Succumb to the souk

With its great weather, glitz factor and truly exotic appeal, Marrakesh has got the lot, discovers Mary Wilson
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The Independent Online

You can understand why the likes of Sting, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Blur and Vanessa Branson all love Morocco. Princess Alexandra and her late husband, Sir Angus Ogilvy, also used to have a home there, to which they escaped for much-needed peace and quiet. The country's appeal is in the colours, the sounds, and the extraordinary mixture of hustle and bustle on the narrow streets, contrasting with the calm of converted riads - houses around a central courtyard.

You can understand why the likes of Sting, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Blur and Vanessa Branson all love Morocco. Princess Alexandra and her late husband, Sir Angus Ogilvy, also used to have a home there, to which they escaped for much-needed peace and quiet. The country's appeal is in the colours, the sounds, and the extraordinary mixture of hustle and bustle on the narrow streets, contrasting with the calm of converted riads - houses around a central courtyard.

Marrakesh is the pearl of the country, with its soft red hues, set against the backdrop of the Atlas mountains. The newer part of the city blends in with the Medina, the old town, in which small hotels, such as Riad Farnatchi, owned by former UK hotelier Jonathan Wix, provide an oasis of tranquillity from the frenetic activity outside. As you wander down the many alleyways, it is a miracle that the donkeys, carts, motorbikes and bicycles manage not to collide as they vie for right of way.

Just seconds away are the markets, or souks, with their sparkling array of goods, from Moroccan slippers to cheap Nike trainers, fabulous brass and metal ware to carpets, silk kaftans to traditional jellabas. You can eat very cheaply in the main square, Jema el Fna, or try one of the smarter restaurants, but wherever you go, you have to bear with the slightly erratic plumbing and electricity and a need for patience in all matters.

Apart from shopping, there is much to do around Marrakesh: the countryside to explore, horse-riding, camel-riding, balloon trips, visits to converted palaces or just soaking up the sun. The weather is usually good, Morocco is in the same time zone as the UK and only three-and-a-half hours away - which is why more British people are buying second homes there.

"I was swimming in my outdoor pool up till 21 December," says one expat, who has lived in Marrakesh for the past 18 months. "I like it here because of the climate, and the people are incredibly friendly." He bought a beautiful but derelict old house, which belonged to an olive estate owner, and has converted it into an elegant home, with pool, tennis court and gorgeous gardens, all of which had to be re-planted because the water had been turned off when the owner died four years ago.

His son-in-law, Michael Dupree, a developer for the past 35 years in London, also fell in love with Marrakesh and has bought 12 acres of land on the same olive estate, which is 20 minutes from the city, 15 minutes from the airport. He has obtained planning permission to build seven large villas, all with one-and-a-half acres of land, which he is hoping to sell off-plan.

"I expect that the purchasers will be a mix of French, Italians, English, German and maybe the odd Russian or two," says Dupree. "The climate is so good for one's health, because it is a dry, rather than a humid, heat. The cost of living is a little lower than in the UK, labour and local materials are cheap and the craftsmanship is excellent.

"It is such a fascinating country and so easy to get to - much less taxing than flying to the Caribbean, for instance. There is a big demand for quality rental properties and if you wanted to cover the running costs of your villa, then it is possible to let it out for several months a year."

The large four-bedroom, four-bathroom villas at Marrak Villas, each cost from €850,000 (about £590,000) and each has its own pool and use of two communal tennis courts. There are three excellent golf courses nearby; and while you sip a freshly brewed mint tea on your terrace, you can watch the sun setting on the Atlas mountains - except in the summer when the heat haze obscures them.

There are many new homes, hotels and commercial units being built in Marrakesh, as King Mohammed VI, who has reigned since 1999 and who is far more progressive than his father, has instigated a massive construction programme - including the restoration of old buildings and the building of new roads.

The buying process is the same as in France, with a notaire acting for both parties. Total buying costs are about 8 per cent of the purchase price, and if you hold the property for more than seven years, there will be no capital gains tax.

Hamptons International is about to launch onto the market 41 two- to three-bedroom new riads on the outskirts of the city, in the grounds of a five-star hotel which will be opening in 2007. The development will be built in traditional Moorish and opulent style, reflecting Moroccan culture; purchasers will have the option of using all the services offered by the hotel. Prices will range from about £350,000 to £800,000.

Jonathan Salsbury, head of international new developments for Hamptons, says: "We recognise that Marrakesh is fast becoming an alternative holiday and second-home destination for high-worth individuals. Huge efforts are being made around the city to attract international investment."

British Airways has return flights from Heathrow and Gatwick to Marrakesh from £220. Atlas Blue, a budget airline operated by Royal Air Maroc, flies from Gatwick from £150.

Marrak Villas: 01666 861049, www.marrakvillas.com

Hamptons International: 020-7589 8844

Riad Farnatchi: 00 212 44 38 49 10, www.riadfarnatchi.com

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