Morocco has administered more vaccines to its citizens than any other African country apart from Egypt. Yet only recently has it opened up to international travel — just in time for Spring.
When I arrive in the northwest corner of Africa for a romantic break with my amour, everything is handled with impressively brisk efficiency. A nasal swab at the airport isn’t many people’s idea of love’s young dream. But in our case, it’s over in seconds and then we’re on our way to our magnificent berth at the Selman hotel, a few miles south of Morocco’s cultural heart, which is the city of Marrakech.
The place is simply sumptuous, with pink sun-drenched stone, solicitous staff, and a pool the length and slimness of a canal.
The masterstroke? The landscaped gardens are dotted with elegant equine statues — and then, in the nearby paddocks, you’ll spot the real thing: spirited Arab purebreds, which seem carved out of curves. The on-site stud farm is the passion of the Bennani Smires family, which built the hotel.
Marrakech is one of the most compelling destinations on the planet, but the bustle of the town, and hassle of the souk, can be overwhelming. The Selman is one of the hotel oases that sit outside the sprawl of the city. Yet it’s still within 20 minutes’ taxi ride of anything you might visit, and it has bars and restaurants to die for.
During our brief stay, which isn’t our first trip to Marrakech, we decide to give short shrift to its more crowded attractions. Instead, we seek out local knowledge to advise us on how to investigate some of its lesser-known highlights. Here are five discoveries that the city yields up only to those in the know.
Oil have what he’s having.
It may not sound particularly appetising: a restaurant at a petrol station beside a main road that thrums with traffic. But what’s on offer at Al Baraka — a few miles out of town to the east, and not to be confused with the place of the same name in the main square — is beloved of locals and it’s easy to see why. The succulent tajines and smoking barbecues arrive in a trice and taste terrific. Operating on a shady concourse a few yards from the petrol pumps, the friendly waiters have a tremendous sense of theatre, pouring your mint tea from a foot above the glass. This aerates the liquid but it’s also a nice flourish. Best of all for those on a budget, lunch at Al Baraka will only set you back about £10 a head.
Exploring the Atlas.
At the Photography Museum (entrance £5) in the middle of Marrakech’s medina, there’s a film that you literally cannot see anywhere else. Playing on a constant loop, it’s a fascinating 90-minute documentary about the Berbers who live in the Atlas Mountains. Grab a coffee from the rooftop cafe and settle in. Then peruse the black-and-white photos of Morocco that fill the other rooms: such as the stunning one taken in around 1940, which sees the souk slashed with rays of sunlight slanting down from above. (maisondelaphotographie.ma/)
Street art with a difference.
An artist named Moulayhafid Taqouraite and his colleagues have recently taken their chisels to the eucalyptus trees lining one of Marrakech’s main thoroughfares, Avenue Mohammed V. Now the trunks are crawling with giant ants and totemic faces stare at you from the branches. On nearby Avenue Mohammed VI, meanwhile, you can see the massive but friendly portrait of Aziz, a local mason, by Hendrik Beikirch. It’s a tribute to the city’s tradition of craftsmanship.
Hélène Sebillon-Larochette and her daughter Suzy had to get special permission from the governor of Marrakech to open La Maison Arabe in 1946, which was the first restaurant in the entire country to specialise in Moroccan cuisine. This venerable establishment still stands. It has expanded into a lovely hotel, so you can also stay there if you like — and either way, it now offers fantastic cookery courses for as little as £25 a head. Even if you only do the shortest course, which lasts an hour, you’ll learn some of the secrets of a true traditional Moroccan-style chicken tajine, slashing the flesh of the chicken yourself in parallel lines and then sprinkling it with saffron and fresh green olives. Then you’ll take it up to the roof terrace and tuck into the fruits of your labours. It’s another plus for those counting the pennies: your lunch is included! (cenizaro.com/lamaisonarabe)
Horses for courses.
Whether or not you’re actually staying at the Selman, you should book a table there for Sunday brunch (£100 per person). As well as luxurious langoustine, you’ll be treated to the spectacle of fiery Arab stallions being out through their paces. The star of the stud, the sinuous Sandirhan, won a bronze medal for beauty in Paris a few years ago. The sight of these beautiful creatures prancing for your pleasure is unforgettable. (selman-marrakech.com/restaurants-bars/sunday-brunch)