I knew that the rider responsible for zipping me about Marrakech in a vintage sidecar had arrived – the flat cap, boots and cravat were a dead giveaway.
“Felix?” I smiled tentatively. “One minute – I’ll just grab my stuff.”
He smiled back and gestured around the courtyard, through which morning light was angling. “Not a problem – I could look at this all day.”
He had a point. I was being collected from The Oberoi, which opened in 2019 and has an exclusive partnership with sidecar operation Marrakech Insiders. A lavish confection of palace-inspired architecture and shimmering water features, the intricate carvings and mosaics of the courtyard and adjoining lobby, alone, took 200 artisans two years to create.
In such a setting, it’s easy to forget that you’re in Marrakech, a city that assaults every one of your senses, no matter how many times you’ve visited. But whizzing along in a vintage sidecar is a sure-fire way to plonk yourself firmly back in the realities of the destination – which is, after all, the point of travelling, isn’t it?
Granted, not all these realities were welcome ones. On my first ride, I noticed piles of rubbish and plastic bottles were all the more conspicuous at street level, as was the lethargy of street dogs and the piteous faces of scrawny stray cats. From the sidecar, I could have scooped them all up and nursed them back to health – had they not skittered away on our rumbling approach.
In many other settings, the roar of the bike might have made me feel self-consciously intrusive, but Marrakech is a city that throbs with a thousand engines. There, I was just another passenger, albeit one comfortably ensconced in a leather-seated bubble, with my legs stretched out in front of me, rather than riding in a chest-to-back domino arrangement of three or more.
That said, it took a couple of hours to get accustomed to the sensation – I braced myself for every approaching pothole; the traffic seemed far madder than it had when I’d been a pedestrian, and turns and roundabouts felt, at first, horribly counterintuitive – but it was soon abundantly clear that I was in the hands of an expert rider – and, without having to concentrate on when to tense or lean as a pillion rider, I was able to simply observe.
The ride with Felix was the first of a week’s worth, arranged by local company Marrakech Insiders – and as the days drew on, it became clear that “Insiders” was no mere window dressing. Not only was every one of the riders and guides so irresistibly warm and affable that, despite venturing into territories rarely seen by tourists, I never felt unwelcome (quite the opposite: hugs and handshakes were the norm), but they also brought with them astounding knowledge of – and access to – locations far beyond what most travellers might ever have heard of.
Felix, for example, once pulled over on the road just outside Tameslohte, a town located about a 30-minute ride from Marrakech and dotted with mausoleums, and pointed to a kasbah in the distance.
“I knew there was something about this place,” he said. “Its size, its position… I just kept knocking every time I was in the area until someone let me in.”
As it turned out, his hunch about the kasbah had been spot-on: having fallen into the hands of multiple inheritors, not all of whom were aligned on the question of what to do with it, certain sections are off-limits, but the areas to which we did have access were extraordinary.
Not only did Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant play in its column-flanked central courtyard in the Nineties, but a blackened – and now ruined – kitchen tells the story of hundreds of meals, while upstairs, light filters through colourful Iranian glass into a passageway leading from an intricately tiled, cushion stuffed salon. We removed our shoes to sit in this jewel box of a room and drank mint tea, accompanied by a bold pigeon, who helped himself to biscuit crumbs from Felix’s hand.
From Tameslohte, we drove further out into the pale-yellow moonscape of the Agafay desert, where several quad bike operations and luxury tented camps had set up shop, while camels rested yogically on the sand, awaiting their next passenger.
In the distance, we could just make out the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountain, and closer in, the austerity of the landscape was broken by the occasional swathe of oasis greenery, lusher than usual thanks to the heavy rain – welcome, after a two-year drought – that had fallen the previous week.
Marrakech and its surrounds seem to have long inspired creatives and dreamers. Here, those with crazy ideas find not only the tolerance such ideas require, but also the physical space in which to actualise them – from the artists’ residency, sculpture park and gallery of the Jardin Rouge, in which we wandered one morning, to the destabilising mind bends of Dar El Sadaka (darelsadaka.com), where French visual artist Jean-François Fourtou toys with perception in a 25-acre estate, only visited via exclusive hire – or, of course, with an Insider.
Meanwhile, the palm groves of the Palmeraie – which, along with ingenious irrigation systems called qanats, was created over a thousand years ago and was once responsible for most of the city’s produce – are now the Beverly Hills of Marrakech, with luxurious homes and imposing entrances. In the sidecar, we visited an Art Deco gem owned by a socialite family who hosted the likes of Yves St Laurent and Bill Willis at countless parties. The walls bear witness to these glamorous events, as well as to the work of Leila Alaoui, the couple’s acclaimed photographer daughter, killed in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso in 2016.
From the tight corners and dizzying bends of a ride that took me into lesser-known corners of the Medina, to the broad streets and French influences of Gueliz, Marrakech’s new town, we rode, on my final day, into the expanses of the Atlas Mountains, stopping for a breakfast of brochettes in a local market. School children waved; some blocked the road with cheeky dances.
“You’re famous now,” laughed that day’s guide, Mounir. My face obscured by a helmet, sunglasses and bandana, I decided I’d obviously been mistaken for Madonna – who booked out an entire lodge in the Agafay desert for her 60th birthday.
Climbing higher into the mountains, scrubby roadside plants gave way to gracious cedars and eucalypti. Goats defied gravity as they scampered off the road. Far beneath us, fold upon fold of pale pinks, yellows and apricots created an indecipherable pattern of civilisation – as inscrutable as the ancient red markings on the wall of an open-sided tunnel, reached via a steep scramble, high above the Berber village where we had been welcomed for a tagine in the home of the local Chief. In the vastness and simplicity of that setting, identity – real or imagined – fell away: it was difficult to imagine that, by the time night fell, we’d be back in the frenzy and blur of the city, and the warm embrace of the Oberoi.
The Oberoi (00 212 525 081515; oberoihotels.com) is located six miles from the medina, in 28 acres of grounds studded with citrus and olive trees. Deluxe rooms are priced from £709 per night, including private terrace, 24-hour private butler service and breakfast.
Marrakech Insiders (00 212 06 69 69 93 74; marrakechinsiders.com) offer rides from €175 for 1.5 hours, max two passengers.