Dazzled by Morocco's desert city

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City Slicker: Marrakech - The most exotic place you can reach within three hours from Britain? Amar Grover offers tips for new and returning visitors

Why visit?

There's a monkey tugging at my shoulder and someone's trying to drape a snake around my neck.

I'm beseeched by a fortune-teller and hailed by a juice stall vendor. Clouds of swirling brazier smoke envelop me amid throbbing drums and chiming cymbals. Al fresco chefs beckon cheerily from their portable kitchens and tables heaving with food and goats' heads. Perhaps I should simply retire to my riad's tranquil courtyard and lounge like a pasha in a candlelit alcove surrounded by burgundy cushions and the rich scent of citrus trees.

The desert city of Marrakech has been wowing travellers for decades – and its allure remains undimmed. It is the ideal bridge for those hoping for a touch of luxury and those who demand the earthier, more exotic Morocco which takes over even before you've breached the city walls.

This year's fourth Marrakech Biennale starts on 29 February. It comprises five days of performances, talks, debates and film screenings (the latter co-curated by the BBC's Alan Yentob). The three-month long "Higher Atlas" visual arts exhibition will be based in the ruined El Badi Palace with satellite events around the city, and there's a week-long installation involving nine African video artists called Medin-O-RAMA.

Don't miss...

Djemaa el Fna

The name may mean "Place of the Dead" but this remains the heart and soul of the city. Bounded by souks, cafés and juice stalls, it plays host to entertainers, eateries, storytellers and acrobats. The square's Café Restaurant Argana was the location, last April, of a bomb blast that killed 16 people. The café is due to reopen within the next few months. An enhanced security presence here is set to remain for the forseeable future.

The Medina and Souks

The old quarter's maze of lanes and alleys is home to a compelling mix of boutiques, shops, workshops and bazaars. Shopping and wandering go hand in hand.

Bahia Palace

A 19th-century palace built by a former slave-turned-prime minister of the ruling sultan. A series of beautiful courtyards and halls is embellished with every trick and nuance in the Moroccan style-book.

Maison Tiskiwin

Sometimes known as the Bert Flint Museum. Flint was a Dutch traveller and collector who assembled an impressive array of artefacts and collectables originating not just from Morocco but also the Saharan regions to its south.

Majorelle Garden (jardinmajorelle. com)

This 12-acre botanical garden with surreal cobalt-blue walls was created in the 1920s by French painter Jacques Majorelle. However it was Yves Saint Laurent – who owned it for nearly three decades until his death in 2008 – who lent it prominence.

What's new

Villa Makassar

A newly-restored riad with a difference. Its proprietor has turned the 10-room property into a treasure trove of eclectic Art Deco style. Antiques, lighting and furniture are fused to a distinctly Moroccan building.

Details: villamakassar.com

Azar

A funky-looking bar and restaurant offering Mediterranean cuisine, "oriental dancers" and live music at weekends. Neo-Moorish interiors, pod chairs and nightclub lighting lend a touch of Marrakech-meets-Marseille.

Details: azar-marrakech.com

Taj Palace Marrakech

Standing on the edge of the city in La Palmeraie, a vast swathe of date palms, this soon-to-open property embraces the trend for imposing, statement-making hotels which are palatial in size and ambition, with ornamentation and styling to match.

Details: tajhotels.com

Lalla (www.lalla.fr)

This small boutique specialising in Moroccan bags and fabrics, first surfaced in Britain at London's Portobello Road market. Now it's returned to its inspiration with an opening in Gueliz, the city's colonial-era "new" quarter and home to the glossiest shops, cafés and restaurants.

Details: lalla.fr

Djellabar

A newly opened lounge-bar, restaurant and club in the Hivernage quarter alongside Gueliz. Its catch-phrase is "Marock '* Roll". Owner Claude Challe aims to combine the spirit of an "oriental bodega" with the lure of Morocco's beautiful people and cultural soirées.

Details: djellabar.com

Travel Essentials

How to get there

Amar Grover flew to Marrakech from Heathrow with BMI (0844 848 4888; flybmi.com). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Luton and Stansted, while BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) compete from Gatwick.

Staying there

Villa des Orangers (00 212 5 2438 5104, relais.com/orangers), part of the Relais & Chateaux portfolio, is a five-room, 22-suite property situated in the Medina near the Koutoubia Minaret. Doubles from Dh3,926 (£298), including airport transfers, breakfast and light lunch.

Insider Secret

Rosena Charmoy of concierge travel service Boutique Souk (boutiquesouk.com)

"We have had a lot of new restaurants, bars and clubs opening in the past year in Marrakech. While the old city retains its charm through staying the same, the new city is bustling with great nightlife."

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