Friday, 24 January 2014

Escaping the Gloom in Marrakesh

Dark winter days getting you down? If you're like me and have a touch of SAD - mixed in with a natural disposition to melancholy for good measure - it can be a hard slog getting through the winter months. I find myself aching - quite literally - for warmth, sunshine and skies that aren't permanently tinged a dark shade of grey. Then I remember that massive hole in my bank account, courtesy of my January tax return, and get even more depressed. Is it really a case of waiting till June before the sun comes out again or is there any way us 'normal' people - people without the sort of incomes that facilitate winter breaks to the Caribbean - can find a sunny escape that is a. budget-friendly, b. child-friendly, c. short-haul? Well, yes, sort of. 

We recently made a trip to Marrakesh which pretty much ticks the aforementioned criteria. We were lucky enough not to have to fund accommodation as we stayed with family, but I reckon Marrakesh is definitely a place to consider if you're desperate to find a budget-friendly antidote to a cold, British winter. We visited over Christmas and enjoyed gorgeous, sunny weather for the duration of our stay. December temperatures generally hover around the low to mid twenties so while it might not quite be swimming pool weather short sleeves and even shorts are definite possibilities this time of year. Leave it till February or March and the weather is perfect, with a very low chance of rain and temperatures a steady 23/24 degrees C - not bad for a short haul flight of just over 3 hours from the UK.

But is it child-friendly? In all honestly Marrakesh is probably more of a destination for grown-ups. In fact it would make the perfect location for a weekend break on your own, if you were lucky enough to find yourselves in the enviable position of having a grandparent willing to babysit for a couple of nights. With lots of regional airports now flying to Marrakesh (including Bristol, via EasyJet) you could very reasonably fit in a short weekend break here, flying out on a Friday evening and coming back on a Monday morning, for example. The city itself is pretty compact, and it's not a place so heaving with sights that you'd struggle to cover enough ground in a weekend. It's very much a place to lap up the atmosphere and enjoy getting lost in. If you have older children there is definitely appeal for them, though. You could enjoy a camel ride in the nearby suburb of the Palmeraie, for example, let them try out their haggling skills in the souk or take a trip out to the Atlas mountains to explore ancient Berber villages. But if you've got very little ones the challenge of navigating your way through the noisy, chaotic Medina might be a step too far.

On to matters financial - is Marrakesh really a budget option for a break in the sun? Compared to other places with guaranteed sunshine at this time of year, yes, it is. Average ticket prices for flights from Bristol in March are around the £49 mark, one way, or just £30 in April, if you are able to travel outside school holidays. Package deals may also work out cheaper - I recently saw an amazing deal in the Sunday travel supplements for an all inclusive package deal to a modern resort hotel, just outside the old city for £275, including flights and 7 nights accommodation. Which leads me nicely on to the question of where to stay. For an authentic Marrakesh experience you have to stay in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house characterised by its interior courtyard or garden. There are numerous riads to choose from in the Medina, which provide a wonderful oasis of calm in the heart of this atmospheric quarter. There are some very luxurious, eye-wateringly expensive riads and some very lovely but not so expensive options to choose from. If you don't end up staying in a riad many have a restaurant you can visit for dinner - this is an experience you shouldn't miss; there's something very magical about eating your tagine overlooking a tranquil pool, illuminated by twinkling Moroccan lanterns. I recommend the Riad Monceau which offers good value, authentic dishes in a stunning setting.

If you want a more contemporary, child-friendly option look out for accommodation options based in either the new town or the suburb of the Palmeraie, where you'll find resort-style complexes with swimming pools and kids' clubs. Staying somewhere like the Palmeraie offers the best of both worlds - you're near enough to the Medina to get the true Marrakesh experience, but you can also relax and catch some rays by the pool when the hustle and bustle gets too much.

So, what to do while you're in Marrakesh? All roads lead to the Djemma el Fna, the city's central square which is bustling and interesting throughout the day but which really comes to life at dusk. I recommend enjoying its exotic atmosphere from the comfort of a roof-top cafe where you can sip on a mint tea and take it all in from above. Head down to the square for a bite to eat - there are numerous stalls where you can eat everything from freshly cooked snails to delicious kebabs, cooked on the coals right in front of you. Then wander across the square to see the performers in action. Crowds surround the best acrobats, musicians and storytellers. Watch out for the sometimes over-zealous snake-charmers if you don't fancy the idea of having a snake wrapped round your neck...

A visit to the souk is a given and a great place to pick up bargains. Be prepared to haggle and also be prepared to pay perhaps more than the guide books might have you believe - the stall-owners strike a hard bargain these days now that Marrakesh has a steady stream of tourists visiting its markets all year round. The souk is arranged according to product, so one area specialises in jewellery, another in leather goods, and another in herbs and weird and wonderful medicinal treatments. Expect to get lost but remember that you'll end up back in the main square eventually. 

There aren't many true 'sights' in Marrakesh, but you should definitely take a look at the Saadian Tombs and go for a wander in the tranquil Menara Gardens. A highlight of our trip was a visit to the gorgeous Jardins Majorelle. The former home of the fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, this tranquil garden is filled with tropical plants, flowers and cacti, landscaped to compliment the rich blue hues of the garden's surrounding walls and plant pots. There's a lovely courtyard cafe here, too. 

EasyJet, Ryanair and Thomson all fly from regional UK airports to Marrakesh. It's about 20 minutes' taxi ride to the centre of town from the airport.

For useful information about visiting Marrakesh with children, take a look at Lonely Planet.


  1. I traveled there during the Xmas break and loved it. You are right, it is a very good option to have a nice holiday on a budget.

  2. It's great, isn't it? I loved trawling the souk for bargains and came back with some amazing stuff. Will definitely be visiting again!


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