The Djemaa el-Fna should maybe come with a health warning for those of a sensitive disposition. Marrakech’s main square is a full-on whirlwind experience, a feverish sea of people where the visitor eddies from snake charmers to human pyramids, henna tattooists to soothsayers. I guarantee you’ll never see anything else like it. Dead by day, delirious by night, there are two ways to check the place out: from the comfortable vantage of an overlooking balcony, mint tea in hand, or in amongst the action, maybe at one of the many orange juice vendors or snack stalls. I chose the latter, and got a close-up view of, among other wonders, a boxing match, a family feasting on brains, a blind medicine man selling his potions, a troupe of acrobats and many a musician performing among the heavy scents from the countless tajines and couscous dishes being served up. Dizzying and addictive, the square was definitely one of my Morocco highlights. I haven’t seen any cities in Europe, Asia or the Americas that match those in the Middle East for that kind of compulsive, concentrated slice of exotica. Everything is different, from the early morning call to prayer to the late night tea and backgammon sessions. Staying in the middle of one of the cities, you really get a vivid feeling of life lived along utterly different principles to your own, and it’s enchanting to discover and explore what those beliefs mean for day-to-day existence. The great cities in the region, for me, include Fez and Marrakech, Esfahan, Damascus and Jerusalem, and of course Cairo. But the Middle East for me is perhaps mostly about the landscapes. After Cairo, nothing beats being on the Nile. It’s like a magic trick – to go from the city’s ceaseless buzz to aboard a felucca, gin and tonic in hand as you drift past the vestiges of ancient civilisations, the great river home to fishermen and farmers; so serene. As well a blockbuster sites like the Pyramids and Valley of the Kings, Egypt’s great at mixing sedate experiences like river cruises and relaxing on the Red Sea with dirt-under-fingernails adventures: exploring the weird landscapes of the White Desert, or climbing Mount Sinai – huffing and puffing uphill in the dark is not my usual idea of fun, but the sunrise over the arid hills of the Sinai Peninsula was worth every heavy step and muttered curse. The Nile and the Red Sea hint at one of the region’s surprises - for an area that many people think of as desert and dust, many of the essential Middle East experiences are distinctly watery. Giggling as you bob around in the Dead Sea, for example, or exploring the peerless Sea of Galilee, or gawping at the ruins of Mediterranean-fringed Leptis Magna in Libya. There’s also a must wherever you are: the hammam. I visited one in Tunisia, after a couple of days exploring the Sahara on camel and sleeping under the stars. It was the perfect way to get the desert out of my hair. Rooms of different temperatures are centred on large cisterns with hot and cold water. The farther you venture in, the hotter the rooms and the water. Bathe yourself with water from the cisterns before getting the ultimate head-to-toe scrub-down – borderline painful, and difficult to bear without screaming or laughing, it leaves you with the skin of a newborn. Hammams are also a great place to socialise and gain a closer look at everyday life. There are fancy ones in some hotels, but these can sometimes feel like a pastiche of the real deal. Find one in the old town, take a deep breath and dive in. There’s a gaping hole in my Middle East adventures: Jordan. Everyone I know who has seen Petra and the Wadi Rum reassures me that no brochure or photo can do justice to them; most are surprised by how large the ruins at Petra are. But that’s the Middle East – full of surprises and happy to do things on a grand scale.
"I think this was a great combination of countries. I really enjoyed every aspect of this holiday - it would be very hard to beat."