The Unseasoned Travellers Guide To Marrakech

18th November 2011

Clare Finney learned the hard way how to cope in a culture totally unlike anything she’d ever experienced before. She shares her key tips on how to survive in Morocco’s second largest city…

Ah, Marrakech. City of grand spires, silken slippers, more silver than a king’s dining room… and absolute, interminable chaos.

There are no street names. There are no prices. There are no pavements, and when it comes to roads anything goes, anywhere, unchecked. In the four hours we spent wandering round a warren of souks and spice stalls, three were spent lost and the other saw us haggling hopelessly over the price of one small rug. Asking for help merely saw us led like wealthy putty into the arms of brother stallholders; even the kids demanded money for showing where you were on the map. And, as the temperatures rose, the heat we generated from covering our arms and shoulders left us hankering for a county in which sleeveless tops and shorts didn’t mark you out as fair game for licentious abuse…

Wear a shawl, ladies – for your sake if no-one else’s

There’s often a temptation, in so-called ‘western friendly’ Islamic countries, to dismiss covering up as unnecessary – and in some ways it is easy to see why. You won’t be arrested, or attacked, or told off by authorities. You will probably see many women doing the same. But if you do see fit to wear strappy top and to hell with Morocco’s cultural and religious principles, be prepared to suffer the consequences… “SEX!” screamed a group of teenagers, sitting on the kerb in otherwise total order. “SHAKIRA! SEX! BOOGIE-BOOGIE!” “SEX!” This was in response to what my friend and I had thought was decent clothing: below the knee trousers and long t-shirts. I dread to think what a strapless dress might have invoked. Harmless as your intentions may be (most probably to keep as cool as possible), your reputation as a liberated western woman goes before you – and it’s not a particularly flattering one at that. Buy a shawl, take it with you round the city, and wear it. You may be innocent, but they think Shakira’s hips don’t lie.

Be prepared to pay for everything
(including niceness)

Americans will be familiar with this, but if you find yourself affronted when a Good Samaritan asks for money, you might be best holidaying somewhere other than Morocco. Take a photo – they will charge you. Ask for help – they will charge you. They’ll even charge for pointing where you are out on the map. To visit there is to be less a tourist, more a walking wad of dirham, in which every countryman, woman and child can have his share. Yet while you know you’re being exploited, you can’t help but admire the entrepreneurial hand that does so. Coming to a dead end in the mountains, we found that the only way onward was via a teenager’s ladder, which – in the most ingenious monopoly I’ve seen – he charged every single passer by to use. This was followed moments later by children who loitered around apple trees, picking fallen ones up and shouting ‘twenty dirham!’ as you approached.

Of course, there’s no reason why you should pay for more than you have asked for – and if you’re canny about it you probably won’t have to. Bear in mind, however, that when you refuse you’ll be up against an angry (or, in the kids’ case, heartbreakingly disappointed) face.

Follow the local crowd

It might not seem like it from its touristy, bangle-and-earring-encrusted borders, but buried deep in the heart of the souk is a market where actual locals go, and where you don’t have to barter your human nature away to buy something. Stumbling across this gem on our hunt for carpets, we found real, useful things like spices and groceries and woodwork, sold to us for a (relatively) fixed price. Of course it helps if you salt your approach with Arabic (my friend did; I just nodded), but even if you don’t, it seems you earn people’s respect simply for just being there. To find it again, ask a local – preferably one you’ve just bought something from. Even the most detailed of maps can’t do justice to the souk warren.

Don’t stay in the centre.

Would you suggest that someone stay in Piccadilly Circus if they were coming to London? Would you stay in Time Square on a trip to New York? While hardly like them in appearance, central Marrekesh is as close to such places in sound and spirit as any urban tourist magnet.
Stay in the Palmerie (a grove of palm trees on the fringes of the city) and approach the city centre as you would the West End – at off peak hours and in small, but intense, doses.

Ask yourself - would you pay that much at home?

A blindingly obvious rule of bartering, but one easily forgotten in the excitement of finding a Aladdin-style mirror which will fit perfectly in your bathroom. Just because you’re buying it from a market in North Africa doesn’t meant it will be priced as such. If it sounds expensive than it almost certainly is. Convert the quoted price to euros (for ease, 10 dirham equals 1), then imagine it in John Lewis – and if you don’t think you’d pay that much there, then walk away. Chances are the vendor will come running after you with a price fractionally lower, so repeat the process ad nauseam until one of you caves.

Do your research.

They make guidebooks for a reason, and it’s not for swatting flies. While admittedly we didn’t open ours until we were on the plane – who does? – the paltry knowledge we gleaned from our copy of Lonely Planet did us proud by leading us to places like the rooftop terrace at Café Arabe for evening cocktails and the Majorelle Jardins, once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, for tranquillity and cool blue-and-green beauty. We appreciated the layman’s introduction to Moroccan history, too. Like seeing Shakespeare’s plays, you get far more out of somewhere you’re not used to if you’re try and understand the plot first.

Speak Arabic

or failing that, as much French as you can muster. The old theory about respecting people who make an attempt at your language applies as much here as anywhere else, particularly when it comes to the art of bartering. Then, even just the odd word or two can mean the difference between it being them cheating you – harami – or you knowing its hali katheer (too expensive), and will make the whole process far less painful than it might otherwise be, were you speaking the language of the gullible tourist. Even with directions or basic requests we found an Arabic greeting and some basic French was the best (and often the only) way to ensure we got what or where we wanted. In a country that has already mastered two languages, including one that every schoolchild in Britain once learned, it seems rather arrogant to assume that they should also be fluent in another.

Grin and bear the dodgy places.

Okay, so we only came across them because we were hopelessly lost – but our intrepid foray into the tanneries, metal works and wool-dying parts of town provided one of the most exciting, colourful and memorable insights into Marrakech we could have hoped for. As with all great cities, the best bits go on behind the scenes.

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