Our second day at the hotel Caravanserai started with an early breakfast, as we wanted to take the complimentary shuttle bus from the hotel into Marrakesh to visit the souks and see some of the local sights. The bus was just after 10 o’clock and fifteen or so minutes later we were dropped off next to Jemaa El-Fna, the large market square and the main entry point to the souks and the heart of the Medina.
At this time in the morning we could already see the juice stands, and lunch stalls opening up. Plus the side shows of the square with men showing off their monkeys, charming snakes and generally selling small things were all ready for a busy day. The juice stands sell freshly pressed orange juice for 4 dirhams, which is an absolute bargain compared to prices in Europe. We walked towards the juice stands and soon enough we were literally pestered by guides to take a tour. We politely declined, saying that we already knew where we wanted to go in the souk in French, but they still got stroppy and kept pestering us more. Chris got a bit loud saying that we were not interested, this finally seemed to get through to them, even though they did not seemed pleased about it. We did not let this spoil our mood and walked on. If you do want a guide I would advise booking at your hotel or at the tourist offices as the so-called guides near the sites are not licenced and may well be unreliable. If you do visit the square be prepared to fend off the hawkers and stall owners with a polite “Non”.
The souks can be confusing to people who have never visited one. The aim is to get lost, there’s always plenty of ways out and more fun if you do not have a specific plan on where you’re headed. There is so much to see of the local Moroccan culture here. Men wearing djellabas, a loose fitting cloak with a pointy hood, the berbers with their colourful tasselled hats and some of the women with headscarves. Do not worry too much about what you wear when visiting Morocco, but it is sensible to not show too much flesh and wear longer skirts or trousers, even for men shorts are not really accepted. Unless you plan to visit a mosque, which is not possible in Marrakesh, unless you are Muslim, there’s no need for headscarves. In general Morrocco is an open-minded country and if you do not wear clothes that do not show too much flesh, including tank and low-cut tops and shorts, you should be fine.
We did not need to worry about our choice of clothes too much as it was far too cold to even think about wearing anything that could be too revealing. We walked into the souk, one shop after another. There were beautiful woven carpets on a wall, for sale of course. A man with his moped, a basket of dead fish on its back, local children running around and shopkeepers having chats. The light in the alleys was almost dreamy with the sunrays creeping in through the gaps of the corrugated iron roof. There was so much to see that Jerome was not keeping up with our pace and we slowed down in order to not loose him. It was not yet busy in the maze of alleys, but from experience would get busier as the day moved on. There definitely were more tourists than we remember from last time, but as a result the sellers seemed to pester less to buy and it seemed less dirty and smelly.
Notably in the tannery souk, the unbearable acrid smell had disappeared. With it though, sadly, the colourful dyed wool and leathers that used to hang everywhere to dry were also much reduced. The souk used to be arranged by section, the metal works, the leather shop, tannery and so on. Nowadays some of these arrangements still exist, but they appeared to have been mixed up more than they used to. The tanneries have moved further north, away from the touristy souk, into the residential area of Place Moukef or Bab Debbagh. It is still possible to visit them, but prepare yourself for smell, animal dung is also used in the dying process, which can make it unbearable to sensitive noses.
Very few shops have yet to display fixed prices and haggling is still the norm. How to haggle? Chris is always too generous and usually leaves it to me. I would say, start very low, and as a guide, never pay more than a third of the originally suggested price by the seller. If you do give a final price you have to stick with it and buy the item, so make sure you are actually prepared to pay the amount for it and you really want it. If you agree a final price there is no going back otherwise and the seller will be very disappointed. Of course it always depends on where you are in the souk as to what price much as other cities have expensive districts. In general the closer you are to Jemaa El-Fna the higher the prices will be as the shopkeepers pay higher rent.
We did not really plan on purchasing anything, apart from a woven basket and Jerome had promised a small gift to a friend. Early on in the souk I found a shop, with a large choice of baskets, some with embroidery or pompoms others plain and in many shapes and sizes. I haggled with the owner, I could have probably gotten it a few dirhams cheaper but Chris felt generous. I did use the bag a few times during our time in Marrakesh and look forward to using it as a beach bag in the summer. I almost wish, I had bought another one.
Further on in the souk we watched a man making felt from wool, water and soap. He then makes the felt into an array of products, including scarves, bags and slippers. He was happy to explain the process to us and did not seem too upset that we did not buy any of his goods, although later I did go back and get some slippers from him. Other shopkeepers might not be as friendly and helpful; some can be downright pushy. I guess it is part of their culture and they have to make a living from their shops.
Jerome is not a boy that really likes shopping, few children do, but the souk had beguiled him with the range of colours and products. He had even spotted several things that he was interested in but we left buying them until later in the visit. Most children will enjoy the market place but it is worth encouraging them to look rather than touch, as soon as you show interest the shopkeepers will pounce! There a many things that children will find fascinating – whether inlaid wooden games, silver teapots, musical instruments, shiny stones, gems or even fossils. We also saw baby tortoises and a chameleon for sale, not that you should buy and export them.
After a while, having turned into another random alley we reached an open square where men with their horse carts gathered and sold goat and sheep hides, sometimes even cow or camel, on to the tanners. Some of the carts were loaded to the top with dead animal skins, an unusual sight for us but still interesting to witness.
We turned around, back into the maze of the souk and soon after we stumbled onto the Secret Garden. Read all about this wonderful place in my next post.