Enchanted by Magical Morocco; Thirty Years after Her First Visit, Wendy Driver Returns to the Souks and Mountains and Decides She Is Still
IT WAS 5am and still dark when I awoke with a start to the sound of hypnotic wailing. It was more than 30 years since I had last visited Morocco as a young backpacker and I had forgotten about the muezzin's call to prayer that rouses you from sleep every morning.
Back in the Seventies there were few hotels within the old walled city of Marrakech, but now I was staying in the heart of the medina.
La Maison Arabe is situated opposite the Bab Doukkala mosque. From the outside it seems a fairly nondescript building, but step inside and you'll find yourself in a beautifully converted traditional home.
The rooms surround a small, open-air courtyard where rose petals float in a fountain and crimson bougainvillea clings to the ornate balcony.
Filigree lanterns cast a glow over the wonderfully carved wood-panelled corridors and rooms are decorated with hand-crafted furnishings and woven rugs.
My room had a private rooftop terrace with its own Jacuzzi where I could quite happily have spent the day relaxing, but after breakfast beside the pool I joined my guide, Rasheed, to explore the city.
It is easy to see why Marrakech has long attracted writers, artists and designers. French couturier Pierre Balmain lived here in the Thirties and his pink Art Deco riad has been converted into one of the city's top fusion restaurants, Dar Moha.
The Majorelle Gardens, which fashion designer Yves St Laurent bought in the Eighties, are full of vibrant colours. Yellow and orange pots line the tiled walkways and his cobalt-blue villa overlooks lily ponds where tiny turtles bask in the sun.
One of my favourite places is the El Badi Palace, once the glittering centrepiece of the Saadian dynasty in the 16th Century. All that remains today are the massive ramparts which still tower over the city. I climbed the steep steps to the parapet, where storks guarded their nests, looking out over the flat roofs to the hazy mountains beyond.
A VISIT to the Palace dungeons sent a shiver down my spine as I stumbled through the claustrophobic cells with walls several yards thick. The only glimmer of light came from a hole in the vaulted ceiling high above my head.
The famous Djemaa El Fna Square has changed little since my last visit. Admittedly, it is now far more crowded with tourists and you have to dodge speeding motorbikes rather than donkeys and carts as I did in the Seventies, but go at dusk and you can still soak up its magical atmosphere.
Smoke from the food stalls wafted across the marketplace as the throbbing sound of drumming competed with musicians, storytellers and snake-charmers.
The nearby souks are a maze of covered alleyways where I was soon lost among the hundreds of stalls selling leatherware, ceramics, rugs and jewellery. Brilliantly coloured skeins of freshly dyed wool hung from the rafters, sweet pastries and sticky dates were piled high on wooden racks, and herbalists promised cures for every imaginable ailment.
That evening, I arrived back at the riad dusty and footsore so, after a glass of mint tea, I treated myself to a massage in the candlelit hammam.
After being scrubbed all over with black soap until my skin peeled off like a chameleon's, I was pummelled with argane oil, which purportedly nourishes your skin and hair.
It certainly did the trick. By the time dinner was served, I felt totally revived. The house speciality was a delicious lamb tagine with mandarins and caramelised aubergine.
I learned more about Moroccan cuisine when I joined a group cookery course at the hotel. …