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Riad letter days; Marrakech may be an in-your-face kind of place but it's good to throw yourself in.

Byline: GARY STEWART

I've never really been an adventurous traveller, so I was a bit apprehensive when I landed in Marrakech - exotic, bewildering and totally alien from the European destinations I've visited.

Poor me, right? But everyone I know who's been to Morocco's fourth-largest city told me I'd be hassled at every turn.

Sure, the guys in the souks are insistent you check out their wares, but by and large I found the locals to be friendly and funny.

Their way of life is very different, but the more I saw of it, the more it made sense - and the food is amazing.

The airport is modern and the highways leading to the nearly 1,000-yearold city are new, flat and straight. But then the walls of the Red City come into view and you realise you area continent away from home, and sometimes it feels like an epoch away too.

Our transfer was arranged by our hosts and I would recommend it as the taxi drivers have a reputation for hiking up prices for tourists.

In Marrakech, motorbikes - those 1950s ones my dad likes - are everywhere, even zooming down alleys no wider than a few feet.

We entered the walled city via a tiny doorway (passed by locals on motorbikes, one wearing a horse-riding helmet) and our taxi dropped us in the Medina, the city's old town.

As expected, it was crowded and confusing but, before my wife Helen and I had a chance to panic, hotel concierge Aziz appeared and showed us to our home for the next three days.

We followed him down twisting alleyways to the Riad Star, owned by British couple Mike and Lucie Wood.

Behind an unassuming door the riad opened up into a calm and airy haven centred around an open, quiet courtyard, the high walls decorated with beautiful white stucco.

The Riad Star was previously home to jazz age legend, French resistance agent and civil rights leader Josephine Baker, an amazing woman who deserves an article all to herself.

Aziz sat us down with a mint tea while he talked us through the app created by our hosts. It includes a map of the Medina and its highlights and can be accessed while offline - this proved to be a life-saver on literally dozens of occasions over the following few days.

Ms Baker's former abode has been turned into a pretty special place. The rooftop has a traditional hammam, where a very strong young lady will expertly massage you before you fall asleep on a sunlounger listening to the call to prayer from hundreds of minarets.

The chef can whip you up a traditional three-course meal that will leave you fit to burst. We enjoyed a selection of traditional breads and dips, followed by a lamb and plum tagine for me while my wife had a sevenvegetable tagine. Both of us retired to our mezzanine-level bed in a food coma.

This is one of the odd aspects of Moroccan culture - much is hidden. The 13-bedroom riad was just lovely inside but from the outside you would not know it was there.

And where the city is choked with dust and noise and smells, the rooftop terraces are calm spaces offering views of the Atlas Mountains, often hiding restaurants and bars that offer a respite from all the hustle and bustle.

The rest of the weekend was spent exploring the maze that is the Medina. The souks are traditional marketplaces where handcrafted goods and knock-off designer handbags are sold. The shopkeepers call out as you go past but aren't as insistent as I'd been told - unless you show an interest, then you can have a laugh with them in your schoolboy French.

The Medina and the huge Jemaa el-Fnaa square offer the archetypal Moroccan experience. But there are also modern comforts such as Nomad, a rooftop restaurant with a distinctly hipster tone, serving delicious Moroccan cuisine with a 21st century spin, and Le Foundouk, a very fine restaurant with a French influence.

We found our trip to Marrakech was very much outside our comfort zone - but isn't that the point of travelling?

TRAVEL FILE

GET THERE Ryanair from Liverpool, Luton and Stansted to Marrakech from PS24.99 one-way. ryanair.com

BOOK IT Marrakech Riad has four properties around the Medina: Riad Cinnamon, Riad Papillon, Dar Habiba and Riad Star. B&B at Riad Star from PS112 per night. Airport transfers are PS15 one-way. marrakech-riad.co.uk

TOP TIP Visitors are not allowed to take Moroccan Dirhams out of the country, so make sure you don't change too much at a time and spend your currency before you leave.

MORE INFO visitmorocco.com/en

CAPTION(S):

FABULOUS BAKER Stay in Josephine's former home

HUSTLE Jemaa el-Fnaa square

HAVEN Hidden Riad Star was Josephine Baker's home
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:6MORO
Date:Feb 11, 2018
Words:800
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