Experience a meld of North African, Berber, Arab and French culture in a city both ancient and modern.

Marrakesh is one of those places whose name, when spoken aloud, conjures up qualities of the city itself. A magical, mysterious, silken sound that evokes covered souks and the medina, ochre-coloured buildings and palm trees, the clash of scooters, cars, donkeys and people. Living here means experiencing a meld of North African, Berber, Arab and French culture in a city both ancient and modern.

What is it known for?
Marrakesh sits at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in the heart of Morocco, midway between the Mediterranean coast and the edge of the African interior. It has been a draw for Western travellers for more than a century, attracting ex-pats during the French colonial period in the first half of the 20th Century like George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, and Jacques Majorelle, an artist who designed the city’s lush gardens named for him and who created the deep blue colour known as bleu Majorelle, seen throughout the garden. (Yves Saint Laurent bought it in 1980 and his ashes were scattered there.) In the post-war era, writer Paul Bowles came and set his novel Sheltering Sky in the region, followed by bohemians, hippies and glam jetsetters, each seeking sun and/or sin.

The city is one of Morocco’s biggest tourist draws. Many visitors start in Djemaa el-Fna, a market square filled snake charmers and nightly food stalls; wander down the lanes of the medina; then sip mint tea and nibble on figs while listening to the muezzins call to prayer and recovering from haggling over carpets before retiring to their riad hotels (a traditional house where all the rooms surround an interior courtyard, usually with a rooftop garden).

The Ville Nouvelle -- modern Marrakesh -- is just outside the medina, and neighbourhoods like Gueliz and Hivernage are home to many chic restaurants and shops. In the past few years, a number of luxury palace hotels have opened in and around the city, including the revamp of the famous La Mamounia, the sumptuous Palais Namaskar and its water gardens, and the walled Selman just minutes from the medina.

The city also has attracted more than 10,000 ex-pats and retirees, many of who come for a new way of life relatively close to home. “You get this incredibly exotic lifestyle and destination, wrapped up in enough European modernity to keep your sanity,” said Tara Stevens, a writer who lives in Fez, but spends a lot of her time in Marrakesh. “You can dip in and out of the medina, bombard your senses at the night food market on the Djemaa el-Fna, but still go shopping for modern fashion or have a glass of wine on a terrace in the Ville Nouvelle.”

Where do you want to live?
Restoring a traditional riad in the medina is a dream for many, whether it is to live in or run as a guesthouse. But the walls of this ancient quarter can feel claustrophobic and some choose to move to areas such as Gueliz and Hivernage, with their high-end restaurants and swank nightlife. “Some ex-pats move out to Gueliz or elsewhere in the Ville Nouvelle because it is far less intense and you have a bit more freedom in terms of lifestyle,” said Stevens, referring to the modernity available outside the riads and narrow lanes of the medina. “I suppose space is what you ultimately miss in the medina.”

Villas and land parcels along the Route d’Amizmiz attract an upscale clientele looking to live just outside of the city, but still close to the centre and the medina. Northeast of the city, the Palmeraie, an enormous palm grove, is home to luxury resorts, villas and manicured gardens that attract an extremely well-heeled buyer. “People are still looking to buy land to build a villa as far out as 25 to 30km from the centre,” said Philip Arnott, director of Moroccan Properties Immobilier.

Side trips
The spectacular Ourika Valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains is just about an hour away, and acts as the jumping off point to Berber villages and mountain treks. “It’s probably one of the most beautiful spots in all Morocco with rich red mountains and lush plant life,” said Stevens. Or some head out into the Sahara Desert for a day trip or a couple of nights at a luxury camp. Marrakesh also has good rail connections to the cities on the coast, such as Casablanca, Rabat and hip Essaouira (a new road has reduced the drive to two hours), the top choice for short break by the seaside. Fez is around 300km away and from there, the holy hilltop town of Moulay Idriss is just an hour away.

Several budget airlines fly into the Marrakesh-Menara Airport, along with British Airways and Air Maroc, which provide direct connections to European cities around the world. The flight to London is three-and-a-half hours and it is three hours to Paris.

Practical info
For now, the top end of the market has remained stable, but the euro crisis in Europe is affecting all other strata. “We are getting many inquiries for sale and rent for villas, riads and apartments,” said Arnott. “However, the medium range villas and apartments, especially in the medina, is very flat. We do not expect this to turn around until things ease in Europe and elsewhere.”

In the exclusive Palmeraie, buying a hectare of land and building a luxury villa costs around 1.3 million euro. “However, the return on this type of investment is quick and very lucrative,” said Arnott. Elsewhere in the city, an apartment costs from 100,000 to 900,000 euro, while a villa goes for 300,000 to six million euro.

Further information
Morocco Newsline: English newspaper covering politics, business, culture and lifestyle
Morocco Board: English-language news service with an American focus
Morocco Mama: Blog and photo essays about ex-pat life in Marrakesh