High above us, the road wound up and up. Cars looked like grains of couscous; trucks like grains of couscous pulling grains of rice. Snow, goats, donkeys and Berber women clung to the mountainsides. Around every bend there might be an impromptu souk of animals spilling across the road, the men staring down the tourists in our fancy 4x4s: they favour open Toyota pick-ups, the pointy-hooded djellebahs of the occupants making them look like they are packed with Christmas trees.

We were on the way to Kasbah Telouet, mountain stronghold of the Glaoui clan, three hours’ drive south of Marrakech. In the summer, this is a popular trip out of town. In the winter there are fewer coaches, but just as many hazards to negotiate. The French Foreign Legion constructed the road in the ’30s, as they sought to extend colonial rule over Morocco’s hinterland. Telouet, armed, dangerous, some 7,000ft above sea level and run by an anti-French fanatic, Hammou, was considered a sufficient threat for the road builders to detour round it. Yet only 25 years later it was abandoned, and when we finally arrived we found a picturesque semi-ruin undergoing a piecemeal restoration. Superbly carved ceilings sagged; tiled walls bulged; birds sat on the green glazed roof. In the background the mountains were still and unperturbed. A Berber buy called Omar showed us round, then shared a lunch of bread, cheese and mint tea with us. Progress seemed to have stalled here, in a good way. The kasbah was gently crumbling back into the soil: another chapter of Morocco’s history closing.

Marrakech has always had a certain glamorous cachet. When Winston Churchill visited Telouet in the ’30s it was at the invitation of Hammou’s uncle, Thami El Glaoui, ‘Lord of the Atlas’: a tribal warlord installed by the French to run Marrakech. The city already held a fascination for Europeans, and El Glaoui played up to his role as a mysterious Berber chieftain in between rounds of golf on his lavishly appointed and well-watered links.

Churchill came to Marrakech to relax, write and paint; the latter was something he later encouraged Thami El Glaoui’s son Hassan to pursue. An exhibition currently at Leighton House in London hangs the two artists’ work side by side. Hassan, who went on to be one of Morocco’s most respected artists, is very obviously the natural painter: his canvases glow with the rich earthy pigments of the area. You see the same duns and ochres in the walls of Kasbah Telouet, and there is still a bylaw in Marrakech that all buildings should be painted a pinkish-orange colour. Churchill’s works are stiffer: by his own admission he was a ‘Sunday painter’, yet what is most remarkable about the show is how familiar the subject matter of both artists is today. Okay, Hassan is still with us, but even his early gouaches from the 1940s show scenes and people that you will find in today’s Medina (the old city): the caleches (carriages) on Jemaa El Fna, the square that is the pulsing heart of the city; water-sellers and Berber women hawking jewellery and textiles; endless palm trees (some of them now mobile phone masts in disguise) and the ever-visible tower of the Koutoubia Mosque. All of it is suffused with the astonishingly clear and immediately recognisable light of the city.

This ‘local colour’ has remained the one constant as ideas about what is charming or chic in Marrakech have changed over the years. Churchill might have found plenty of subject matter here, but he had reservations. ‘Although the native city is full of attractive spots, the crowds, the smells and the general discomfort have repelled me,’ he wrote to his wife in the ’30s. Luckily for the city, and the modern visitor, this ‘discomfort’ has not been entirely eradicated. Despite a clampdown on the most aggressive hawkers by the tourist police, the souks are still a largely unmoderated free-for-all. Chickens are butchered in the street, and a woman with a bandaged nose wished us ‘Bonsoir’ as she squatted to urinate near the entrance to our riad. The olfactory GBH of the egg market on a hot day remains a terrible memory. Jemaa El Fna is a riot round the clock: crowds gather around storytellers and a whole brigade of hot-food vendors set up and take down their stalls every night. There’s no shortage of tat for tourists and grumpy monkeys to be snapped with, but this is mostly window-dressing; the Medina works to its own needs, and though full-on, is generally good-natured and very safe.

The explosion of riads – splendid courtyarded townhouses – in the past decade has made these the norm when it comes to choosing decent accommodation and has ensured Marrakech a steady supply of tourist dirhams. Churchill preferred the cloistered precincts of La Mamounia (Ave Bab Jedid; +212 524 388 600): for decades Marrakech’s poshest destination hotel. It’s still going strong, though after a recent revamp has lost much of its colonial character, and stands in part as a reminder of an era when the personal touch was not high up a list of hotel’s priorities. Now its snooty airs seem an anachronism: like furs and titles, there’s something faintly embarrassing about them. The gardens are still worth visiting, though they won’t let you in to them without a table reservation. Instead, visit the Majorelle Gardens on Avenue Yacoub El Mansour, surrounding a villa owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent. They evoke the jet-set Marrakech, and are open to all (often too many): dense planting, delicate pools and shaded paths create a tranquil haven, while ‘Majorelle Blue’ has established itself firmly on the Moroccan palette.

Our taste for ’60s glamour piqued, we decamped to Marrakech’s other hospitality institution, Es Saadi (Rue Ibrahim El Manzini; +212 24 44 88 11) – the Rolling Stones famously stayed in the hotel. ‘They were on the fifth floor, and we put no one on the fourth,’ said Elisabeth Bauchet-Bouhal, daughter of Es Saadi’s founder. With its mixed drinks and Dunhill cigarettes behind the bar, the place has a Graham Greene-ish air, though it’s also home to the city’s hippest club, Theatro. It’s a reminder that the Medina, with its souks and smells and omnipresent motorbikes millimetres from disaster, is not everyone’s idea of a romantic idyll. Chic Moroccans and many visitors never set foot in the Medina, and Es Saadi was full of badly dressed but evidently well-off Russians who didn’t look like they were about to haggle over a pair of pointy yellow leather slippers any time soon.

The ‘historic’ in Marrakech is often packaged to visitors through its markets, palaces, mosques and museums, and these do offer compelling reasons to visit. Equally, the light and the landscape captivated both Churchill and Hassan El Glaoui, both powerful men from very different backgrounds who were happy to find inspiration in a culture that had not changed for hundreds of years. But the ongoing story of Marrakech is just as engaging, and the way it has been interpreted over the past century through different ideas of travel, tourism, cachet and cool has a lot to reveal about our attitudes to the ‘foreign’, especially if it’s right on our doorstep. It may have a film festival and an art biennale now, but the heart of the place remains at a more elemental level: in its light and earth and water, and the importance they hold for its population scratching a living.

‘People say, “Oh, Marrakech has changed, it’s not the same,”’ said Bauchet-Bouhal, ‘but why should it be? It’s like different generations: a grandmother, mother and daughter.’

Need to know
Getting there
Emirates flies from Dubai to Marrakech via Casablanca, from Dhs4,430 return including taxes.

Where to stay
Riad Kaïss is a superb riad arranged across three floors and two courtyards, with Fez-style tilework, a plunge pool and on-site cookery school. Well situated in the Medina, it’s the epitome of Marrakech sophistication. Doubles from Dhs718.
65 Derb Jedid (+212 24 44 01 41).

Riad Dar Fakir is coolly contemporary, and featured in British reality TV show Made in Chelsea. Doubles Dhs622.
16 Derb Abou El Fadali (+212 524 44 11 00).

Where to Eat & drink
The food may be a tasteful update of traditional Moroccan dishes, and the service is impeccable, but Le Salama (40 Rue des Banques; +212 524 39 13 00) is about one thing: being seen. This restaurant and bar is attracting hip locals back into the Medina. Still a laugh, if you approach it in the right spirit. Grand Café de la Poste (Ave Imam Mailk; +212 524 43 30 38) offers a touch of colonial swagger, plus well-priced classic dishes and mixed drinks.

Dubai to Morocco
Flight time: Nine hours to Casablanca, plus 45 minutes to Marrakech
Time difference: Four hours behind Dubai
Dhs1 = 2.3 Moroccan dirhams