A visit to this Moroccan hotspot isn’t complete without a traditional rub-a-dub-dub. WORDS: Kim Smith
Strolling into the hammam stark naked and beaming, a voluptuous Moroccan woman swings her hips for us before erupting into a fit of belly laughs. For Selima, completely at ease with her state of undress, a small cluster of bashful women cowering in the corner of her spa is clearly quite a knee-slapper. We chuckle back (a little in astonishment at this African Shakira), which sends her booty-swinging up a gear, before the rather extraordinary introduction draws to a close with a confident but friendly hands-on-hips grin that hints of the killer wash that’s to come.
Following Selima’s instructions, we grind some red clay into our grimy casing and, one by one, are ushered to lie on a bench, her workstation. We take turns being manhandled clean and, while it doesn’t tickle, there’s something soothing about being beaten. Next, Selima, still jolly and jiggling, alternately slings buckets of hot and cold water our way before delivering a parting scour that leaves us so clean, we squeak. Never has my skin felt so revitalised and supple. But, unfortunately in humid and slightly sooty Marrakesh, it was only a matter of time before that changed.
Taking a Moroccan bath, or hammam, is one of many lively experiences offered in Marrakesh. Most of the excitement is found at Djemaa el Fna, the city’s main square. After strolling around the labyrinth of souks harbouring everything from jewellery (look out for the ‘hands of Fatima’ pendants, they will protect you from the evil eye) and embroidered slippers (babouches) to wooden carved camels and brightly coloured ceramic bowls, sit in one of the surrounding cafés and restaurants to soak up the magic, preferably a rooftop perch. Watching the snake charmers, henna artists, teeth-pullers, jugglers, musicians, fortune tellers, monkey trainers and stall owners jostle for trade is more pleasant from a distance. Take in the scene while feasting on tajine and couscous or sipping on a mint tea or freshly squeezed orange juice.
The Koutoubia Mosque that towers over the square is worth a closer look. It has 17 aisles, 112 columns and covers a total floor area of 5400m_, making it among the largest of its kind, holding up to 25,000 faithful to say their prayers.
South of Djemaa el Fna is the city’s most famous palace, Palais el-Badi. Built between 1578 and 1602, it used to be known as The Incomparable, which says something of its beauty. Another one is Palais de la Bahia, a classic example of Muslim architecture. Some of the Royal family still hang out here, so keep your eyes peeled for a prince.
The locals also love spending time in public gardens, and for good reason – they offer peaceful and shady respite. Check out Jardin Mènara with its sprawling pool and pavilion; once restricted to sultans and ministers, it’s now free for all.
• Kim Smith travelled to Marrakesh with Opodo. City breaks to Marrakesh start at £153, including return flights and two nights’ accommodation at the L’Atlas Marrakesh
According to Greek mythology, when the Titans were defeated, Atlas developed a chip on his shoulder. A big chip – he was condemned to hold the sky on his shoulders for all eternity. Hercules also helped shoulder some of the burden, apparently, in exchange for Atlas fetching him the apples of Hesperides. The mythical explanation of why the sky does not fall down is just one of the enchanting aspects of the mountains, reached in just over an hour’s drive from Marrakesh. With their snow-peaked tips and traditional villages, it’s a breath of fresh air from the hyperactive city. Hire a local guide for a short tour around the mountain paths and stroll through the tightknit communities. The Berber villages of Imlil and Oukaimeden offer insight into the local way of life. You may even be invited into someone’s home for mint tea.
Another good break from Marrakesh, this coastal town faces a group of rocky islands and is surrounded by sandy beaches and dunes that inspired the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, who spent a summer here (they apparently stayed at Riad Al Madina). You will find the castle ruins from Jimi Hendrix’s song Castles in the Sand here, but, strangely enough, he penned it two years before his visit. The locals are very proud of both famous visitors and hold several music festivals during the year. The town is also a wind- and kite-surfers’ paradise and has a thriving market and seafood scene. If relaxing on the beach is more your thing, there’s plenty of scenery to admire – true to its name (the word Essaouira means ‘image’), this place is a real looker.