Mad for Morocco: The country’s run in the World Cup has kicked off a tourist boom – and Marrakech is its star turn
- ‘Morocco is a short-haul flight to a long-haul destination,’ says Kate Johnson
- Marrakech’s twisting lanes ‘would confuse a compass’, she writes
- Her Marrakech digs? Riad Elegancia – ‘the perfect spot to feel the city’s rhythms’
Oh, to have been in Djemaa el-Fna square when Morocco were on their way to the World Cup semi-finals. At the best of times, the place is crazy. But when the nation’s football team were scoring goals and winning hearts around the globe, it must have been utter madness.
At one point, the BBC went live to the square and captured some of the hysteria. And perhaps that’s why interest in Morocco has soared. According to the tourist board, there have been more than 13 million mentions of the country on social media in the past month — when normally there would only be some 500,000 for that period.
I was there several weeks before the footy. It was my first time in Marrakech and I realised how true that old line is about Morocco being a short-haul flight to a long-haul destination.
Marrakech’s Djemaa el-Fna square. Kate Johnson writes: ‘At the best of times, the place is crazy. But when the nation’s football team were scoring goals and winning hearts around the globe, it must have been utter madness’
The medina was already jam-packed, so who knows where all the new tourists are going to fit, but they will definitely be made to feel welcome. Even the most persistent shop owners exude good-natured charm, and there’s no awkwardness if you don’t buy.
Just as well, too, as the souks would confuse a compass. The owner of romantic rooftop restaurant L’mida told me: ‘I was born here and I still get lost.’ Google maps didn’t even try to help me find a way through the infinite twists and turns of packed cobbled lanes to Djemaa el-Fna. I arrived and it was thrumming; drumbeats went through my soles as I joined hundreds of people taking in the snake charmers, traders spreading their wares on blankets and dance troupes — all infused with a smell of incense.
I stayed in the Bab Doukkala neighbourhood, at the newly renovated Riad Elegancia, with its secluded roof terrace for breakfast and sunbathing and small stylish rooms with carved wood and hand-laid tiles.
As the sister property of La Maison Arabe, a hotel as dug into the history of Marrakech as Churchill’s favourite La Mamounia, it was the perfect spot to feel plugged in to the rhythms of the city — and to enjoy a hammam in the spa. Top tip on the hammam front: abandon all British reserve before stripping off and keep your eyes closed for a routine of black soap, full (I do mean full) body scrub with a rough glove, lots of hosing down, the heat of a steam room and a massage, after which you’ll understand why it is a weekly ritual here.
Kate’s hotel in Marrakech’s Bab Doukkala neighbourhood – the newly renovated Riad Elegancia
Morocco fans celebrate their team’s success in Qatar – they came fourth overall
Doubles B&B at Riad Elegancia from £126 (cenizaro.com). Doubles B&B at Dar Rhizlane from £200 (dar-rhizlane.com). Wizz Air London Gatwick to Marrakech returns from £33.98 (wizzair.com).
The square in daylight gave no hint of the frenetic evening before as my guide (an essential luxury for this city, organised through the hotel), the supremely elegant Youssef, led us through the souks, via babouches (craftsmen hand-stitched the soles), spices from a shop no wider than a front door, spectacular kaftans in silk, wool or velvet and finally a carpet shop where the tiny doorway gave way to rooms of rugs, stacked to the ceiling (recent inventory: 28,000).
Staying in the medina is truly dazzling, after which you might need a holiday from your holiday.
I decamped to the ‘new town’, built in 1914, encircling the city walls, with palm trees and boulevards and specifically made for the impossibly glamorous Dar Rhizlane, a sumptuous and welcoming villa with 21 rooms and suites with gorgeous tiles and gypsum plaster, a heated pool, gardens with ancient trees, and impeccable restaurant. Its alluring authenticity proved the truism that the mark of a well-designed room is to be able to sit in it for an hour and find it interesting.
A short stroll away was the new M Avenue, where global brands from Four Seasons to Aston Martin jostle for space. Locals said they loved it, though it felt rather bland to me, but still ideal for coffee and people-watching before a spin round the 300 plant species, curving walkways and Berber museum of the Jardin Majorelle.
Kate stayed in the ‘impossibly glamorous’ Dar Rhizlane – ‘a sumptuous and welcoming villa with 21 rooms and suites’
Finally, half an hour south-west, through traffic that should be a tourist attraction, I spent a soothing afternoon in the lunar landscape of the Agafay desert, at Yes We Camp’s.
There are 40 permanent tents (all velvet drapes and berber rugs), a swimming pool and fire pit — and I heard nothing but birdsong.
Three holidays in one. That’s all part of the magic of Marrakech.
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