Exotic escape to Marrakech

By Mike Yardley

For a dollop of exotica in the Islamic world treat yourself to a magical encounter in the storied Red City of Marrakech.

The political climate is stable and the hospitality unfailing in Morocco's tourist hotspot. The ochre-coloured walls, alleys and buildings boast a wealth of enchanting experiences.

If it's your first time in Marrakech, base yourself in the heart of the Medina (the old town). Set against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, the blaze of rose and red-tinted sandstone buildings are a delight to explore, as the bustle of traditional medina living swirls around you. Cheeky kids pass on scooters, horses haul produce-laden carts, pharmacies burst with colourful herbal potions and tagine cooking sizzles on the sidewalks. And don't shy away from tasting the dates, figs and sweet cakes.

But the star attraction is the UNESCO-listed World Heritage site, the Djemaa el-Fna Square. It's a mesmerising cauldron of street theatre, exuberant market traders and culture. The circus atmosphere starts with the snake charmers, acrobats, astrologers, magicians, buskers and belly-dancers. Nightly street theatre has been taking place in this square for a thousand years.

At sunset, barbecues roar to life as scores of chefs and portable grills cook up a storm of kebabs.

Throughout the day, you can never be sure who you might run into, touting their wares. I stumbled across a mobile dentist and politely declined his services. My sister bought a weird-looking, slimming herbal potion - and it worked.

For a good view of the square's activity, pull up a chair and grab a chilled drink from one of the surrounding terrace bars. From there, enter the Aladdin's cave-like Souks and markets streets.

Among the colourful fresh produce stands and souvenir shops, a slew of superb craftwork tumbles out into the lanes. Puzzlework mosaics, lattice screens, spectacular pottery and Moroccan lamps were the show-stoppers for me. Haggling is expected. Be sure to enjoy a hot mint tea, if the frenetic souk activity starts to take its toll.

For culture vultures, there's a variety of museums and palaces in the centre of town, to give you a sense of Marrakech's imperial heritage. But if you're looking for a change of scenery, I highly recommend setting aside some time to explore the Jardin Majorelle. Gifted to the city by Yves Saint Laurent, this is where cactus meets couture. Rare flora from all over the world thrives in the shadow of the art deco villa, built in 1931 by painter Jacques Majorelle.

- Hamilton News

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