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
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

    £65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

    Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

    £20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

    £8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

    £14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable