Marrakech, Morocco: How to get incredibly lost in a souk and spend all your money on scarves
Touching down in Marrakech, I am instantly aware that I’m not in Europe anymore. The stifling heat, the noise, the intricate mosaic patterns covering the floors, the way everyone interprets road rules as a mere suggestion, the endless parade of stray animals, the unwanted attention of older men who propose to you with the promise of camels… It’s pure magic, even if it is a bit rougher around the edges than a western city. That’s the allure in the first place.
All the details: Marrakech
Getting there: From Marrakech Menara Airport, it’s easiest to take a taxi to the Medina (Old City) rather than troubling with buses. When you exit the airport, there is a large taxi rank out the front. Expect to pay about 15€ to get to the Old City, but be sure to agree upon this price before you get in! In all likelihood, the taxi won’t be able to carry you all the way to your riad, as the roads become too narrow in the Medina, but you can usually ask them to call your riad and one of the staff will meet you where the taxi stops to help you navigate through the maze.
Where to stay: Stay in one of the Medina’s amazing riads— we enjoyed Riad Dar Nael, which was 20€ per night for a large, 2-person room with aircon. The staff was also amazingly helpful, the food was great, and the setting was beautiful.
What to do: Explore the busy souks and shop for unique Moroccan handicrafts; check out the bustling main square, Jemaa al-Fnaa; walk through the beautiful Ben Youssef Madrasa; try your soon-to-be-favourite meal, chicken tajine at one of the many restaurants.
Top tips: Taxis, most tour agencies, and even some shops will accept either Euros or Moroccan Dirhams, but make sure not to carry too much money on you at one time. Similarly, be very wary of your possessions when in the chaotic souks— hold your handbag in front of you (better yet, don’t take a handbag) and don’t flash any expensive cameras around.
Marrakech is actually a lot cleaner than I imagined, probably comparing it too readily to the only other Arab country I’ve ever been to, Egypt. Granted, I was a teenager when I visited Alexandria and Cairo, but I’ll never forget the mountains of garbage (and dead animals) floating along the Nile. That certainly doesn’t prevent me from wanting to revisit Egypt someday, since I’m still hopelessly obsessed with the ancient history, but Morocco has already exceeded expectations as a wonderful, glittering, magical place that is everything I always imagined northern Africa would be.
My friend Katy and I are staying within the walls of the old city, and have to navigate the final minutes towards our riad on foot, as the taxi can’t even pass through the narrow roads. Once inside, though, it’s a wonderful little Arabian paradise with an open courtyard in the middle and rooms lining the outside. We are the only guests staying, and for just 20€ total we have a spacious room with twin beds, aircon, and a lovely bathroom, plus the plunge pool in the courtyard all to ourselves. The staff at the riad are lovely and shower us with information; armed with a very carefully hand drawn map, we set out for the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa.
The map takes us through a tangled network of tiny roads and souks literally overflowing with all things sparkly. I absolutely love the hectic bustle of the bazaar— intricately patterned scarves in hundreds of colours, light glinting off silver lanterns, the smell of spices and perfumes heavy in the air— although I could certainly do without the pestering. It’s difficult to walk even a few steps without a stall owner calling out at you to step inside their shop, someone shoving their product in your face and following you when you walk away, a woman with a baby tapping you and asking for money, or men making any number of comments, ranging from creepy to offensive. We are still getting our sea legs in Morocco, having spent the last few weeks in rather affluent areas of Europe, and are overwhelmed by the harassment— Katy in particular, as she has never experienced it before.
When we finally emerge into the main square, the sun beating down hard enough to make sweat drip down the back of my legs, we are somewhat relieved. The square is massive and lined with vendors, but it’s not as crowded as the souks, so it’s easier to avoid the badgering.
Here, women are set up doing henna and energetic young men advertise for excursions into the desert, but I’m most enchanted by the snake charmers, traditionally dressed old men with white hair and sun-wrinkled skin playing a pungi to half a dozen cobras that all sit attentively on a reed mat, necks puffed out and tails nicely coiled beneath them. The whole thing feels straight out of a movie.
We have lunch on a rooftop terrace, where we wrap up about half the meat from our meals into a napkin so we can feed the dozens of literally starving kittens we’ve seen all around the city. It’s truly heartbreaking just how many too-thin kitties are running around, all desperate for attention but obviously in horrible health, and we make it our mission to feed as many as possible today.
Distributing meat to all the kitties as we go, we make our way back into the souks for what becomes an afternoon/evening shopping extravaganza. We buy silver filigree lanterns, beautifully patterned light pants and scarves for the desert, small pouches embroidered like intricate rugs, and gifts to bring home for people. I am quite delighted to find a silver ring with a beautiful orange gemstone, since I try to bring rings home from most trips I take, but the most exciting purchases are our brightly coloured traditional Moroccan dresses.
They fit like muumuus, loose and flowing, and have amazing sparkly embroidery around the neckline. I’m not sure that I will ever find occasion to wear it back home, but it’s too beautiful for me to worry about that now. The man who sells them says we are now Fatima and Aisha, traditional Moroccan names for the desert princesses we have become, and he shows us how to tie the scarves to keep the sun and sand off our faces. Obviously he’s trying to make the sale, but we have so much fun trying on the kaftans and dancing around the tiny shop that it’s certainly worth it.
It’s past 10pm when we return to the riad, but the staff are still up prepare us amazing chicken tajine, which is a delicious Moroccan meal cooked in a clay pot of the same name, and khubz, a traditional round bread, for dinner. For somewhere that Katy was initially very wary of, we’ve had an incredible time in Marrakech and I’m actually a bit sad to be leaving for our desert tour tomorrow. But also very excited for camel riding in the Sahara!