There’s something to be said about the magnetic pull of the Marrakech Souks. I for one never thought I’d be writing a post about shopping. It’s one of my least preferred activities and the prospect of spending all day buying clothes and shoes is not (usually) one that tickles any inspiration in me, a stance which has been a saving grace whenever my mood swings have Pumpkin pondering his choice of woman..)
But what if the shopping wasn’t in a covered and crowded mall, full of pre-pubescent teenagers hurling profanities at one another? What if you could meander through a narrow labyrinth of absorbing alleyways, where the aromatic scent of saffron propels you from stall to stall and the warming seductive glow of suspended lanterns illuminates your tracks?
What if you weren’t fishing between designer boutiques and staring at window displays of handbags that cost more than airline flights? What if, instead, your vision was blasted with a kaleidoscope of textured, layered carpets and dyed leather handmade bags, from fuschia to regal blues?Maybe then, just maybe, I could learn to love the shopping experience?
In souks of Marrakech, I found it all. And so much more.
Surviving the marrakech Souks
Uncovering the souks is an art-form in its own right, not one that you’ll perfect during a long weekend break but there are certainly a few recurring themes recognised by most visitors to the Marrakech souks.Getting Lost
If you’re not getting lost inside the souks, you seriously need to question whether you’ve actually reached them. Go armed with a map and try and have some idea of where key landmarks lie in relation to your location, such as the main square but even with the navigational genius that is Pumpkin, we still got lost – it’s almost a rite of passage here.
In truth, it is quite mesmerising, leading us to micro-cosms made up entirely of Moroccan slippers, neatly-aligned terracotta tagines and mosaics of fruit and nut displays. The bejewelled patterned fabrics left me wondering if I could wear the local attire and I left desperately trying to convince myself that the pointy silver teapot would somehow stand proudly in place in my kitchen.Haggling and Bargaining
It is completely acceptable to haggle when shopping in the Marrakech souks. Shop owners expect you to do so and they start off the proceedings accordingly. The general rule of thumb is to aim for approximately a third of the asking price and negotiate accordingly moving up in incrementally. I’m hopeless at bartering but you need to stand your ground, set a price in your mind that you aren’t willing to exceed and avoid revealing too much flexibility – they’ll see right through it and you may end up overpaying horrendously. Pumpkin fancied himself the confident market trader, proudly protesting “leave it to me, I’ve got this covered” and then leaped straight from 500 – 800 Dhirams when the bargaining began! As with all bartering though, follow your instincts – if you start to feel guilty about how far down you’re pushing the price, chances are it’s time to stop but most tradesmen we came across seemed to rather enjoy the banter and spectacle of the process.
This is particularly true for leather goods such as bags or shoes so be sure to check the soles of slippers to see if they’re made from proper quality leather or plastic, to see whether they’re stitched firmly at the seams and give the bags a sniff to assess – some leather on sale can smell rather potent. Check zips, pockets, buckle fastenings and straps before parting with your pennies.Be patient
It is difficult to walk through the souks without getting hassled and you’ll be inundated with comments such as “Come in, I give you good price”. On some of these occasions, I was not even sure what the shop was selling and I was still propositioned. It seems quite a few Moroccans thought I was Spanish resulting in a fair number of “Holas” and the few that recognised our Indian heritage were quick to shout out, “Namaste!” Many people working in and around the Souks are happy to chat but just be prepared for the possibility that they are trying to encourage your custom.If you turn your head or gaze over at any goods, chances are you will be pounced on (proverbially might I add) shortly afterwards. But, despite this, we found that politely saying, “No thank you’ once or twice proved sufficient and we had no difficulties beyond that.Caution with photography
This is the age-old dilemma I have with myself. On the one hand, I ponder over how I would feel if a stranger came to my place of work and tried to photograph me doing my day to day routine. I would probably find it offensive and a tad creepy. On the other hand, I consider the notion that if photographs help to promote a country’s tourism industry, then perhaps this may eventually serve as an additional source of revenue for traders.Where I was buying from a stall or where stall holders were welcoming photographs, I felt less hesitant but the jury is out on this issue for me. Just be aware of the fact that many stall holders don’t take kindly to photography so use your discretion and be astute to individual preferences. How do you feel when browsing around markets during your travels?
Keep an eye on your belongings
This is true not just within the souks but also during any visits to the main square, the Jemma el-Fnaa which gets immensely flooded with tourists and locals and where the number and range of stimuli to distract tourists are such that it would be treasure trove for a pickpockets – keep wallets and phones in zipped pockets, handbags to your side or front or padlocked and hold on tightly to your belongings.What to buy?
The most common items you’ll spot in the souks include leather goods, bags, shoes, slippers and to a lesser extent clothing. Beanbags, cushions and carpets are also a plenty and if you fancy a complete overhaul of your home furnishings, you could enhance this with a hand-woven, Moorish-influenced rug and a silver lantern if you really want to give your home a Bedouin feel. I was most tempted by the ornate teapots and intricate small glasses used by the Moroccans to gulp down gallons of fresh Moroccan mint tea. Temptation didn’t get the better of me in this instance though because just remember to think about whether these purchases will have a place in your own home – it is SO easy to get carried away so think about restricting your search to purchases you truly love or could see yourself using back home. And if you are more foodie-inclined, the olives, nuts and dates are not to be missed. I have loved dates for most of my life as they remind me of growing up in the Middle East but they are enormous, succulent and impossibly sweet and cost pennies in comparison to the prices I pay for them in London.
Independent Exploring vs Taking a Souk Tour Guide
And if all of the above has left you feeling a little overwhelmed, there are plenty of options to take a guided Souk tour. We were quite happy ambling through at our own pace, broadly absorbing the array of products and essence of the souks on our first couple of visits before finally making a cheeky purchase on the third trip. I was also unsure whether there would be time pressure to buy purchases on the guided tours but we did see a few couples and small groups being led around by a guide, being told of the history of the Souks and a little part of me was tempted to eavesdrop and hear of the age-old traditions and customs that lie behind this intriguing shopping experience. If you have ever taken a Souk tour, I would love to hear whether you felt it was a worthwhile.
Have you ever visited the Marrakech souks? What are your key tips?