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Marrakech

If you have ever owned a star-shaped lantern, coloured tea glasses or a patterned pottery tagine you'll already have an idea of Morocco's distinctive decorative style, waiting to be discovered in its architecture and street stalls.

Pleasantly warm at the end of the year, well served by flights and a top pre-Christmas shopping spot, Marrakech is a good choice for a winter break.

One of the greatest shopping experiences in the world is browsing the famous labyrinthine souks of Marrakech's old town that spread from the North side of the city's famous Djemma el Fna square.

Hand-woven baskets, chunky candles, patio lanterns and embroidered slipper are among the buys that may tempt you. Themed sections prove helpful, but be prepared to haggle hard.

Wander deeper into the souk and you'll find gates and lanterns being beaten out on blacksmiths' forges and newly dyed wool in bright colours hanging out to dry. Clutch a bunch of mint to your nose and you can even take a tour of the tannery where skins are softened with a soak in pigeon droppings.

At dusk find a roof terrace café overlooking the square, order a sugary mint tea and watch the epic transformation as carts stacked with metal poles swiftly become hundreds of food stalls strung with lights, while street performers appear to charm snakes, tell stories or pull themselves into impressive human pyramids.

When Djemma el Fna's giant outdoor restaurant-cum-circus nightspot is complete, slip down amongst the fray and you'll find the daytime fresh orange juice and date stalls have been joined by rows of others selling bowls of snails ( a legacy of French rule) and meze-style delicacies like calamari, kebabs and creamy aubergine slices prepared on charcoal grills.

In the surrounding restaurants try slow-cooked tagines of steamed lamb or vegetables with cous cous but do double check the bill covers what you actually ate as over-charging is common.

If you're feeling more energetic and you've cash to splash (the drinks are eye-wateringly expensive) get a modern take on Marrakech nightlife at Pacha - sister nightclub to the famous one in Ibiza.

Historical and cultural landmarks near Djemma el Fna include the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque with its towering minaret and the 16th century Ali ben Youssef Medersa; Morocco's largest theological college, which has fine stucco work. Another decorative treat is Bahia Palace, said to have once housed a haren, which has rooms with fine ceramic work and painted ceilings set around a series of courtyards.

A must-see in Marrakech, and a pleasant respite from the bustle of the old town, is Jardin Marjorelle. The garden was formerly owned by Yves Saint Laurent and, in one year it was reproduced at the Chelsea Flower Show, the fashion designer, moer associated with the catwalk, spawned an outdoors trend for bold cobalt blue fountains, walls and pottery. You may well have something in your own garden that harks back to this colourful oasis.

Further relaxation can be found in one of the city's many hammams.  In the traditional public versions (segregated into men's and women's sections or sessions) you will be scrubbed, massaged with oily soap and sloshed with bucketfuls of very hot water in a communal tiled room.

Your hotel or a private hammams will give a more modern, gentler, spa experience but still incorporating the traditional use of steam.

While many visit Marrakech for a long weekend, side trips can spin your visit into a week. It's easy to combine the city with the nearby Atlas Mountains which are snow-capped in winter. The area around North Africa's highest peal, Toubkal, is near enough for a day trip while Imlil, about two hours from the city, is a popular starting point for treks to Berber villages. You can also take a camel trek into the Sahara lead by a Taureg guide in distinctive blue robes, or visit the scenic port of Essaouira.

Marrakech is well worth considering for a romantic break. Along with modern hotels you'll find riads - historic buildings set around courtyards that have been converted from homes into Boho B&Bs and smart boutique hotels. It's not too early to start thinking about a Valentine's getaway.