Africa experts Louise and Fiona have recently returned from Morocco, where they sought out the best places to go, things to see and hotels to stay in. In the first in a series of blogs, Louise shares her magical Marrakech experience.

terrace

It was surreal to think...

As we sat on our sunny roof terrace, that the lamb tagine bubbling away in front of us had taken twice as long to cook than our 2.5 hour flight from London that morning. That's right folks, just 2.5 hours away the most wondrously exotic escape from Old Blighty awaits you. Not to mention sun, glorious sun! From the delights of the bustling souq to the peaceful pamperings of the riads, Marrakech will leave every one of your senses buzzing.

The heavenly smells of the luxurious Villa des Orangers, for example, had Fiona and I sniffing the air like a pair of blood hounds, somewhat unnerving our host as he walked us through fragrant courtyards lined with orange trees, jasmine and lavender. By the time we got to the aromatic spa we were as dizzy as bees in spring.

el fenn hallway

The striking Riad El Fenn...

Is certainly a feast for the eyes - rich in colour and style, El Fenn is a traditional riad done in a bold, funky and unique style - with modern art showcased throughout. Red is easily the dominant colour, and as the owner is Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard, perhaps that isn't all that surprising. A penchant for red seems to run in the family. The courtyards are charming (watch your step, they're home to a couple of baby tortoises) but it is the spectacular views of the city from the stylish rooftop that stay with you. With a terrific bar and restaurant, one of the few rooftop pools in the city and masses of comfortable chill out areas, your biggest dilemma here is simply how to tear yourself away from the fabulous roof terrace.

The roof terrace at Riad Kniza

To set your tastebuds tingling...

Visit the lovely Riad Kniza, whose gracious hosts produced a seemingly endless stream of delicious local dishes, each bigger than the last, which left us clutching the table in wonder at how we were going to consume all this hospitality; we made it through, but belts were loosened (or if we're being honest, removed entirely and tucked into my handbag). Never let it be said that I do not take my research trips seriously).

One of the most charming things about Riad Kniza is its strong sense of authenticity and, having been in the owner's family for 200 years, it is no wonder. Even its location feels particularly authentic. Stepping (rolling) out after lunch we joined the flow of everyday Moroccan life which spills out into the nearby alleyways.

Instead of the usual tourist handbags, carpets and spices...

There were enormous sacks of fresh mint, flaming bread ovens, almonds, brass pots, cobblers… all set amongst a mind-boggling menagerie of things you could never dream of finding in a European market. A crate of multi coloured chicks anyone….?! Just don't get too lost in wonder at it all; the donkey cart drivers and mopeds which jostle for right of way don't put up with dawdlers.

Marrakech Souq

On the other hand...

The famous souq pretty much demands a slow paced wander. Put away the map and lose yourself (which is what would happen anyway, so best to roll with it) in this intoxicating labyrinth of narrow alleyways lined with handmade leather, metal and woollen goods. Expect some, shall we say, very sprightly salesmen while other stalls will just prop up a snoring minder. Most will have a cat lounging around somewhere.

Now, if you suffer from crippling indecision, as I do, then I suggest you take your most decisive shopping partner along, because the choice in these markets is mind-bending. I'd set my heart on finding a bag, but after seeing fifty shades of leather I was so overwhelmed I gave up and returned with a measly selection of spices and a shot of Argan oil for my locks.

In fact, I would suggest dropping the pressure of shopping altogether and simply soaking up the atmosphere. It is mesmerising to watch the craftsman at work in the back of their stalls. Ironmongers with sparks flying above their heads as they weld a lump into something delicate and beautiful… and even more satisfying to be able to buy the lamp you have watched come to life from the very same hands that created it. That's how you decide what to buy, watch it come to life!

Djemaa el-Fna Square

No trip to Marrakech would be complete...

Without a wander down to the Djemaa el-Fna Square at dusk when this medieval market comes to life. Amazing food stalls dotted between all sorts of weird and wonderful street theatre together create an incredible atmosphere. Musicians, storytellers, snake charmers, henna painters, falcons, monkeys, tooth pullers… you name it. It's a great evening for anyone but a real winner for kids- this is real eyes-on-stalks stuff.

But here's the thing- it wasn't nearly as touristy as I thought it was going to be. Sure, there were a fair few tourists wandering about rather cautiously, but most peered down from the numerous café balconies which line the square. The majority were in fact locals, mainly families, enjoying some good old fashioned street food and entertainment, and it's this that gives the square that special atmosphere.

The pool at Dar Zemora

For those not quite sure that the hustle and bustle is quite their bag...

Fear not. Just 15 minutes away from the medina lies all the peace and tranquillity you could ask for, not to mention the space you will rarely find in the medina. The Palmerie district (name after, you guessed it, the hundreds of palms which peer down on you) is an excellent choice for groups and families looking to spread out more than the medina allows, but not wanting to miss out on the Marrakech experience. The charming and colourful Dar Zemora, with its ridiculously lush garden, and the stylish and beautifully landscaped Jnane Tamsna both offer a much calmer and very different experience to the medina riads.

Wherever you go, I guarantee Morocco will leave its distinctive mark on all your senses, and if you're not careful, your belt!