Bazaar tales

Tracey MacLeod finds there's no better place to get a flavour of North Africa than in Marrakech's exotic - and chaotic - souks

Trembling with suppressed excitement, my mother is taking in the view - gleaming marble, Moorish frescoes and terracotta tagines, each containing a different exotic unguent. "This is amazing!" she breathes. If this is how she responds to the hotel bathroom, what's she going to say when she sees the rest of Marrakech?

Trembling with suppressed excitement, my mother is taking in the view - gleaming marble, Moorish frescoes and terracotta tagines, each containing a different exotic unguent. "This is amazing!" she breathes. If this is how she responds to the hotel bathroom, what's she going to say when she sees the rest of Marrakech?

We'd been planning our little holiday for some time. Quite how long I only realised when my mother revealed that it had been 10 years since she'd last stayed in a hotel (we have had holidays, honest, just not in hotels...). She has always wanted to go back to her birthplace, India, but health and mobility problems have ruled that out - too far, too hot, too scary. Marrakech seemed a suitable alternative; accessible in four hours, and exotic enough to give her a taste of the mysterious East without being overwhelming.

I flirted with, then dismissed, the idea of staying in one of the stylish new riads that are springing up in the old city - private houses that have been converted into luxurious lodgings for visitors. After all, if you're only going to stay in one hotel every decade, you might as well make it a fabulous, expensive, famous one. La Mamounia is a sumptuous, old-fashioned anachronism. In the era of the hip hotel, it's a glitzy, elegant Rolls-Royce, ticking along impeccably, its 1920s heritage all buffed and gleaming.

Our rooms, each the size of a small bungalow, had interconnecting balconies, with what must be one of the world's greatest views. In the foreground, the mandatory azure swimming-pool, surrounded by formal gardens stretching into the distance. In the background, the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains. "I'd be happy just to sit on my balcony for four days," sighed my mother.

I wasn't having that. Despite the fact that the journey to breakfast across La Mamounia's hushed marble halls was further than Mum normally walks in a day, I was keen for the two of us to hit the souk, a five-minute walk away (but mysteriously, as we were soon to discover, a 10-minute cab ride). The labyrinth of interconnecting markets which uncurls from the main square is, of course, one of the city's must-sees, but as I learned on an earlier visit to Marrakech, if you don't stick to certain rules, you run into trouble. On no account should you let one of the self-appointed guides who swarm around the various entrances to the souk attach himself to you - you'll be propelled into various stalls owned by his "brother" or "cousin" until you are handing over great wodges of cash just to get rid of him. Don't stop and browse unless you're sure of what you're looking for and roughly how much you want to pay for it. And don't pay the first price the merchant asks for - haggling is expected.

This is all very well for hardened travellers, but not so easy when one of your party is a friendly and conciliatory elderly lady who hates to make a scene, and also suffers from mild agoraphobia (literally: fear of the marketplace). "Don't stop, don't look at anyone, smile politely and keep walking," I hissed, steering her away from the jewellery stand where she was sighing: "Oh aren't they gorgeous" over a pair of 25p earrings.

With the gypsy/boho look in fashion at the moment, the souk is full of temptation - wide leather belts , chunky necklaces, embroidered kaftans and scarves - all at a fraction of British prices. The problem is, with miles of narrow alleyways lined with stalls selling fairly similar products, how do you stop and browse without being sucked into the vortex of salesmanship?

A pair of bejewelled patchwork cushion covers caught my mother's eye. "I want them," she hissed to me. "How much are they?" I asked. The merchant quoted a price. I translated for Mum. "Twenty pounds!" she exploded. "Not on your nellie," and she turned on her heel, as smartly as someone using a walking stick in a confined space can do. Unbeknownst to her, she had executed the most persuasive bargaining gambit possible, and I successfully argued the price down to half that amount. It could have been even less if she hadn't interrupted negotiations with a stage-whispered: "I don't mind paying up to ten pounds, dear!"

Our confidence up, we threw ourselves into the fray. Most of the stallholders speak basic English, but my equally basic French was helpful, and my mother added a pleasing note of confusion by throwing in the odd word of Spanish, Italian or Tamil. "Mi bambino," she would say proudly, pointing at me. I've always believed my mother was rather exotic-looking; certainly she was by Ipswich standards, a stately, 5ft 10in Anglo-Indian who always wore dark glasses and dressed in black. Nevertheless, in Marrakech she might as well have been A Passage to India's Adela Quested. We were immediately identified as English.

The souk is an exhausting environment, not just because of the salesmanship - if you prevaricate over a kaftan it will be jammed down over your head while you wriggle indignantly - or the pressures of haggling, but the absence of anywhere to sit down for a rest. We developed a brilliant ploy. When my mother started to look wobbly, I would zone in on a stall with a comfy chair in it. While I perused his goods, the salesman would politely offer my mother a seat. When she was refreshed, we moved on. Once, when she was really beat, we headed for a carpet shop, and she had a proper rest. There's a salesman near the spice market who is probably still re-folding his rugs.

We emerged from the souk with several bags full of bargains (or ethnic tat, depending on your perspective), and settled at a table on the terrace of a French-style café at the edge of the Djemâa el-Fna to watch the passing show. Marrakech's market square is basically a wide, open space, filled with people trying to make money out of you. There are henna artists and drum troupes, snake handlers and monkey-keepers, men selling dried fruit and nuts and fresh orange juice, each vociferously laying claim to your custom.

From a seat, the square becomes far less stressful. As we sipped our mint tea, old men limped by leading even older donkeys, their carts piled high with everything from shoes to satellite dishes. One donkey struggled by with a single gravestone strapped to its back. We saw Berber women with tattooed faces, old men with impossibly pointy hoods and slippers, and farmers with live turkeys slung round their chests like bandoleers.

"So, does it remind you of India?" I asked her. "No, not at all," she replied. "The colours are different, the heat is different, the people look different and they're dressed differently. And there are no cows." Oh well, bang goes that little fantasy. One thing that did remind her of her India, though, was the prevalence of barouches - horse-drawn carriages that are used by local people as well as by tourists. "We called them gharris - my mother used to take me shopping in one. I hated it!" she remembered. For some reason, I instantly made it my mission to get her into one before we left.

The next afternoon, after furtive consultations with La Mamounia's staff, the hotel's gleaming carriage was put at our disposal, its horses taller and more magnificent than the dusty municipal nags. Now this is the way to see Marrakech, particularly when you don't get around so well on foot. We trotted through the narrow alleys of the kasbah as bikes and mopeds streamed around us, glimpsing the reality of everyday life for the medina's residents. Mostly we were ignored, but occasionally we'd meet a barouche coming in the opposite direction, and there'd be an impasse, and lots of shouting, while my mother shrank down in embarrassment. A party of Japanese tourists passed us in four carriages, the women with faces wrapped in scarves like Michael Jackson as though they feared contamination. When we arrived back at the hotel, after an enervating canter down the dual carriageway, my mother's face was positively aglow.

The next morning was hot enough for sunbathing, and I spent a couple of hours by the pool. Before I went, Mum warned me to put some sun cream on, but I hadn't brought any. "Go buy some!" she said. "I'm a big girl," I snapped back. In the afternoon, I returned to the souk on foot. Cut to dinner that evening - a lavish banquet laid on for us in La Mamounia's traditional Moroccan restaurant - and I'm limping on blistered feet, my face and chest a livid shade of puce. My head is thumping, my stomach churning. Not the best state in which to be faced with a gastronomic extravaganza which begins with twelve Moroccan salads, followed by pastilla (a layered pie made with pigeon, almonds and sugar), tagine of chicken and preserved * * lemon, whole roasted shoulder of baby lamb, and sweet pastilla to finish.

Somehow we made it through the meal, though the arrival of a belly-dancer almost finished us off. The earth seemed to stop revolving as this beautiful maiden, her tassels shaking inches from our noses, danced for us. Admirably, my mother's face remained frozen in the same rictus of polite encouragement that I remembered from so many of my school plays.

We returned to the Djemâa el-Fna on the last night for a very different kind of dinner - a buffet affair in a cheap backpackers' hotel featuring tagines of bony lamb and chicken served at worryingly tepid temperatures. Perhaps it was a mistake to rely on that eight-year-old Rough Guide.

If the main square is confusing by day, it's giddying by night. The roads around it seethe with people and vehicles, smoke hangs above the outdoor food stands, and there's a frenzy of drumming and wailing pipes. A group of beggars targeted us on a side-street, encouraged by the fact that I gave one of them a coin. Hemmed in by her pals, we made our painfully slow progress down the street, while they plucked at our clothes. "Now that did remind me of India," Mum gasped, when we finally emerged from the chaos.

We spent another very pleasant couple of hours in a café, just sitting and looking, and I started to appreciate the pleasures of this slowed-down, miniaturised form of travel. If I had been in Marrakech on my own, the four days would have been packed with activity, with visits to hammams and gardens and trips to mountain villages. With my mother, an hour-long walk through the souk became a trek, an expedition, a triumph. I started to watch and listen, instead of exploring and doing. And we talked, more than we'd done for years.

I realised, when we were packing to go home, that I had brought four books, three magazines and an iPod for a four-day holiday, while my mother had brought nothing, content to sit on the balcony, soaking up the view of a lifetime, and listening to the birds. (She finally caved in and borrowed a book on the way home, which explains why a seventy-something lady came to be reading The Bitch Goddess Notebook on a recent BA flight).

While I discovered the joys of slowing down, my mother found that she was starting to speed up. "I've done so much more than I ever thought I would," was her jubilant assessment of her performance at the end of the trip. In fact each of us notched up a small triumph. I managed to get her into a horse-drawn carriage for the first time in 60 years. And she was able to say: "I told you that you should have worn sun cream."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Tracey MacLeod flew to Marrakech as a guest of Aspire (0845 345 9096; www.aspireholidays.co.uk).

GETTING THERE

Fly to Marrakech from Heathrow or Gatwick on GB Airways (through British Airways: 0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) or from Heathrow on Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com); some stop en route. Atlas Blue ( www.atlas-blue.com) flies from Gatwick.

STAYING THERE

La Mamounia (00 212 44 38 86 00; www.mamounia.com) is on Avenue Bab Jdid. Doubles from 2,300 dirhams (£142); breakfast 250 dirhams (£16) per person.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Moroccan National Tourist Office: 020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.com. The seventh edition of the Rough Guide to Morocco was published in October, price £13.99.

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