Surviving the souks in Marrakech
The souks of Marrakech are the heart of the medina and a must-see when you’re visiting the city. Even if you’re not into shopping, they’re still a spectacle well worth experiencing. But they’re also all kinds of crazy. Prepare for all of your senses to be overwhelmed at once – there’s the smell of spices and motorbikes fumes, the feel of the heat, the shouts of the stallholders and the bright colours of stalls piled high with pottery and leather bags. After a few days in the comparatively serene atmosphere of Essaouira, being plunged into the heart of the action was a bit of a shock to the system. So I developed a few strategies to help make experiencing the souks more of a pleasure than an endurance test. Here are my top tips…
Get a map…
The souks are the ultimate navigational challenge – a labyrinth of narrow alleyways that twist and turn their way north of the main square, the Djemma el-Fna. However good your sense of direction, a few minutes in these dimly lit passageways will have you totally disorientated. Most guidebooks come with some sort of map, but it’s hard to find one with a small enough scale to show all the tiny alleyways of the souks. Better is an electronic map which shows you which way you’re pointing. If you don’t want to pay for data roaming on your phone, you can cache Google Maps, meaning you can use them when you’re not online. You need wifi to set it up though and the Google Maps app. Then just go to the area you want, type ‘Ok maps’ and it’ll save all the detail in that area. Fellow blogger Heather also recently tried out a new app – the Marrakech-Riad app is free and has a GPS map of the medina as well as tips on restaurants and shops.
… but still expect to get lost
However good your map – paper or electronic – you’re still guaranteed to get lost at some point. And the best thing to do is just go with it. Take whichever direction looks the most interesting and if you keep going you’ll often find yourself back at a landmark like the Djemma el-Fna or the Marrakech Museum to the north of the souks. If you need to get somewhere a bit quicker, there are signposts around the souks pointing to the Djemma el-Fna and no shortage of young men wanting to give you directions… though whether either of these are accurate is another thing. You’ll easily find someone to take you to where you need to go, but there’ll usually be a fee so make sure to have some small notes. Otherwise a good tip for female travellers is to ask a local woman as they’ll often give you better information. And if you only have a short time to explore the souks it might be a good idea to get a guide – most riads and hotels can arrange one for you.
There’s so much going in the souks that it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed. But make sure you keep an eye on what’s happening around you. Those narrow alleyways aren’t just used by people, so expect to be dodging motorbikes, carts, donkeys and who knows what else as you walk. And keep an eye on your belongings – you’ll have people pushing past you and stallholders grabbing onto your arms, so leave any expensive jewellery back in your room, keep hold of your camera and make sure you have a bag that fastens securely. To avoid the worst of the hassle from stallholders, it’s a good idea to wear sunglasses, give them a firm but polite “no” and look like you know where you’re going. If you stop at a stall it’ll be assumed that you want to buy something, so keep moving unless you’re seriously considering making a purchase.
Bargain hard… but politely
Bargaining is a big part of the souk experience (though if the idea fills you with dread, you can head to one of the fixed price stores). The stallholders have had a lot of practice at it, so be prepared to work at it if you don’t want to pay over the odds. Once you’ve found something you want to buy, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research first – ask the price at a few different stalls to get an idea of what the going rate is. Decide in advance how much you’d be happy to pay and come in with a first offer at about half the quoted price. Expect that the stallholder will laugh at you and come out with lines about it being “wholesale price”, but stand your ground. Be firm but polite and don’t take it all too seriously – if you can’t get a bargain you’re happy with at one stall, there’ll no doubt be another selling the same things.
Take a break
The souks are best experienced in small doses, before the noise, the smells and the constant attention get a bit too much. Staying in a riad in the medina is a good idea as you can head back to drop off any shopping and get a bit of peace before heading out again. Otherwise there are plenty of rooftop cafés and restaurants, where you can regroup over a mint tea and soak up some of the atmosphere from a distance. The Djemma el-Fna is surrounded by cafés where you can watch the street theatre going on below – Café Glacier or the Café du Grand Balcon are both in good spots, particularly at dusk. Further north the Terrasse des Épices serves pastilla and tagines right in the middle of the souks, or if you’re in need of something stronger than tea, check out a rooftop bar like Café Arabe for a fantastic sunset view.
So those are my tips for surviving the souks? Have you ever visited Marrakech and do you have any more to add?