Marrakech – Morrocan Souk Survivalism

The souks are almost certainly one of the main reasons people decide to travel to Marrakech. Vibrant and colourful, sights, sounds and smells seductive and totally alien. There is little that can prepare anybody for the full on assault to the senses that an afternoon spent browsing the various stalls of the many souks will offer.

The souks of Marrakech, Morocco near Djemaa el Fna Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

An olive lovers paradise

“Travel with an open mind, open eyes and a willing smile and many doors will open for you”

The largest market of its type in Morocco and surrounding the main meeting hub, the UNESCO recognised Djemaa el Fna square; the souks are the lifeblood of the medina. Tourists, traders and locals all hustle and bustle their way through the winding narrow streets, completing their business, either buying or selling the myriad of items available.

The maze of backstreets, small stalls and tiny nooks and crannies need some fleet-footed stepping aside due to the constant flow of scooters and donkey carts. The souks can seem  totally chaotic, therefore it maybe surprising to discover that they’re organised into districts; each selling its own specialised wares; leather, ceramics, jewellery, rugs and colourful dyed cloths.

A nose for exploration

Exploring some of the more out-of-the-way areas of the medina, can certainly be worthwhile. There will be opportunities to see skilled artisans working on their products. Skills passed for generations, still being practiced by young and old alike. There are a plethora of lovely items being manufactured and sometimes it is even possible to get an extra special bargain direct from the creator.

Finding the tanneries is a sure sign that the furthest reaches of the medina have been found, they are not easy to find. The smell will certainly help once in the vicinity, especially if the wind is blowing in the right direction. The smell is pungent to put it mildly, almost eye wateringly so. Although they are not comparable in size to Fes it is still worth taking the time to take a quick tour.

Browsing the souks surrounding Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Sunshine in the souks

The offering of mint leaves by the manager upon entering to help deal with the stench is very welcome. The manager also explains the process, pointing out the vats and skins being dyed or hanging out to dry. Sheep, camel, goat and cow skins, working the skin includes ‘rasping’ with a shovel to soften them. This ensures they are pliable enough for making into the various items for sale on the stalls of the souks, bags and sandals being the main items produced.

Another great reason to head into the deepest darkest depths of the medina is that the food is often better here. It is generally produced for the artisans themselves, it is also better value and finding a great little tajine seller can make exploration worth it simply for that.

The only downside is that the souks can seem intimidating. Whilst there are now laws which protect the traveller from over aggressive ‘marketing’ it does still happen. Shopkeepers now usually wait until the shopper ‘initiates’ the sale, but this interpretation is pretty loose, just pausing momentarily can sometimes be the catalyst for some ‘hard’ bargaining.

Even the most cursory wander through the medina can result in several encounters with willing guides, offers of assistance and invitations to enter several shops. The more observant will also notice that there are a number of shell-shocked, battle weary and outright impatient Westerners fending off their would be suitors and almost ‘swatting’ away the countless children selling their wares.

Well aware, well guided

This is a totally alien culture to any which most of us are accustomed. Agreeing to guidance around the souk or even to the spice stall just around the corner is basically an unwritten financial agreement. Insistence that there will not be any payment is actually irrelevant. As soon as the services of a  ‘guide’ are accepted, they will be expecting payment for their help.

The best course of action is to simply refuse any of these offers of assistance; genuine free acts of generosity are very rare here. Remain polite, but firmly refuse the offers, with an obvious shake of the head and continue walking, do not pause as again it is likely this will be misread.

The tannery of Marrakech and the Moroccan workers Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Working in the tannery

Of course you may actually want to take advantage of the services of an impromptu guide. In which case keep a pocket full of small denomination notes to pay. Remember however they will probably be on some form of commission from the shops, so they may not necessarily take you to the best ones!

If the services of a guide are essential it is likely that the Riad or hotel which you are staying at will be able to recommend a more reliable one. This can also prove beneficial as it is possible to specify what you actually want to see more of the souks or the monuments and other places of interest around the city. Agree a price before starting out and make it known this is dependent on actually seeing the places requested.

It is possible however to have a very successful day or more exploring the city and souks independently. Remain confident, sunglasses are not just useful for keeping the sun out of your eyes, it avoids contact with storekeepers until you want to attract their attention. Always remain polite, but also firm, there will be a few that are still persistent, but eventually even these will leave you in peace. Ignore any obviously inflammatory comments, it just is not worth the bother.

Dar TimTam coffee shop and restaurant hidden in the souks of Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Find a little peace somewhere within the medina

Don’t be shy

Haggling is part of the purchasing process, so be ready to barter for that must have souvenir. Set a price you are willing to pay before inquiring with the trader and be prepared to walk away if the price seems excessive.

On my visit I planned to buy a traditional Berber garment, a djellaba; a long loose-fitting robe. Trying one on in a stall the merchant when prompted informed me it would be 920 dirhams. Removing the garment I politely informed him we would not be doing business, and later purchased one for 150 dh! However the same merchant literally jumped out on me at least five occasions at various times of the day and in different areas of the souk asking for my best offer. Each time I politely refused.

Do not spend too long shopping in the souks in one session, set aside an afternoon to do so, and even then enjoy a break enjoying some mint tea, Moroccan coffee or an excellent tajine from one of those backstreet stalls. There is much to see in the city, there is even a completely new city which is a world apart from the medina, with McDonalds and a Haagen Daz! You’ll come back refreshed and ready to tackle whatever the souks may throw at you!

There are many that can recount no end of ‘horror’ stories about being hassled in not only Marrakech but throughout North Africa. Travellers need to be prepared for this so that it does not come as too great a shock. The guidebooks and magazines all warn of it, it is after all a different culture, and that is part of the attraction.

Spice stall near Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

I love spicy

Do you have any tips or advice to pass on to those planning a trip to Marrakech in particular or North Africa in general. Should visitors be more sympathetic of the ‘hassles’ due to the obvious poverty? What do you think?


Comments 17

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  1. MaryM

    Excellent article. A must-read for anyone planning a trip to Marrakech. (it’s on my bucket list but not on the calendar yet.) I especially appreciate the sunglasses tip.

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      I really appreciate your kind words, thank you I am sure you will really enjoy Marrakech it is a special destination, next time I travel to Morocco there are many other places I wish to visit. More time spent in Fes, the desert and several other towns/areas. Thank you once again.

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      Thank you Leigh glad you enjoyed it, there are a few pieces on Morocco and likely I will add another about Fes soon too. Good luck in getting there soon, it is a great destination which I am keen to return to soon myself.

  2. El3naLiv

    I’ve done a road trip in Morocco in 2010. I love Marrakech especially Djemaa el Fna and suq, but I think that most tourists stop at the “must do” destinations. Is it clear? Oh sorry, I’m italian, it’s not easy to write in english 😀 ! I think the best way to visit these places is by renting a car. There are wonderful places near Marrakech for example: from Marrakech to Essaouira you can stop at the female cooperative of argan oil. It is beautiful to see that the women’s condition in North Africa is not the same in all the places. In some places women can work, wow!! You can visit Essaouira, a city on the Atlantic Ocean full of artists (search the Gnawa Festival on Internet) and you can fell the emotion of a night in the desert near Merzouga or Taouz. But, as you write in this post, you have to travel with an open mind and with respect. In Marrakech I’ve seen a girl that took pictures (I think she was a journalist) at an almostdead woman in the medina. An arabian man got really angry with her. You have to travel with respect. Especially in Morocco where there is a strong sense of religion and community. I think moroccoan are persistent if you walk in the suq with iphone, ipod, t-shirt and camera 😀 ! If you confuse yourself with them, using large clothes and old bags, they will not be so persistent.

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      Thank you, good tips, I totally agree hiring a car to travel through Morocco or much of North Africa would be a great way to travel. There are many amazing places to visit near Marrakech and throughoput the country.

      I believe respect is paramount wherever we travel, we are the guests in the country, we are all merely tourists to the locals and we should remember this sometimes. I am not sure it is totally necessary to dress as if a ‘native’ but just being polite and firm will usually suffice in avoiding any unpleasantness or possible misunderstanding.

      Blatantly hanging ‘bling’ all over ourselves will of course attract attention and is not particularly wise. Common sense prevails I find.

  3. El3naLiv

    Yes, I said to use large clothes but I mean this -> “Blatantly hanging ‘bling’ all over ourselves”. I’ve seen women with jewels everywhere complain for the persistence of arabian. I wanted to say to keep simple and don’t show too many things you have.
    Wow, I’ve wrote a very long comment before 😀 ! Compliments for your travels, this site is very useful.
    I hope to create a blog like yours 🙂

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      I understood ypour meaning do not be concerned and thank you your advice is well received and very good too. I am glad you like my site.

  4. Simon P

    Great post. But I have to say that I didn’t really like Marrakech a heck of a lot. Don’t get me wrong – I’m really glad I went – but I just preferred the markets in Turkey and Egypt. And often the sellers had a hard time taking “no” for an answer, even when flinging a snake or a monkey at my partner! I did love all the freshly squeezed orange juice though!!

    I loved Essaouira. So much more relaxed.

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      I think Marrakech is one of those destinations you love or hate Simon, I really enjoyed it and on the whole found i was not really bothered so much by the merchants with stalls or the monkey wranglers/snake charmers. It was usually the guys acting as ‘guides’ that were most pesistent. Must visit Essaouria sometime soon.

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  5. oram photo

    Phtography is wonderful, it’s changed so much in the last 50 years but it still such a powerful medium 🙂

  6. jan

    Hi, I read this before we went to Marrakech. We tried the sunglasses in the souk – worked a treat. All in all we had a very hassle free time compared to the stories we hear all the time about Marrakech in particular. We also went to Essaouira – so relaxed, and the desert near Merzouga. The two highlights of our three months in Spain, Portugal (Lisbon only) and Morrocco were the djemaa el fna square at night and camping in the desert and the camel ride there. I would recommend them to anyone.

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      Hi Jan glad you found the sunglasses tip useful 🙂 and even more that you had a great time. Those three highlights of you adventure are some of my favourites and there are a number of posts about all three on here. Just click on the Morocco link under ‘Cool Places’ I think you’ll like it.

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