Snake charmers, magic potions, hidden palaces: Marrakech brings the most outlandish travellers' tales to life. The pink city has waylaid desert caravans since the 11th century, as visitors succumb to the charms of its bluesy Gnaoua trance music, steamy hammams (traditional Moroccan spas), and multi-course feasts.
Visitors today often disappear down a maze of winding derbs (alleys) and emerge days later, relaxed and refreshed from their stays in spectacular riads (courtyard guesthouses) where their every need is anticipated by butlers, in-house chefs, and massage therapists.
Adventure awaits at the doorstep in the medina (old city), with its fondouks (artisans' workshops), seven zaouias (saints' shrines) and Souks. The focal point of Marrakech is its celebrated square, the Jemaa el Fna, Morocco's UNESCO-recognised platform for halqa (street theatre). Towering over the scene is the stately Koutoubia minaret, a template for Hispano-Mauresque architecture and a reminder of the importance of Islam to the lives of the city's residents.
The caravan culture of Marrakech gave the outpost founded by Beber Almoravids in 1062 a worldly outlook that pre-dates the arrival of rooftop satellite dishes and the Cyberpark, the royal garden retrofitted with Internet kiosks. Morocco was colonised by the French in the early 20th century, though in practice Marrakech was run by a Berber warlord named Madani Glaoui who lavishly entertained colonial elites while ruthlessly suppressing his people. French influence lingers on in the wide boulevards of Guéliz and its few remaining art deco villas, most notably landscape painter Jacques Majorelle's stylish cobalt blue retreat in the Jardin Majorelle.
Making a fashionable late arrival in Marrakech were foreign hedonists and idealists. Yves Saint Laurent, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones rubbed shoulders with William S Burroughs and other American Beat generation writers. Hippies and visitors following spiritual quests, creative inspiration, and the suspiciously fragrant clouds of smoke that once filled the city's back alleys, joined the fray.
Dynasties, rock stars and their habits come and go, but inspiration remains in Marrakech. In the souks and Ensemble Artisanal, artisans are already fashioning next year's interior design must-haves. Contemporary galleries have taken root in Guéliz, Marrakech's Festival of Popular Arts in July draws dancers and musicians from Morocco and beyond, and the red carpet at the Marrakech International Film Festival greets the glitterati from Hollywood to Bollywood each December.
Morocco remains one of the more liberal Muslim countries. King Mohammed VI is actively promoting education for women and respect for Berber culture, the core cultural force in Marrakech. The centuries-old fascination between travellers and Marrakech is stronger than ever - and in a city where escapism meets opportunity, fairy-tale endings aren't out of the question.