The best things in life are free. At least that’s how the song goes. But in the mayhem that is Marrakech’s old medina, I could only assume that Luther Vandross never made it as far as Morocco’s Red City… Our stroll through the head-spinning souk had led us to an unmarked arched doorway along a quiet side street. Inside, the comforting smell of freshly baked bread pressed against the walls. The blazing furnace of the public oven, to which poorer families bring their doughy mixtures to be baked, was attended by a laconic man who stood in a small ashen pit. He stared ahead blankly as cameras clicked and dog-eared dirhams were dropped into his rusty tin. As the others shuffled out, I remained in the hope of striking up a conversation with the mysterious baker. “He won’t talk for free,” said guide Abbes. Everything, it seemed, has a price in Marrakech.
“There’s no doubt the city has changed,” added Abbes. “People are far more money focused and everything has become considerably more expensive in recent years, but there’s a Marrakech for every wallet.” Marrakech has, for years now, proactively courted those with deeper pockets – and it’s a trend that shows no sign of subsiding. In the past year alone, a string of new five-star hotels has opened, some costing upwards of £500 per night; several more are due to roll out their red carpets as demand continues to grow. With this in mind, I wondered whether Marrakech was still the good-value destination it once was. Having booked the cheapest tickets I could find (£113 return from Stansted with easy jet), I overlooked the inconvenient flight times and set off to find out whether Morocco’s Red City still fulfilled the brief for a budget city break.
Finest freebies – Much of what makes Marrakech so wonderfully enticing doesn’t cost a dirham. Just walking around, dodging the donkey carts and getting hopelessly lost in the maze of crowded alleys, is a pleasure afforded indiscriminately. On arrival, I headed straight for the Djemaa el-Fna – the world’s greatest public square, which plays host to a nightly spectacle of food, music and drama. As dusk draped over the snake charmers, astrologers and poor chained monkeys posing for photos, dozens of open-air restaurants commandeered the space.
Fielding off an onslaught of vendors clutching laminated menus, I eventually settled down to an alfresco feast of lamb, spiced and grilled to perfection, with salty olives and a hearty7 bowl of harira soup, a tomato and lentil broth usually eaten during Ramadan. The best bit? The bill was barely 40 dirhams (£2.95). Delicious and cheap, it was a far cry from the mediocre and overpriced lamb, prune and sesame tagine I later wasted 150 dirhams (£11) on at La Tagine, one of the city’s ‘best’ restaurants. Dar Yacout, located in a striking mansion with spiral staircases and hushed courtyards, offered a better fine dining experience, with tasty dishes served in tagines the size of small tipis.
Affordable attractions – The next morning it was time to walk off the excesses of the night before with local guide Abbes. Sightseeing in Marrakech needn’t break the bank – admission to most of the main sights costs 10-20 dirhams. Our first stop was the sprawling el-Badi Palace, built in the 16th century by Ahmed el-Mansour. Once a place of great grandeur, the marble, carved cedar-wood panels and glazed tiles were torn down by King Moulay Ismail, who dreamed of creating his own palatial pad in Meknes. “He came here and fell asleep in a grand room, only to be woken by a servant who nervously informed him he had been snoozing in the toilet,” laughed Abbes. Today, it’s a shadow of its former self: the walls are bare, sun-baked and crumbling. But it remains an impressive sight, its large sunken gardens filled with perfumed orange trees that sweeten the air.