Marrakech: It ain't half hot, mum
When Victoria Summerley decided to take her octogenarian mother to Marrakech, her friends doubted her wisdom. But after snake-charmers, souks and shopping, she'd proved them wrong
Wednesday 23 November 2011
When I told my mother I was thinking of taking her to Marrakech, she was very excited. "Ooh, can we ride camels into the desert?" she asked. "Can we camp out under the stars? Can we go up into the Atlas mountains?" When I told my friends that I was thinking of taking my mother to Marrakech, some of them fretted. "But she's over 80," they said. "Do you think she'll cope?"
This irritated me. In Morocco, of course, you can be wrapped in five-star luxury one minute and bouncing along an unmade road the next. But there is also a sense, in today's youth-obsessed world, that exotic travel is off-limits to anyone over 40, or not on honeymoon. Anyway, we went.
We decided not to stay in Marrakech itself but about 25km outside the city in a hotel called Tigmi, in the village of Tagadert. Driving south from Marrakech, you leave the new developments of hotels and golf courses behind and head into countryside that looks as if it hasn't changed since ancient times. You see shepherds abiding in the fields and, in the distance, the occasional figure on a donkey makes its way across the hillside.
The road that was so rough that the taxi could have fallen into one of the potholes, never to be seen again. Surely we would find a building site full of rubble and scaffolding at the end? No, here was Tigmi, offering a cool green welcome after the dusty journey. Tigmi is converted from original village houses and has a seductive, rambling charm. It's full of nooks and corners, with staircases that lead to terraces furnished with cushioned divans and courtyards hung with bougainvillea and filled with birdsong.
Tigmi is a great place for an octogenarian, with friendly, helpful staff. Jean-Paul, the manager, wanders around chatting to the guests, accompanied by his little dog. It's a deceptively informal approach but watch him carefully and you'll see that he is ensuring that everyone is happy and everything is running smoothly. The food is excellent – fresh, simple salads and traditional tagines – accompanied by wonderful wine. It was so good that I couldn't really summon up much enthusiasm for trying any of the restaurants in town.
But Marrakech is magnetic. The first thing that hits you is the smell of roses as you come out of the airport. Roses, which are planted along many of the roadsides, seem to flower all year round in Marrakech. Then the city itself: a film set for one of those Agatha Christie movies with an A-list cast. This time of year is a terrific time to visit as the weather is bearable and the kaleidoscope of colour – the red of the city walls, the carpets in the souk, the endless rows of butter-soft leather babouches (slippers), the scarves, bags and pottery – shimmer beneath a crisp, blue sky like a cinematographer's dream.
The smartest hotel in Marrakech is La Mamounia. It's an attraction for tourists, too, because this is where Churchill liked to stay. It is sensational – as if Gianni Versace had been the set designer on Death on the Nile – but away from the leopard print and leather-padded cocktail bars and plush restaurants, the gardens offer a green respite from wall-to-wall sophistication. It's a wonderful place to have a cocktail.
It's this sort of contrast that makes Marrakech so vibrant. One minute you're relaxing in the tranquil gardens of a palace, the next you are haggling in the souk over the price of a scarf.
Ah yes, the souk. We cheated and hired a guide called Ahmed Ajni. Allegedly, the guides take you to their friends' stalls where one presumes they get a commission. I don't know whether this is true, but we wanted to buy stuff anyway (indeed, we both had a long shopping list). More importantly, my mother and I wouldn't have had the energy to get round the whole souk if we hadn't been with Ahmed. Cruising along casually in his wake was so much easier than fighting our way through by ourselves.
Souks are traditionally split up into sections: one for leather, one for silver, one for carpets and so on. You can see tanners at work and watch the metal-workers beat out their brass patterns with a kind of atonal syncopation.
The carpets are made in the outlying villages and despatched to the vendors, who serve you mint tea as they unroll rug after gorgeous rug in front of you. The Berber techniques that you see in Morocco involve knotting, weaving and embroidery, or sometimes even a mixture of all three.
I'd previously sat through a few of these mint tea routines in Tunisia, where the colours and designs are much more traditional – I've always found them a bit headache-inducing. At the Artisanat du Sud, owned by Hossni Ait Rammania and his brother Khalid, we were shown a wonderful selection of designs in the most gorgeous colours. I found myself falling in love with a monochrome Berber rug. Needless to say, it has now taken up residence in my living room.
My mother loves turquoise, so Ahmed led us to a shop like a cross between a jeweller's and an antique stall. While she tried to decide between various necklaces composed of chunks of the sky-blue mineral, I admired the ornate perfume bottles and inlaid boxes.
Ahmed, who seemed to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of, well, everything, and spoke faultless English, helped her choose. Indeed, he was far more patient than I was.
The souk lies behind the main square in Marrakech, the Jeema el Fna, which is known for its snake-charmers, fortune-tellers and musicians. They provide a non-stop cabaret from early evening onwards amid a smoky melee of stalls selling mint tea, soup and barbecue.
It's not a particularly attractive place from an architectural point of view, but if you like people-watching, it's a must. My mother was fascinated by an old man with a tray full of teeth. "Where do you think he got them from?" she whispered. "And who on earth would want to buy one?"
We decided to round off our day with another energy-saving excursion, a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, or caleche, around the narrow alleyways of the old medina. I thought it would save us walking, but I reckoned without my mother, who is a keen horsewoman. She would only take a carriage drawn by horses she felt looked properly cared for, so she insisted on inspecting all the caleches first. There were hundreds of them. You can use a caleche like an ordinary taxi, or take a tour, as we did. It cost us around 250 Moroccan dirhams (£19).
Travelling with your 80-year-old mother, I found, had its advantages in Morocco. Everywhere we went, we were treated with great courtesy and consideration. Indeed, the most difficult thing about Morocco was not whether my mother could cope, but how to sum up our experiences while avoiding the usual clichés.
How did I manage to come back with a carpet, when I am a veteran of north African carpet shops and have always sworn I would never succumb? How did I get that lantern in my suitcase? How did I manage to spend so much money? I can only ascribe it to a kind of magical charm that this city exerts over all who visit.
VFB Holidays (0800 171 2160; vfbholidays.co.uk) offers a four-night break in Morocco from £623 per person, including half board at Tigmi and easyJet flights from Gatwick, plus transfers and a half-day private, guided tour of Marrakech.
Marrakech is served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Royal Air Maroc (020-7307 5800; royalairmaroc.com) from Gatwick; by BMI (0870 607 0555; flybmi.co.uk) from Heathrow; and by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.
Tigmi, Douar Tagadert el Kadi, Route d'Amizmiz, Region de Marrakech (00 212 524 48 40 20; tigmi.com).
Moroccan Tourist Office: 020-7437 0073; visitmorocco.com
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