Peaceful and relaxing are not words to describe the old medina of Marrakech, where a cauldron of babbling market traders try to sell a myriad of goods to haggling locals and mesmerised tourists.
Foreigners may feel intimidated by the hubbub, yet after a day or two most tourists lose their apprehension and realise they are in the centre of one of the world’s greatest showgrounds. The theatre of life has no greater stage than the old town and souks of Marrakech.
Its focal point is the famous Jemaa el Fna square, which transforms from a large empty space during the day to a carnival of flaming torches, woodsmoke and the incessant beating of drums that fill the night sky while visitors part with their dirhams to witness snake charming, belly dancing or to be photographed with a monkey on their shoulder.
Organised chaos appears to be the norm in Marrakech and today the city is a blend of the old and new. The historic medina, where 300,000 locals live, is jammed with 4,000 street market stalls selling everything from tanned leatherware to carpets, clothing, belts, copperware to olives, mint, spices and exotic scents such as ambergris. The new area began when the city expanded beyond the defensive walls as a winter retreat for French diplomats and dignitaries as a result of Moroccan colonisation. Soon it became a top destination for high society across the Western world and it remains Morocco’s showpiece attracting international celebrities by the score.
With government policy encouraging more diverse income sources Marrakech is enjoying a boom in golf tourism. Its appeal lies in its mild winters and close proximity to Europe’s golf tourism market making the city an excellent option for golfers.
The handful of long-established courses has been joined by a number of new ones and there are more in the pipeline.
One of the biggest draws that fully exploits Marrakech’s cultural experience are the riads – small boutique hotels converted from ancient townhouses, buried deep in the medina. Their popularity has seen a boom in their numbers that now tops 500.
All are traditionally decorated and furnished, offering a unique taste of past Moroccan life. The common point is the layout – each riad surrounds an uncovered courtyard, often with a small fountain in the middle. Most offer evening meals, but you need to order in the morning. You might be asked what you want to eat, but often it’s a question of being served the best what was available that day in the souks.
Origin Hotels is passionate about the city’s heritage and owns five riads providing stylish, yet traditional accommodation in the heart of the medina. All feature a roof terrace.
A few nights spent in a riad in the heart of the medina are an experience not to be missed. In the centre of the old town, surrounded by the sounds of the market places and the smells of authentic Arabic cooking, you couldn’t feel further from home yet only a few hours flight away.
There are now 10 golf courses around Marrakech and more are being constructed. They include:
Royal Marrakech Golf Club (www.royalgolfmarrakech.com)
The region’s first golf course opened in the 1920s and was subsequently remodeled. Recently a third loop of nine has been added (known as the blue course) but the general opinion is that the original 18 are the best.
Assoufid Golf Club (www.assoufid.com)
This course is very easy on the eye with fantastic views of the Atlas Mountains, yet in places very difficult. Designed by Scot Niall Cameron, his roots are seen with occasional nods to his homeland, not least on the 10th where the fairway comes to an abrupt end and players have to pitch over a dry stone wall.
The Montgomery Marrakech Prestigia Golf (www.prestigiagolf.com/montgomerie-marrakech-golf)
Surrounded by properties this is another new course with wide fairways. It features some long walks between holes yet is flat enough to play without a buggy. A great course if you are driving well, but your putting needs to be sharp.
Palmeraie Golf Club. (www.palmeraiemarrakech.com)
The 27-hole lay out is short by modern standards with easy par 3s and some drivable par 4s making it the least taxing we encountered. With a comparably short yardage the fairways are tight in places and it is no pushover. With bird life including an egret colony, it holds plenty of interest.
• Origin Hotels (www.originhotels.com): A Swedish company offering five authentic riads – Lhena, Magi, Alegria, El Faran and Saha, all within the old city walls and each with individual charms.
Flights are available from airports across the UK although winter months may be confined to Gatwick. The best way to travel to Gatwick from the north is by rail to London and then by the regular non-stop 30-minute journey on the Gatwick Express rail link (www.gatwickexpress.com)to direct to the airport.