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From medina to mountaintop: experiencing Marrakech in winter

PUBLISHED: 08:00 31 January 2017

Atlas mountains. Picture: Zoe Paskett

Atlas mountains. Picture: Zoe Paskett

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Marrakech is at its best off season with mild temperatures and fewer crowds but the same great tagine, finds Zoe Paskett, who stayed at the newly refurbished Movenpick Hotel

Movenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech. Photo by Alan Keohane Movenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech. Photo by Alan Keohane

I’m of the opinion that you haven’t truly experienced travel until you’ve been naked in a very hot spa with a lot of people you hardly know. In fact, this authentic hammam in Marrakech isn’t the first time that’s happened. It is the first time, however, that I have been to Marrakech.

Morocco never really struck me as a winter holiday destination. I have always reserved that part of the year for a city break close by in Europe, wrapped up cosily and visiting markets packed with various meats and cheeses.

This trip has been my first ever hot weather winter holiday and I’m converted.

The colder English months are the perfect time for a north African retreat: it’s not tanning weather, but it beats the rain and cold we’re getting at the moment.

City breaks can be stifling in the summer – if it’s heat you’re seeking, hang out by the beach in Agadir or Essaouira – but at a comfortable 20 degrees, Marrakech’s winding Medina streets and hidden palaces are at their best off season. And there’s the added bonus of avoiding crowds in the historic souk and decadent palaces.

For someone who braved the Parliament Hill lido well into October, it’s the perfect temperature to go for a dip.

The main pool at the newly opened Mövenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech called to me as soon as I saw it. I say “main” because it’s one of four pools at this gigantic five star resort.

Movenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech. Photo by Alan Keohane Movenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech. Photo by Alan Keohane

Following a huge redevelopment, the hotel now boasts 503 rooms and suites all with balconies, six restaurants and bars, a two floor O de Rose spa and wellbeing centre, fully equipped gym and is 15 minutes drive from the airport.

Arriving after a very early wake up and flight, the bed and its giant pillows were almost enough to make me miss lunch, though I’m glad I didn’t because the all-you-can-stuff-in buffet was full of local and international delicacies.

The hotel’s Saray and Medi Terra restaurants serve a bit of whatever you fancy from traditional dishes to high concept cooking with brilliant structural integrity demonstrated through chocolate work.

Speaking of chocolate – every day, there’s Chocolate Hour. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a table of treats that are constantly replenished until the hour is up. I plan to campaign to get this instituted at work.

It soon became clear just how much of this trip would be food related. There are some fantastic places to eat both in the centre of the city and in the suburbs.

Restaurant Albaraka on the edge of the Medina’s famous Jemaa Al Fna square is a characteristic oasis behind nondescript wooden doors, a former 17th century home to the wealthy. It’s also conveniently placed to visit any of the other hidden riads with rich and ancient histories, such as the vast Bahia Palace.

Comptoir Darna is a mixture of great food and bellydancing with candelabra hats. It serves Moroccan specialities next to dishes “from flavours elsewhere”. I’d stick to the local food and steer clear of the cocktails.

Marrakech and mountains. Picture: Alan Keohane Marrakech and mountains. Picture: Alan Keohane

A rather bizarre evening can be had at the Lotus Club, internationally renowned for its entertainment: 5 minute bursts of dance performances over dinner. You’ll know it’s about to happen when the lights go down in the middle of a mouthful.

But absolutely nothing will beat the real thing. You haven’t had tagine until you’ve had tagine on a roof terrace in the middle of the mountains. Stewing in the conical pot for hours, it doesn’t happen to be there for the benefit of tourists; tourists happen to be there and can enjoy the benefits of true home cooking.

My favourite thing about Marrakech is the ability to travel out into the abyss. Driving through the city, you get glimpses of the Atlas Mountains in the distance, an imposing sight on the skyline.

A 4x4 tour to the peaks gives you the most outstanding views. Winding up through the hills, we stopped to enjoy some tea and bread with a local Berber family – with honey from the bees down the road, bread made at the house and the most delicious crumbly butter from the cow we met downstairs.

There are simply no words to describe the panorama from the summit. You have to see it for yourself. While you’re up there, ski hire stalls flog equipment like they’re in the souk. There are even chalets and a sign labelling the runs Le Courchevel.

The descent takes us through Imlil valley, with its Berber houses and shelves built into the hillsides. We exit through a tiny village, where handmade storytelling rugs and tagines are on sale for a fraction of the Medina prices – straight from the source.

There’s so much to explore in a lively city like Marrakech, but sometimes it’s good to escape the hustle and bustle. The quiet calm of the mountains and the tranquil atmosphere of Mövenpick Hotel are my idea of a good break.

The O de Rose spa at Movenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech. Photo by Alan Keohane The O de Rose spa at Movenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech. Photo by Alan Keohane

Rooms at the upscale Mövenpick Hotel Mansour Eddahbi Marrakech start from EUR125 per night based on two sharing, including breakfast and taxes. For reservations visit movenpick.com or call: 0800 898 317.

easyJet flies to Marrakech, from London Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester with fares from £31.99 one way, including taxes. Flights can be booked at easyJet.com.

Complete Tours offer a variety of excursions in Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains. For more information, visit complete-tours.com

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