FUNKY OLD ME­D­INA

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - ASK THE TOUR GUIDE - CE­LESTE MITCHELL

The call of Mar­rakesh is ris­ing, with tour com­pa­nies re­port­ing a spike in in­ter­est in Morocco in 2018. Buoyed by solid book­ings, four new departures have been added this year for Aber­crom­bie & Kent’s Splen­dours of Morocco lux­ury small group jour­ney. It might have to do with the lo­cals, who are “friendly, gen­er­ous and have a hi­lar­i­ous sense of hu­mour,” says Hicham El Alioui. Born and raised in Mar­rakesh, Hicham has been guid­ing tours for Aber­crom­bie & Kent for al­most 11 years.

“I also love it be­cause it’s so cen­tral to many of Morocco’s other fan­tas­tic des­ti­na­tions like the beach, the moun­tains and the desert,” he says. Be­fore you touch down in the Red City, Hicham has these help­ful tips:

IT’S A MAZE IN THERE

Mar­rakesh has one of the most out­stand­ing me­d­i­nas of Morocco. Rich with a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties (cul­tural, artis­tic and his­toric), it’s the cra­dle of art and de­sign and an amaz­ing haven for shop­pers.

I like to take my guests a lit­tle off the beaten track and visit lo­cal com­mu­nity bak­eries, ham­mams, spice mar­kets and lo­cal schools within the me­d­ina. One of the bak­eries we visit dates back to the late 18th cen­tury and is still very suc­cess­ful.

PRE­PARE FOR THE SQUARE

The best way to ap­proach Dje­maa el-Fna (the main square) is to have a guided ori­en­ta­tion tour, dur­ing the day as well as the evening. It gets busier as the day goes on.

The square is known for all the dif­fer­ent artis­tic ac­tiv­i­ties – from for­tune tell­ers, ac­ro­bats and snake charm­ers to mon­key en­ter­tain­ers and amaz­ing sto­ry­tellers. I like to give guests a brief his­tory and then guide them through the labyrinth of souks. They really ap­pre­ci­ate the pres­ence of a guide for tips on hag­gling and the qual­ity of the item be­ing pur­chased. If you need a break, there are many rooftops and cafe ter­races you can es­cape to. I rec­om­mend Cafe Glacier – a great spot for a sun­downer.

MUST-TRY TAGINE

Mar­rakesh, like other cities in Morocco, has tagines ev­ery­where but it also has its own del­i­ca­cies, among them “Tan­gia Mar­rakechia” – ev­ery vis­i­tor should try it!

It’s a dish of beef cooked in­side a clay jar (tan­gia) with a con­coc­tion of dif­fer­ent lo­cal spices to­gether with saf­fron, ghee, olive oil, wa­ter and pre­served lemon. It is cooked long and slow in the ashes of a hot fire.

The best places to try it are Al Fas­sia Aguedal, Dar Zel­lij, and La Grande Ta­ble Maro­caine at the Royal Man­sour Ho­tel.

SEE IT IN BLOOM

The best time to visit Mar­rakesh is in spring when the whole city blos­soms. Known as a gar­den city, its streets and av­enues are lined by cit­rus and other fruit trees while many of the ri­ads (tra­di­tional houses) boast lush court­yard gar­dens and the fa­mous Jardin Ma­jorelle is alive with colour. I love Ar­sat Moulay Ab­deslam Gar­den (Cy­ber Park), which dates back to the 18th cen­tury. It’s a peace­ful place to re­lax af­ter the me­d­ina.

VISIT THE AT­LAS MOUN­TAINS

It’s pos­si­ble to visit the At­las Moun­tains in a day trip from Mar­rakesh, but it’s best to start early in the day so you can split your time between trekking and rest­ing in a typ­i­cal Ber­ber house.

Most houses are adobe con­struc­tions, usu­ally perched on hills over­look­ing a val­ley of agri­cul­tural fields. Guests are in­vited into homes for mint tea while learn­ing ev­ery­thing about the Ber­ber life­style – from the way the house is built to fam­ily rit­u­als.

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