools of water lilies. Pots painted turquoise are offset by little walls coated in a striking royal blue. Turtle doves and bulbuls flitting among the palm trees add to the sublime sense of tranquillity here - so peaceful that Marrakesh outside seems to fade into a dreamlike world of unreality.

How to get there

British Airways (0345 222111) flies twice a week from Gatwick to Marrakesh. Morocco National Tourist Office: 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE (0171- 437 0073).

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