Souk it up: The marvels of Marrakech

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Regal opulence now combines with the hectic bustle of the souks in Morocco's most alluring city – and new flights are about to make Marrakech even more accessible

Mohammed increased the power. Rotor blades whined louder, skids unkissed the Tarmac, and as the helicopter dropped its shadow Marrakech spread itself out in front of me: a red smear on the dusty plain, spiked with minarets, and set against the serrated white teeth of the Atlas Mountains. Surely one of the world's most exotic cityscapes?

I'd seen it all before, albeit through the smaller window of a bigger plane. And from this week – when Ryanair, BMI and BA all launch flights from London to Marrakech – the same sight is even more accessible. In just three hours you can be a continent and cultural world away.

The place to start exploring Marrakech is the Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the walled old city, or medina. It's more of a vast theatrical space than anything else: Berber storytellers vie with musicians, tooth-pullers, apothecaries and snake charmers for the attention, and dirhams, of one and all.

Hafid Sherrakh, my guide, reassured me that the cobras aren't venomous these days (the result of a different kind of tooth-pulling). Still, they dance to ancient tunes. The smell of burning frankincense, snail soup, and boiled sheep's heads, sold at open-air stalls to the north of the square, is equally timeless.

As are the brightly costumed water-sellers, whose presence is a reminder of why the city was founded. Nine hundred and fifty years ago the Almoravid dynasty worked out how to run water underground from the Atlas Mountains down on to the fertile – but arid – plain, and Marrakech was born.

Wikipedia reckons the city's name means "More God", but Hafid told me it is derived from two words for "pass quickly": the ancient city was integral to a trade route; hang around for long and the authorities taxed you twice. Nowadays, if you're like me, you'll wish you had longer to spend there.

Particularly if you're lucky enough to stay at the Royal Mansour hotel. Rulers aren't currently popular in this part of the world, but Mohammed VI, Morocco's modernising monarch, seems to have fared pretty well (aside from peaceful civil rights protests in several Moroccan cities, including Marrakech, last weekend).

Initiatives such as Vision 2010, which set about attracting 10 million visitors to the country last year, may have helped. The target was missed (by about 700,000), but the Royal Mansour was built as part of that project. It has its sights set on the highest of high-end luxury junkies, and it aims to lure them with the very best décor, cuisine, and service Morocco has to offer.

It's a phenomenal hotel. Built to resemble a medina within the medina, its narrow, pink-walled passageways are laced with running water and overarched with beautiful plants (the larger trees were helicoptered in). One thousand Moroccan craftsmen spent two years decorating the walls and ceilings with mosaics, hand-carved plaster reliefs, and painted wood, to create an authentic Moroccan masterpiece.

Each of the 53 riads (a house, with one or more bedrooms, built over three floors around a courtyard with its own fountain) is decorated in a different shade of marble. Mine had a rooftop plunge pool, three bathrooms, 64 lights and 98 cushions. I counted.

And the service is second to none. Three men in immaculate suits welcomed me to my courtyard. One spread his white gloves wide, one stood back from the roaring fire, one offered me a glass of fruit punch. When I turned up for dinner the mâitre d' shook my hand and slotted me into a perfectly fitting jacket in one movement, and somehow made me feel like a king instead of an underdressed numpty.

There are 500 staff in total. That's nearly 10 for each riad. But you don't see anybody pushing trolleys full of sheets through the elegant courtyards, because there's a hotel within the hotel, a warren of tunnels, lifts and corridors connecting the riads, spa and restaurants from inside.

Back to the helicopter ride. If you're staying at the Royal Mansour, it feels a fitting sort of way to get beyond the city limits. Rosena and Frederic Charmoy, of the travel concierge service Boutique Souk, kindly organised for me to sample their Desert Camp Helicopter Experience, which ... does what it says, in style.

After taking in the city from on high we swooped out over the plain. Goats swarmed beside a cobalt blue lake; the Atlas Mountains shimmered in the haze. Once in the desert we zeroed in on Le Pause, a tiny oasis complete with Berber tents, where we ate a delicious lunch of lamb tagine served with home-grown rocket and washed down with crisp white wine.

Although it's not far from the city (45 minutes in a 4x4) civilisation feels a world away here: it's all moonscape rocks, wide horizon, and silence. Distant donkeys, more silence, camels. I'd barely clocked the latter before Fred had waved them over and stuck me on one for a ride.

Off I went, past the helicopter on its chalk-scraped helipad, out into the rocky nothingness. A cock crowed somewhere. The camel was actually a dromedary (one hump), also called Fred, possibly. We rocked back to camp; I swapped a hump for some rotor blades, and in 15 minutes we were in the middle of the city again.

After such a gruelling day in the desert, it seemed sensible to check out the hotel's spa. Its atrium, where you wait inside a vast white cage, feels like the anteroom to heaven, and there's a lot of mumbo-jumbo on the spa's menu too. I passed on "lymphatic drainage" and "zen harmony" in favour of a traditional Moroccan hammam. Think hot marble slab, steam, soap, scrubbing, and a cold plunge pool. Or as the menu put it: "an ultra purifying exfoliation with the traditional kessa massage glove, combined with the detoxifying body mask, followed by a soothing soaping".

I'm not knowledgeable about spas. Halfway through being rubbed down with the loofah glove – it felt nice, but what was it really accomplishing? – I was embarrassed to see that half my skin had wriggled off me in dead grey worms. By the time other half had fallen off my shame had turned to concern. But Miriam – the friendly masseuse –assured me this was normal, and that I'd feel great afterwards. She was right, I did, in a spaced out, newly peeled piglet sort of way.

Later, Hafid explained that the real hammams – as well as being a good place for a gossip – play an essential part in the purification ritual Muslims must perform in order to attend the mosque.

Non-Muslims, being impure, aren't allowed inside mosques in Morocco. We can, however, appreciate them from the outside. The elegant Koutoubia Mosque's minaret, to the south of Jemaa el Fna, dominates the city as the Eiffel Tower does Paris. At night, lit from within like a Moroccan lamp, it looks particularly stunning.

Hafid also told me I'd get closest to the spirit of a mosque by visiting the Ben Youssef Medersa, a former Koranic School to the north of the medina. Although I'm assuming he was right – the Medersa is a jewel-like, serene place – the main thing my visit there confirmed, if I'm honest, was that the Royal Mansour's craftsmen had done an excellent job in recreating – outdoing, even – their opulent heritage.

What the Ben Youssef Medersa is to serenity, the tumbling maze of souks between it and the Jemaa el Fna is to colourful chaos. You don't need a guide here, but having one helps, not least because it stops kids-on-the-make accosting you with the news that you need them as your guide.

Following Havid past the leather-workers and carpenters, the silk spinners and cloth-dyers, the metal-workers and plaster-carvers and spice-vendors and carpet shops, I was able to take in the spectacle uninterrupted.

More or less uninterrupted, that is. You have to watch out for the motorbikes, which weave their way through the shoppers thronging even the narrowest of lanes. One swerved past me so close the dead chicken slung from its handlebars high-fived my thigh.

The souks are an intoxicating spectacle, about as far from an anaesthetised British high street as it's possible to get. In the farmer's market, a potato rolled from its pyramid across the cobbles towards an old lady, who flicked it back into place with the toe of her leather babouche. Just around the corner, an old man worked wet plaster like a surgeon, his tiny chisel nibbling perfect patterns (figurative art is seen as idolatry) from blandness, right before my eyes.

So if shopping for Moroccan stuff is your thing, a stroll around the 2,600 stalls here would be the place to do it. But watch out. Havid warned me that much of what was on offer was tat. "That lamp," he said, pointing at what looked to me a perfectly nice Moroccan lamp, "That lamp I would not put in my house even if you gave it to me." I made a note not to buy it for him. "That one," he went on, pointing to a version of the same thing which, on close inspection, was indeed more finely wrought, "That one is better. It will cost a thousand dollars, but I would have it. My children would thank me one day."

We visited a carpet shop near the dyers' souk called Bazar Chez Les Nomades. Carpet temple is perhaps a more accurate description. As with most Moroccan architecture – even the most opulent of riads – the shop looked like nothing from outside. Duck through a door-within-a-door however, and a wall of splendour socks you in the eye. Here it was over 10,000 carpets and kilims spread on the floor, rolled into mountain ranges, and hung from on high.

I didn't need a carpet. But the owner, Namous Abderrahim, invited me to lunch anyway. Up on the roof, we lounged around a vast silver dish, in the middle of which stood a steaming vegetable tagine. We ate with chunks of bread and the fingers of our right hands. Zero washing up.

Afterwards, Havid made tea: a 20-minute ritual involving fresh mint and lots of high pouring into tiny glasses. It aerates the brew. "Good for the digestion," he explained. I drank four glasses.

They make a mean Moroccan tea at the Royal Mansour, of course, to finish off the Michelin-starred experience available in either of the two (French and Moroccan) restaurants within the hotel. As well as eating perfect food (there's no point me pretending to critique it) I enjoyed watching the waiting staff work, moving among the diners with the precision of a ballet corps.

If – and it's possible – you're not an oligarch, banker, or prince, you might want to visit Marrakech on a different budget to the one the Royal Mansour has in mind. Boutique Souk can arrange riads in the medina or – if you want more space and a pool – in the laid back Palmeraie, an oasis of date and palm trees not far from town.

I also met up with Kerstin Brand of Bare Minimum Travel, who scopes out rooms in dars (smaller houses in the medina) for as little as £30 a night. Over a beer in the Ville Nouvelle (Moroccan bars do exist, more plentifully in the new city, but none are visible from the street) she stressed the importance of working with an agency who could vouch for the place you're going to stay, if you're booking in advance. At the cheaper end, properties might be "unfinished", or right next to a mosque. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, until the muezzin cranks up for the dawn call to prayer.

At least waking at dawn would allow you to make the most of your stay. My three days passed too quickly. Before heading to the airport I just managed to nip into the Majorelle Garden – a colourful, shady, 12-acre planting of cacti and palms designed by the French painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1930s, and owned by the late Yves Saint-Laurent. In three hours I'd be home. But before then, as we took off, I caught one last glimpse of the red city spread out in the afternoon sun.

Travel essentials: Marrakech

Getting there

* British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) starts flying from Gatwick to Marrakech tomorrow, in competition with Royal Air Maroc (020-7307 5800; royalairmaroc.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) – which also flies from Manchester. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) launches flights from Stansted tomorrow, adding to links from Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh and Luton. BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.co.uk) flies from Heathrow starting next Friday, 1 April.

Staying there

* Royal Mansour, Rue Abou Abbas El Sebti, Marrakech (00 212 529 80 80 80; royalmansour.com). A one-bedroom riad starts at 18,000 Moroccan dirhams (£1,384), including breakfast.

* You can book the Royal Mansour and other lodgings in Marrakech through Boutique Souk (07900 195261/00 212 66 132 4475; boutiquesouk.com); this comes with complimentary concierge services, such as English-speaking guides and restaurant and VIP clubbing reservations. The Desert Camp Helicopter Experience costs £505.

* Bare Minimum Travel (020-8144 0984; bareminimumtravel.com) offers a range of budget accommodation in Morocco.

Foreign Office advice

* The FCO ( fco.gov.uk) warned this week of "incidents of vandalism and looting" in Marrakech and advised visitors to "avoid political gatherings and demonstrations".

More information

* Moroccan Tourist Office: 020-7437 0073; visitmorocco.com

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