The early summer is the only time of year to visit Marrakesh, reckons Victoria Bates
A shimmering wall of heat welcomes you as you step out of the plane onto the tarmac at Marrakesh Menara Airport. And although it’s a dry heat, rather than the smothering humidity of the tropics, the first thing that strikes me as I am driven the few miles down a boulevard to the gates of the walled old town is how much greenery there is. There are not just a few dusty palm trees gracing the centre reservation, but row upon row of olive trees, cacti and presumably, to a botanically-trained eye, much more.
Some weary-looking camels perch by the roadside, awaiting tourists willing to give their buttocks a healthy work-out for half an hour or so (more on my own experience of that later), as we turn into the city and the buzz of the bazaar-lined streets, heading towards my riad, the traditional, small and intimate Moroccan hotel get-up.
The Angsana Riad Blanc does not disappoint – the group is owned by the company Banyan Tree, which is famed for its luxurious spa resorts worldwide – but though you’d expect five-star service, it’s the rustic feel to the place that really stands out, from the locally-crafted Moroccan furniture and wall hangings to the glazed clay of the shower enclosure.
Stepping outside, you find yourself immersed in a tangle of narrow, cobbled streets, resplendent with vendors touting their wares, hooting locals zooming around on scooters and the odd undernourished kitten resting in the shade (woe betide the soft of heart).
The main square of Marrakesh, the famous Djemaa el Fna, is something else. Those seeking a peaceful outing need not apply – pulsating with life, the square is packed with open-air food stalls, jugglers, magicians and even snake charmers, if testing your squeamishness by draping a slithering reptile around your neck floats your boat.
What’s more, the locals know a catch when they see one, and they’re not about to let a tourist get away empty-handed. Having never quite mastered the art of bartering a street seller down to a bargain, I found myself quite overwhelmed by the goods on offer – cart upon cart of freshly-squeezed orange juice, exotic spices and steaming barbecued food; clothes, pottery, glassware, jewellery and leather – and though I eventually managed to secure myself a small, ornate blue shisha pipe for 100 Dirham (around £7), I still had the distinct impression that I’d been taken for a bit of a ride.
The next morning, my tour operator Best of Morocco had organised a sightseeing trip around the capital, snaking from Marrakesh’s most famous landmark, the 70m-tall Koutoubia mosque, to the four hundred-year-old Saadien royal necropolis and the beautiful gardens of the Bahia Palace.
In the summer months, it’s almost too hot to be wandering around the city – though I was “lucky” with 38 degrees, I’m told that August temperatures can reach the high 40s, so it’s probably advisable to stick to peak times from March to May.
The real adventure of the trip, though, was yet to come. At 9am sharp on my third day in Marrakesh, I found myself in the middle of the plains to the south of the city, with just a camel and two guides for company, one of whom spoke not a word of French or English, only Berber.
After a short explanation of what the hike would involve – three and a half hours of trekking, stopping for lunch in between at a small town, we set off, and for the first hour of the trek, everything went swimmingly (barring a minor toilet-related incident at the tiny village where we stopped off for mint tea chez my Berber-speaking guide – spending a penny in the corner of a stable, eyed by the family cow and camel, really is just as disconcerting as it sounds).
My various muscles held up relatively well (considering they usually consider daily exercise to be walking to the Tube and back) until lunch, at which point I realised, on disembarking from the camel, that my legs were actually shaking. Not one to be called a quitter, I refused the offer of taking the easy way out courtesy of the car that had followed our party to the village (many tourists simply can’t face another hour in the saddle, I’m told), though I was still paying for the decision a week later. Damn that stubborn streak.
After a night at the Kazbah du Toubkal, in the mountain town of Imlil – where the food was superb and the views even better – it was back to Marrakesh and a much needed full-body massage, before, all too soon, I had to hop on the plane back to Blighty. Needless to say, I’ll be back – as far as punishing camel workouts, incessant haggling and rustic charm go, Morocco can’t be beaten.
Two nights bed and breakfast at the Angsana Riad Blanc in Marrakesh and a camel trek with one night’s half board at the Kasbah du Toubkal costs from £575 per person including flights and connections, based on two people sharing.
All excursions and accommodation booked courtesy of Best of Morocco. For enquiries call 0845 026 4588.