It’s a city that’s perfect for a relaxing five-day weekend or a longer stay if you want to see the Atlas mountains, as ‘Mr & Mrs O’ did. Stephen Oryszczuk tells all…
Holiday review website TripAdvisor recently voted Marrakech the world’s top destination, but for Jews it has appealed for 2,600 years, since the destruction of the First Temple. Part of the draw was its position: on a trade route at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, beyond which lies the Sahara.
Today, an easy hour’s drive from the barking madness of the city’s main square, the stunning High Atlas should be incorporated into any trip to Marrakech. Stay near the beautiful Berber villages nestled high up in the running valleys and snowy crags, home to Africa’s second tallest peak. Pitch up along the Ourika River, acclimatise, see spectacular scenery, watch women making Argan oil and walk up waterfalls, before heading back into the hustle and bustle of the souks.
The eco-chic Fellah Hotel. If Lewis Carroll did hotels, this would be it. An ageing cowboy takes your bags at the gate while you wander past goats, donkeys, libraries, an apothecary of spices and a full-blown image of a young, muscle-bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s a hotel with personality, and we loved it, not just because it’s nuts, but because it involves the local community – villagers even run their own restaurant on-site, selling street food. But you don’t stay here for charity. You stay for tranquillity, hidden gardens, yoga, three swimming pools and all the fresh Atlas air you can breathe. Oh, and the cocktails, to quench that Moroccan thirst, from which Mrs O suffered terribly every day from about 3pm.
DON’T JUST LIE THERE…..
Let the hotel organise a driver and guide to take you high up into the mountains, with villages once populated by dozens of Jewish families (there is even a shul at 1,700ft). Jews lived happily here, until they left for Israel in two waves, the first in 1948. Arabic is the national language, but Berbers outnumber Arabs in Morocco, and up here in Berber country, the people are among the most gentle you’ll meet. Jews and Berbers get on, they told me, without knowing where I worked. I could tell the old man showing us around the village museum genuinely missed his old friends.
MOVING ON TO MARRAKECH…
After a few days at Fellah, head into Marrakech itself. For pampering in 5-star luxury, go with the Four Seasons, set in acres of gorgeous grounds just outside the old city walls. Food at the on-site Italian restaurant is insanely good (warning: you WILL get fed up of tagines after a while).
This hotel does everything well, from its huge rooms to its fabulous pools and phenomenal spa, but the quality and choice on offer in the breakfast buffet are worthy of special mention.
Eating it outside in the sun, overlooking cascading waters, you feel truly spoilt.
At night, the panoramic bar is a treat from where you look down on fountains bordered by bougainvillea and roses. It was unfaltable.
That said, if you want a more traditional Moroccan experience, stay in a riad, the best of which is La Sultana, located in the enigmatic Kasbah, within the old city walls. Even if you don’t stay here, go for a few hours, if only to see the exquisite detail of this fabulous place, its carved walls and intricate arches more akin to a national treasure than a hotel.
Its restaurant (serving a fish tagine which critic Mrs O categorically states is the best meal she’s ever had) is worth a visit in itself, as is the spa, where they do a mean Hammam.
The roof terrace, which overlooks one of the city’s main mosques and a busy street market, is a great people-watching hideout by day and one of the best spots for a sundowner by night.
SNAKES, SPICES AND SECURITY…
This being North Africa, you don’t dwell indoors. The old city offers enchanting calls to prayer, sumptuous sunsets, humming street life, subtle-as-a-brick souk salesmen, smells, spices, snake-charmers and camel burgers, which may or may not be kosher.
It’s a hypnotic, crazy place, with a heavy French influence (Yves Saint Laurent’s gardens are a peaceful oasis if you want to escape for an hour or two) as well as a vibrant mix of cultures. Hundreds of Jewish families still live in the Mellah, the city’s Jewish quarter, which is currently being refurbished, and Moroccans are proud of their 2,000-year history of interfaith relations.
Ironically, during our ten-day stay, Paris was attacked and Brussels went into lockdown, but everyone still asked if we felt safe. Yes, absolutely, safer than we do in London, in fact. This trip should be on everyone’s bucket list, but with the list of ‘no-go’ Arab world countries seemingly growing, I wouldn’t leave it too long to book.