Travel: With Atlas at its shoulder

Hippies, hashish and hassle, the stereotyped image of Marrakesh lives on. But, as Francine Stock discovered, it can make for an ideal, if unusual, family holiday, while Antonia Donajgrodzka found a tranquil retreat in Yves Saint Laurent's garden

Marrakesh. If you missed out on the hippie trail, it's the place you might once have found your true self in. Ever since my teens, when friends' brothers returned, stubbled and shaggy, I'd always wanted to go. Later, I thought it might be all over, that the moment was past - for me, at least. Then there was the question of whether the children would enjoy it; but now that they're an adventurous seven and four, we reckoned they'd be intrigued. And we promised them snake-charmers. We flew, in the evening, via Casablanca, arriving at Marrakesh at a grouchy 10.30pm. But once out of the terminal, everyone fell quiet, heads tilted back in contemplation of the big African sky.

The hotel, Les Deux Tours, was a few miles outside the city, on the outskirts of a ritzy suburb, La Palmeraie, down an unmade road. Outside the gate, which is framed by two massive towers, lies a tiny hamlet with mud-walled houses and a small flock of sheep. Inside, great candle lanterns lit our way down the drive and into a central area from which ran alleyways and paths and doors of a series of six separate villas. Each sits within its own walled garden and has a small pool.

The rooms lie in groups about these villas. Our suite was on the first floor and ran around two sides of a courtyard. The main bedroom was some 25ft long; on one side it gave on to a veranda, with an open fire at the far end. In the corner was a domed bathroom, whose vaulted brick ceiling stretched 20 feet towards the stars. The walls were a milky-cocoa red, inset with bright mosaic, with blue and green herringbone tiles on the floor. The girls' room, which connected via the veranda, had its own terrace.

By comparison with the low dwellings out on the road, the architecture of Les Deux Tours is like Xanadu. You have the impression of crumbling splendour; the joke is that the whole construction is less than a decade old, designed by Charles Boccara - the Sir Norman Foster of Morocco. Great bulkheads of terraces loom over outsized palms and giant shrubs with red-and-yellow trumpet flowers. Meals were served either on your own terrace or, at night, by an open fire in a small, informal dining- room. Cats prowled through the corridors and gardens and slept in the clefts of fig trees. It was the antithesis of an international, functional hotel and we adored it.

The city centre was a 20-minute drive away. The souk is unexpectedly vast. The bright light filters only in fine slices into the gloom from the louvred roof. The first day we took a guide, an act which represented a mighty collapse of principle, but Shafiq was a relaxed companion and source of fascinating detail as he accompanied, rather than led, us round the various areas of this canopied city-within-a-city. We saw the blacksmiths and shoemakers, the tailors and silk-spinners, the purveyors of spices, bark and twig medicines and - a big hit - the bentwood cages of tiny, khaki tortoises, crawling in layers upon each other, interleaved with bright lettuce leaves.

Rebecca, our elder daughter, suddenly acquired a young lime-green chameleon which had been placed on the sleeve of her black shirt. Within seconds he was sympathetically mottled. It was love, of course. Cruel parents to say it could never work.

On the great square, the Djemaa al Fna, we found those snake-charmers, with their languorous charges. The Man Who Talks to Birds sat on the edge of a large rug with various props - an old packet of soap powder, an electrical fitting, small dishes of bright powders - spread out across it. The birds, large doves, chatted quietly with one another on the opposite edge, casually turning their backs on the great sage. We watched for several minutes, along with a dozen or so locals, then we dutifully dropped our contribution in his plastic cup. A higher dialogue, obviously.

There was hassle, but on the whole the children were fascinated rather than intimidated. Clutches of small kids would dash up to kiss and hug them and Rebecca felt sometimes that this was simply ridicule. But then tourists are ridiculous.

Once you move away from the centre, you can see how Marrakesh lies against the backdrop of the snow-covered Atlas mountains. An hour-and-a-half's drive into the Berber foothills, we stayed a couple of nights at Ouirgane, at La Roseraie. The scenery was impressive but, as the girls said, the hotel was "posher but not nearly as beautiful - or as nice" as Les Deux Tours. La Roseraie is your international country club-type establishment, but rather run-down and with mediocre food. However, it has excellent stables, enjoyed by the children who had a couple of hours of well-supervised schooling in a sand ring, and Robert who went out for a high-octane ride in the mountains, and returned, pale but triumphant.

However, La Roseraie simply couldn't compete with the beauty and eccentricity of Les Deux Tours so - despite the expense - we took ourselves back down to Marrakesh. "Welcome home," said the French manager, with an expression that was both ironic and genuine. We explored other corners of Marrakesh, including a drink at Yacout, a beautiful fantasy of a restaurant on several levels around a candle-lit pool.

But often it was enough just to relax on a terrace or balcony at the hotel and listen to the liquid song of the birds in the vines, while the girls played in the gardens, running through the low keyhole doors, watching the fish in the pool, finding their surroundings had temporarily outstripped their imagination. I shall go back.

Francine Stock's novel, 'A Foreign Country', is reviewed on page 15

Fact File

FRANCINE STOCK booked seven nights at Les Deux Tours, Palmeraie de Marrakesh, flying Royal Air Maroc from Heathrow, from pounds 670 per person, including bed and breakfast accommodation, through Best of Morocco (01380 828533 or e-mail morocco@ morocco-travel.com). You are advised to book at least a week in advance. For reservations at Yacout, call 00 212 4 382929.

For independent travellers, GB Airways (bookable through British Airways, 0345 222111) has two non-stop flights a week from Gatwick to Marrakesh. Royal Air Maroc (0171-439 4361) flies daily from Heathrow to Casablanca, with connections to Marrakesh; fares start at around pounds 250 return.

The Morocco National Tourist Office is at 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE (0171-437 0073)

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