Fleeing streets of slush, we touch down in a north African spring, where we are driven through the desert scrub outside Marrakech, passing dusty ochre expanses filled with old plastic containers and half-built hotels and the odd donkey before turning down a track which runs alongside a walled garden. Tantalising green fronds poke above the wall. The gates open (someone is posted to look through a gap in the wall to time it right) and reveal a lush complex of grass, palms, roses, figs and orange trees around a T-shaped pool.
This hotel is one of a handful to have popped up a short way away from the clamour of the city. It’s peaceful — there is a view of the Atlas mountains in the distance — but you can get to the souk whenever you want. The architecture is modernist north African. Inside, it’s cool and comfortable, with lots of polished concrete.
First things first, it’s time to boost our sugar levels. Trays of biscuits, sweet mint tea and syrupy fruit cocktails are brought out, and from here on it’s a festival of sweetness. Morocco is a diabetic’s nightmare. Even the chicken pastillas have a dusting of icing sugar on them.
The sun emerges, exuding gentle warmth, so we have lunch outside, with the sparrows flitting about the bushes and sometimes venturing into the bar — some are nesting in the pelmet, and peck about the carpet for crumbs. It’s so pleasant, this mildness, after the vicious winter. You can feel yourself unfurl.
Lunch over, we receive word to get into our robes and gather at the newly opened spa. First up, it’s the hammam, which is incredibly hot — it sears my soles. The lady has to arrange a stream of cold water over the bench to make lying down bearable. There’s a scrub-down and then the instruction to lie in a recliner and relax. So lovely, being told to relax. Contentment prickles my scalp. Next, a massage. Then more enforced relaxation.
Back in my room, someone has got creative flinging rose petals around the bed and arranging towels with wild abandon. As the sun sinks, the sky fades to the same colour as the desert. When darkness descends it’s time for a drink in the bar, all grey velvet and high dangling lamps, and then dinner, which is a delicious sweet tagine of lamb with apricots and walnuts. The couscous is criss-crossed with cinnamon.
The next morning we head into Marrakech, where our first stop is Yves St Laurent’s garden, Majorelle. We pay our dirhams through a hole in the wall and enter: that moment of hush as you move from honking streets to secluded greenness. Fountains trickle. Before YSL bought the estate, it was owned by the painter Jacques Majorelle, and in the corner the little art deco house is brightly painted in Majorelle blue, a vibrant cobalt. The garden is small but immaculate; a gardener is raking the pink sand in a zen-like fashion. We pass through an Asian section, dense with bamboo; a central area with more open, Mediterranean planting; and by the house, an amazing desert scene with cactuses, agave and twisting succulents.
Lunch is in a rooftop restaurant in the medina, the Café Arabe, where I am brought an immense plateful of salad, delicious chopped and pickled vegetables and mezes, before discovering with dismay that it was just a starter when a chicken and olive tagine is placed in front of me.
Next, the souk. Through the alleys of caves offering wooden camels, brass knockers, coloured glass, leather slippers. ‘What are you looking for?’ comes the soft question from every doorway: ‘Slippers? Spices?’ Impossible to judge what is nice. For some reason I can’t stop buying slippers, though the haggling is boring and I’m no good at it. ‘Give me your final offer, I give you friend price,’ says the third shopkeeper. It’s the usual opener.
‘It’s too tiring,’ I tell him. ‘I just want to buy them without it taking an hour.’
‘OK, we do it quickly. Give me your final offer.’
In the enormous Jemaa el Fna square, a boarded-up section in the corner is a reminder of the bombing in 2011 which killed 15 people. We pass the orange juice sellers. They scowl. Nearby, a dozen black cobras are coiled and swaying. Unthinkingly I take a picture with my phone, and one of the djellaba’d young men is there in an instant, hand out, gesturing for dirhams.
A grey plug of cloud materialises over the city, and in the absence of sun there is a strong chill. All around swirl cars and scooters and people and noise. Women trying to daub you with henna. Crippled beggars on skateboards. Chained baboons, their humans pimping them for photos. On another stall, tiny chameleons and baby tortoises in boxes, and chipmunks running back and forth. A pair of well-behaved horses, hitched to a tourist trap, rub their heads together as they stand waiting for custom. In the huge, low square, this carnival of humanity seems suddenly unreal.
Maybe it’s a reaction to the bizarre contrasts. There are cool new restaurants and bars opening every week in Marrakech. There is La Mamounia, one of the most fabulous hotels in the world, packed with plutocrats. You can shop till you hate yourself. But here is another kind of Morocco, with some uncomfortable truths, and it’s hard to square the two.
For all that, it’s only three hours away by plane, perfect for a long weekend. By mid-February, there is the prospect of a bit of sun; you can stay in wonderful places and eat lovely food; and you can come to Jemaa el Fna square and know you’re definitely not in Europe.