Rock the kasbah

Part of Blur's last album, Think Tank, was recorded in Morocco. Here Alex James returns for pleasure, not work, to explore the bustling souks of Marrakech and visit the city's first private members' club...
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The Independent Travel

It started in a dusty junk shop near the famous kaftan emporium. There on the wall behind a load of total crap was a dusty but exquisite Gibson bass guitar. No model name, making it probably very early, and certainly very unusual. The sort of thing, as a bass player, I had to buy or spend the rest of my life thinking about. I could hardly believe my luck as I handled it. I'd never seen anything like this treasure. I haggled with the guy and paid a fair price - he knew it was worth a few quid, so I paid 3,500 dirham, a couple of hundred pounds. It needs new parts but it should scrub up nicely. We got on a bit of a roll after that and bought belts, bags, drums and all kinds of knick-knacks. The food the street sellers tempt you with is so cheap that it makes you think you might have paid too much for everthing else, but the idea is to decide what you think something's worth and be happy if you can get it for that price. At 7p, the fresh macaroons were one of the world's greatest bargains; the salted cris

It started in a dusty junk shop near the famous kaftan emporium. There on the wall behind a load of total crap was a dusty but exquisite Gibson bass guitar. No model name, making it probably very early, and certainly very unusual. The sort of thing, as a bass player, I had to buy or spend the rest of my life thinking about. I could hardly believe my luck as I handled it. I'd never seen anything like this treasure. I haggled with the guy and paid a fair price - he knew it was worth a few quid, so I paid 3,500 dirham, a couple of hundred pounds. It needs new parts but it should scrub up nicely. We got on a bit of a roll after that and bought belts, bags, drums and all kinds of knick-knacks. The food the street sellers tempt you with is so cheap that it makes you think you might have paid too much for everthing else, but the idea is to decide what you think something's worth and be happy if you can get it for that price. At 7p, the fresh macaroons were one of the world's greatest bargains; the salted crisps in a little paper cone were the best I've ever had; the dates were out of this world.

We were in Marrakech for the weekend. The Moroccan city lies only eight degrees west of the Greenwich Meridian, but culturally is about as far away as you can get. If you can find a direct flight it is a brilliant place for a short break, but it's worth staying longer. It is still very much a "foreign country", and they're getting hard to find, particularly at weekends. Even after spending a couple of months there a while ago, I admit I still have no idea what's going on in Morocco. It doesn't give up its secrets easily, but I think something special happens to me each time I go back. It is such a different world to the one I live in, and likely to remain inscrutable forever.

Marrakech slaps you full in the face the moment you arrive: donkeys, bicycles, motorbikes carrying passengers and cargo, big dusty taxis and juggernauts all flow this way and that along elegant boulevards that soon turn into open desert roads. One thing to bear in mind is that it's a very dangerous place to go if you are having any building work done, or need any furniture. The sumptuous and exotic finishes on sale here can easily overwhelm, and if you're not careful you could find yourself living in a mini-kasbah when you get home. It starts with lanterns and rugs, and pretty soon you're eyeing-up mosaics and fountains.

Part of the reason for the trip was to sample the delights of Kssour Agafay, Marrakech's very first private members' club, which had just opened its doors - to everyone as far as I could tell. Membership seemed to be a mere formality. There is no boozing and shagging culture in Morocco, and hence, no nightclubs. Whether this is a good or bad thing is difficult to say. All I know is that we had a great time and some very good nibbles.

The Moroccans are great castle builders - I think it is an innate need. We spent the weekend in a newly restored fort, Kasbah Agafay, the latest addition to the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, a coalition of independents. There is accommodation to suit all budgets in Morocco, although I was surprised to find that the country is more expensive than Spain on the whole.

Most visitors to Marrakech stay in a riad: an old merchant's house built around a central courtyard. You stumble across them when you wander around the medieval alleyways of the city, where a tiny door in a weather-beaten wall may open onto a beautiful quadrant with citrus trees and fountains. A riad might be made of mud out in the desert - tiny walled towns are a common sight - or it might be constructed in rendered stone. They come in all shapes and sizes; part of Think Tank, Blur's last album, was recorded in a riad near Marrakech, which was actually a working farm that slept 20 and had more staff than a PG Wodehouse novel. It was beautiful. Some of the riads we looked at staying in were nothing short of palaces: great wealth and splendour is available if that's what you require. It seems that the Moroccans all like to take part in a bit of splendour. There always seems to be a formal celebration going on somewhere.

A kasbah is one notch up from a riad - a castle, in effect. In Morocco, buildings have different functions to those we're used to in the West. They keep people cool rather than warm. The lack of rain and moisture in the Moroccan air means that you can leave furniture outside and the windows unglazed. The architecture is also very different.

I think the best nights I have spent in Morocco have been under canvas in candlelight. You hear horror stories about the place, but I have found it profoundly safe to wander around. A bit of French is a big help, but, probably because it's such a cosmopolitan country, English is understood in the most unlikely places. The last time we were here, my wife and I drove out to Essaouira, which is west of Marrakech on the Atlantic coast. We stopped on the way to look at some goats that were climbing trees and were invited to stay in the village, which seems to be common. The Moroccan desert isn't all sand dunes. It's similar to Arizona, a dusty, rock-strewn moonscape that teems with life wherever there's water. Morocco is a brilliant place to go mooning around falling in love. I did. It's also a great place to go shopping.

The souks of Marrakech are a long way from Stow-on-the-Wold, where I get my groceries. The souk is the market area of the old city - a maze of intricate alleyways, of tiny boutiques crammed to bursting with unbranded, hand-made and mass-produced all-sorts. It's a bit like a department store in that there's a carpet area, a herbs and spices department and the completely disco "bang bang flash flash" of the wrought-iron section, where the guys doing spot-welding were all wearing Ray Bans instead of welders' masks.

Nowhere does bustle like Marrakech. Mopeds weave around handcarts and screaming shopkeepers. Don't even let them see you looking at anything or it's all over - they'll chase you down the street waving the object at you whether you're interested or not. It takes a while to get the hang of shopping here. It's tiring because you have to negotiate every transaction, and the stuff you don't really want you often end up buying because you get a much better price for it. If they know you really want something, you're stuffed - they will make you pay for your desire. There is a real thrill to any transaction - you almost fall out with the guy before you agree a price, then you settle and are hugging like friends. My wife's belt, a Marc Jacobs creation that was more of a rip-off than anything on sale here, was causing quite a stir. "Hey, I give you two belt, you let me take..." All the latest designs are copied, and it's said that they make the best antiques in the world.

One of the more startling sights of the Moroccan jamboree is the toothless old geezer. You are never ready for one of these gummy old boys who grin at you like little babies - they can smile so much wider with no teeth in the way. It's definitely caused by the tea they drink. It's good stuff (Berber whisky, they call it) - the sugar puts back what the heat takes out of you, but it rots your teeth. It is poured, always with finesse, from an ornamental teapot at such a height as to give it a little head. We sank plenty of that jungle juice.

There is a good sense of theatre, of showbiz even, about the whole place - it's like walking into a style magazine. The Moroccans are sharp dressers. Even in villages made from mud, the very young to the very old dress with flair, whether in traditional hooded Jedi-warrior kaftans or Reebok sweatshirts. The old geezers wear some sharp baseball caps and the coolest-looking dudes of all are the ones who hold hands in a line and bounce to the music. There is always someone singing or banging a drum somewhere.

A collective noun is needed to describe Moroccan drummers, who roam in packs with attendant cymbal-crashers and trumpet-blasters. Their music is way off my pop planet but it sounds like some kind of jazz. There was a guy with a snake-charmer type instrument apparently noodling through a self-indulgent heavy-metal solo, only for another guy to join him in perfect unison. It was evidently a popular melody. And then there's the fez-whirling, perfume-sprinkling and wailing. Very emotional, and very, very loud.

We went horse-riding on Sunday morning. The stable-yard was the usual agricultural chaos - piles of mud bricks; some mad dogs; a beautiful vegetable garden growing chilli, courgettes and plenty of mint. The horses were majestic creatures. There are a lot of miserable animals in Morocco, but these seemed pretty happy. You feel like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Luke Skywalker when you're riding through the desert. Parts of Star Wars were shot here, and Ridley Scott is apparently building a huge sound stage down in the south for one of his new projects. We followed a pebbly stream through a green valley for a bit and then made our way through a beautiful Martian landscape. It's good for thinking, clopping along on a horse. I got a whole load of stuff sorted out. The rhythm and the view just help you along.

We went back to the medina - the old walled city - in the afternoon. The street food looked excellent and we had cinnamon tea, which is like the mint version but a little sweeter. There was one food stall selling sheep's heads and people were happily sitting there scooping out the contents and slurping away. The food in the main square looks very tempting but people say it will make you ill. I always have the orange juice when I'm passing through, which is freshly squished and amazing.

The Moroccan tagine has a strong identity. It's essentially a spicy stew. I must admit that spicy stews do get you down after a few weeks, but there are other delights to be had. Caramelised tomatoes, houmous and the little nuts, dates and raisins are all gorgeous. It's a pretty healthy diet - there is no super-size culture and it's largely wheat- and dairy-free.

We had dinner with a group of nomads in a tent. The best meal I've had in Morocco was in the Sahara with the nomadic Berbers, so I was looking forward to something tasty. We sat on rugs with the stars pointing through the fabric above. Everyone was starving, but when the food came out it was the usual tagine - couscous and meat. The meat seemed to take a lot of carving - the guy was rubbing his knives together, sawing a bit then rubbing them together again and making little sucking noises. I enjoyed the whole carving thing, but as I was picking my teeth at the end of the meal I started to wonder about the shape of the bone that had dislodged from the joint. It was a cheekbone. We'd been eating heads in the dark. A bit chewy, but not bad. Better than lunch.

The aircraft to Marrakech doesn't have a posh bit down the front, which adds to the exoticism of getting there and away. It's like getting on a train at Oxford - you might sit next to someone very interesting, or find yourself talking to people you wouldn't normally approach. It's not yet a "holiday" destination, although with Euro-centric restaurants like Comptoir, it is starting to become more tourist-friendly. Working here was expensive and awkward but staying here is always amazing. What it's really good for is travelling. Morocco is never a holiday; it's about seeing an unusual bit of the world. Now that is classy.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer flew with Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com) which flies non-stop from Gatwick to Marrakech four times a week. GB Airways flies from Gatwick and Heathrow on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Expect to pay from around £200 return.

STAYING THERE

The Kasbah Agafay (00 212 44 42 09 60; www.kasbahagafay.com) in Marrakech has double rooms from 4,000 Moroccan dirham (£255) per night, including breakfast. Contact the hotel for information on the private members club, Kssour Agafay.

EATING THERE

Le Comptoir (00 212 44 43 77 02; www.ilove-marrakesh.com/lecomptoir), avenue Echchouada, is open daily for dinner from 7.30pm.

VISITING

The main souks in Marrakech (Semmarine, Larzal, Btana, el Kebir, Kedima, des Bijoutiers, Cherratine, des Babouches, Chouari, des Teinturiers and el Attarine) are found north of Jemâa el Fna - the city's focal point - in the centre of the medina and near the Musée de Marrakech.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Moroccan National Tourist Office (020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.com).

Sophie Lam

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