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Marvellous Marrakech

The architecture, exciting souks and pleasant climate keep the visitors coming back for more

travel Updated: Feb 22, 2012 11:50 IST

The narrow alleys of the tidy souk opened on to a square hung with dozens of strikingly beautiful rugs. A cat slinked by. A man with a pointy hood and pointy shoes touted his herbal cures -- "No more loud snore!" It felt good to be back.

The city of Marrakech has stolen a march on many of her sisters. She is not just favoured over Fez, Casablanca and Tangiers within Morocco, but more visitors come here than all of the great cities of the Maghreb (Algiers, Tripoli, Tunisia) put together. While all these cities are blessed with the coveted winter sun, their kitchens serve aromatic couscous and lamb tajine and their buildings are embellished with key-hole arches, carvedwoodwork, Marrakech's location on the crossroads of trade was the key to its predominance. Caravans full of raw materials were brought here and skilled artisans finished them exquisitely. Wealthy dynasties built their fabulous palaces and engineers turned the desert into a green oasis by channelling-in glacier water from the Atlas Mountains. In 1912 Morocco became a protectorate of France. Since independence in 1956, Morocco has been politically stable, with King Mohammad the Sixth enjoying popularity.

International and local talent
Every building, house, monument is a pleasing terracotta colour. Mohammad Bouskari, our guide explained, "The first simple huts were built of adobe, using the earth that was available, and the rulers stipulated that all buildings, even beyond the walls of the medina be painted the same colour." The second law, keeping all construction lower than the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque ensured that the city remained low-rise and human-sized. A host of extremely talented local and international architects and decorators have found modern dialogue within the traditional techniques, turning dozens of riads or courtyard homes into boutique hotels within the medina walls. Larger resorts abound in the open suburbs. In Marrakech, we were spoilt for choice in places to stay, and ended up at the effortlessly cool Riad El Fenn inside the medina.

Several styles of rugs, woven by the Berber folks in the Atlas Mountains make their way to the souks each week. Many of the minimalist ones, especially the white and black wool-pile Beni Ouarain, the red Shishawa and the fine geometric Tifelt kilims end up on smart wooden floors in posh locales around the world.

Wonderful square
Sipping coffee at the balcony of Café Glacier, my friend Seema and I watched the locals and visitors gather at the main square, Jemma al Fna, at sunset. Rows of orange juice vendors and nuts and date stalls sold exactly the same thing at the same price. Restaurants spread out the mosaic of salads served before the main chicken and lamb dishes. While musicians whipped up their beats, belly dancers, fortune tellers, tooth pullers, acrobats and magicians plied their talents for a few Dhirams.

More about the place
When to go: March, April, October and November are the most pleasant months.

Where to stay: Top end: La Mamounia, Affordable style- Riad El Fenn. The impressive Taj Palace Marrakech is opening soon.

Where to eat: Comptoir and Jad Mahal for the International Jet set, Al Fassia for excellent home cooking.

Where to shop: The streets of the Madina's souk have rich pickings at great prices. Outside the walls, Gueliz and Sidi Ghanem have some shops selling cutting edge wares.

What to see: Majorelle Gardens, The square- Jemma el Fna, Madersa Ben Youssef.

Guide- Mohammad Bouskari +212661147482