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STAR STRUCK; Marrakesh is a bustling city, but GARY STEWART finds a hidden oasis of calm at its heart.

Byline: GARY STEWART

I'VE never really been one for "adventurous" holidays, so I was a bit apprehensive when asked to review a long weekend at the Riad Star in Marrakesh. Poor me, right? But everyone I know who's been to Morocco's fourth largest city told me I'd be hassled by street vendors asking to swap my wife for a camel.

After a three-and-a-half-hour flight from John Lennon Airport I arrived in a city that was exotic, bewildering and totally alien from the European destinations I've visited.

Sure, the guys in the souks are insistent you check out their wares, but by and large I found the Moroccan people to be friendly, and pretty funny too. 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-year-old city are new, flat and straight. But then the walls of the Red City come into view and you realise you are a continent away from home, and sometimes it feels like an epoch away too.

Our transfer came pre-booked by our hosts and I would recommend it as the taxi drivers have a reputation for pricegouging tourists. In Marrakesh, 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 (flanked by locals on motorbikes, one wearing a horse-riding helmet) and our taxi dropped us in wide-ish road in the Medina, the city's old town.

Jemaa As expected, it was crowded and confusing, but, before we 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 home centred around an open and very quiet courtyard, the high walls decorated with beautiful white stucco artwork.

The Riad Star was previously home to jazz age legend, WWII 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 Moroccan mint tea while he talked us through the app created by our hosts which includes a map of the Medina and its highlights and which can be accessed while offline - this proved to be a life-saver on literally dozens of occasions over the following few days.

el Fna marketplace Ms Baker's former abode has been turned into a pretty special place. The rooftop houses a traditional Hammam, where an exceptionally strong young lady will wash and then violently massage you before you fall asleep on a sun lounger listening to the call to prayer from one of hundreds of competing minarets. The kitchen 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 seven vegetable tagine, both of us being forced to retire to bed in a food coma that night.

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, noisy and a bit smelly, the rooftop terraces are calm green spaces offering views of the distant Atlas Mountains, and often hiding restaurants and bars that offer a respite from all the hustle and bustle at ground level.

The rest of the weekend was spent exploring the Medina. The place is a maze and, though it doesn't look it, pretty safe due to the tourist police.

Most people will have heard of the souk, the traditional marketplace where hand crafted goods (leather slippers, exotic spices, knock-off designer handbags etc) 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 - and you can have a laugh with them in schoolboy French.

The Medina and the large square to the south, the Jemaa el-Fnaa, offer the archetypal Moroccan experience - just like something out of the Arabian Nights.

At one point a man shoved a snake in my face (to no lasting harm) and another had a monkey doing tricks.

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 Foundouk, a very fine and refined restaurant/bar with a French colonial influence which we visited every night as one of the few places in a Muslim town where you could get a glass of wine.

We found our trip to Marrakesh was very much outside our comfort zone - but isn't that the point of travelling? And, when you have a relaxing base from which to explore the city like the Riad Star, the comfort zone is never that far away.

travel file | MARRAKECH Riad is the market leader for English speaking guests. It consists of four traditional riad properties around the old town Medina, each with its own distinctive personality: Riad Cinnamon, Riad Papillon, Dar Habiba and Riad Star (featuring Dar Star).

| ROOMS at Riad Star cost from PS112 per night including breakfast. For details and general information about visiting Marrakesh see marrakech-riad.co.uk | AIRPORT transfers (15 minute drive) can be arranged on request for PS15 each way.

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The beautiful Riad Star is the perfect peaceful bolthole in old town Marrakesh, Morocco

Jemaa el Fna marketplace
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:6MORO
Date:Jan 28, 2018
Words:958
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