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).

Suggested Topics
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

    £70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

    Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

    £24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

    Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all