We had 3 days in Marrakech as a group of 4 female friends. It was a mixed range of activities from a trip through the valleys of the Atlas Mountains to braving the main souk (Jemaa el-Fna) by day and night.
During the holiday I travelled as both part of a group and as a sole traveller. We travelled in October 2016 when the city was preparing for the International Climate Change Conference in November.
The arrival into Marrakech was fine, there were queues at airport immigration but they were not too lengthy. We walked through to the arrivals area to find our driver waiting for us. It is packed at this point with drivers & tour organisers holding placards and family trying to catch a first glimpse of a returned loved one. But this same chaos can be seen at all airports.
Day 1 – Atlas and the 3 Valley’s
We had booked a private tour through Arib Voyages called Atlas & the 3 Valleys prior to our arrival in Morocco. Our guide was called Bachir and he was fantastic. We had an amazing day visiting a local village market, an argon oil cooperative, short camel ride and lunch in a Berber family home.
The local village souk was like being transported back to medieval England. There were animal carcases hanging from stalls and live ducks for sale. The temptation to buy them and set them free was intense, but thankfully fleeting as we were distracted by an over-whelming smell. It was the local delicacy being cooked! On two sides of the souk were concrete block structures – about the size of beach huts – and these served a variety of purposes: the herbalist, the hairdresser (who was also the dentist), etc. We wondered past a man who insisted in showing us the teeth in his dead goat’s head – apparently this proves it was not an old goat and would cook to be tender. Still fighting the visual and oratory assault on our delicate western sensibilities – our guide bought some herbs to waft under our noses as we headed out of the market.
In all it was a slightly surreal experience; totally incongruous – a camels head on one stall and Disney princess figurines on another. A battle between age worn traditions and 21st Century consumerism.
Next we travelled towards the Atlas mountains and the beautiful Ourika Valley with a 30 minute stop en route for our camel ride.
For me this was a bitter/sweet experience. We met our camel driver at the side of the road and were introduced to our camels. Our guide Bachir was a great help here – we had brought scarves with us to cover our heads as a sign of respect and he aided in ensuring we wore them “Bedouin style” for the camel ride. Plenty of great photos! One of the camels was too young to ride but was accompanying her mother to learn the ways – but she was tied so tightly to her mother (my camel) that she couldn’t turn her head to see. I found this distressing and spent much of the ride trying to utter soothing words to the little camel who made crying sounds for most of the excursion. The area that we traversed as part of the ride was not a desert in the way we imagine with warm toasted grains of sand and sand dunes rippling on the horizon, but scrub land. It was a disappointment – but there are no deserts in this area so I needed to readjust my expectations. We did enjoy the camel driver’s serenading – he could have been singing about anything, but told us it was a local love song 😉
My friends enjoyed the camel ride, and I expect it was the baby camel being dragged along crying that took the enjoyment out of the experience for me.
Not a long camel ride – but enough for a few minutes of John Wayne impressions. We returned to the car and our drive up through the Ourika Valley. We drove on a well maintained road with homes rising out of the earth – built from the same materials as the landscape they blended in, so that when you stared into the hills, homes would slowly emerge from the earth like a mirage coming into focus. We drove through many villages hanging to the side of the river. Then another oddity – plastic chairs started appearing with tables and parasols on the edge of the water and even in the river itself. We asked our guide Bachir what this was – apparently families sit and lunch with their feet in the river to stay cool in the summer – the local alternative to Café Culture. I wish we had of had time to stop and try out this tradition.
Next stop was a local women’s co-operative where the made Argon Oil. It was interesting and informative and a worthy cause. We all purchased a little something to take home – knowing that the tourist prices were at least helping support a valuable / vulnerable part of the community.
We then went off road along an “ancient, partly paved Berber track” to reach the Sidi Fares valley for our traditional lunch in a local Berber house. The Sidi Fares valley is renowned for its apples and we saw the apples being prepared for their journey to the city or markets as we ambled through the valley. Along the Berber track we met children and our guide would slow down to chat to them and say hello. If you have little gifts (pencils, notebooks, etc.) they are always delighted. We did not – but had some sweets which we shared out. They were still happy!
We reached the local Berber house for lunch and were famished – so after a brief tour of a traditional house were delighted by the feast offered and the amazing views from the roof terrace. The food was delicious, and to this day we talk about the carrots – they were amazing. We spent a good hour here taking in the views of the mountains, the crumbling homes hanging on to the hillside, the sounds of the chickens and other livestock and soaking up the sun and clear air. It was peaceful and cathartic. A chance to let life roll by for a little while, appreciate the taste of the food, the scenery and the company. Bliss.
As with everything – the time came to leave and we headed up the red earthen path to get back in the car. We had one valley left.
The last valley was the Asni valley, a winding track connected the valleys and we managed to spy the first snow dusting the cap of Mount Toubkal (the highest peak in Northern Africa). Such a strange day – a dry dusty camel ride and a view of the first snow of the season. I think this polarity / extreme contradiction is a theme in Morocco.
Heading back towards our hotel – Bachir was giving us lots of tips and ideas for the remainder of our brief holiday. Watching the sunset of the main souk and listening to the call to prayer was on our list and highly recommended. Baring this in mind, Bachir dropped us off, not at our hotel, but in the city across from Jemaa el-Fna. We had roughly 15 minutes before sunset and were on a mission to grab a roof terrace with a view. This was a bit of a bun fight as all the tourists were trying to get a seat on one of the many roof terraces for the setting of the sun. I would advise getting to your chosen café roof terrace at least 30 minutes before the sun is due to set. We were lucky at the Café de France locating some seats, a table and drinks!
The sunset is not just the amazing colours and spectacular backdrop of the mosque silhouettes, but the sudden call to prayer that echoes from a multitude of minarets. It felt incredible, a snap shot moment that encapsulates Marrakech: the smell of mint tea, the muezzin issuing their call to prayer, the cityscape, the colours of the sky, the market below lighting up for the evening and the distant murmur from people milling around the market.
Market recce at Night
Our spontaneous trip in to the city left us a strange mix of emboldened and wary. We had to find a taxi back to our hotel – and were not 100% sure where it was. We had a rough idea how much it should cost, but how trustworthy the taxi drivers were was another matter – 4 white girls with barely a clue might be a temptation too far!
We decided we would take a walk around the main soul area and then head back to the place we had been dropped off and grab a taxi from there (if we could find that point). The market was an assault on the senses. There were people everywhere; street performers, food stalls, souvenir sellers, story-tellers, peddlers, animal acts and a huge swell of humanity trying to absorb it all. We held hands in two’s and wondered through the main thoroughfare, eye’s wide. We agreed that we would buy nothing to night – it was a reconnaissance visit to check out the area and offerings.
The market was extremely busy, lots of tourists and locals alike weaving their way through the narrow alleyways, stall holders calling out to prospective customers – usually in French or English. We excitedly meandered (there’s an oxymoron) through trying to soak up the sights, smells, colours, sounds. After a short while we did notice the repetition of products and felt secure in the fact that if we licked something but not the price, then we would be able to try out our bartering skills the next day at a many stalls. Content and brave we headed back across the marketplace to locate a taxi.
We came to the road close to the Koutoubia Mosque and bartered with a taxi man – I say bartered, his first price was the one we had been told.
…So we agreed.
…And the taxi took to our hotel – no detour, no scenic routes, no abandonment in the desert; just a sales pitch to take us out wherever we wanted to go the next day.
Day 2 – Jardin and Jemaa
The second day saw our group of four journeying back into the city to visit Jardin Marjorelle. Now, I’m not into gardens & plants, but one of our party loves flowers – so this was for her. That said – we spent 4 hours there!
The gardens were warm and relaxing, a calming environment. Then we found the café – it was delightful. We felt like “ladies that lunch”. An hour plus passed in the blink of an eye – we chatted, ate delicious cake, tried the remarkable NosNos coffee, even made friends with the people at the next table. The sound of birds twittering in this leafy refuge away from the hustle & bustle of city was blissful. We finally dragged ourselves from the café (& their European style toilets) and headed for the Berber Museum. It is a small exhibit – but I would say it is worth the extra charge and half an hour of your time.
All four of our party enjoyed Jardin Marjorelle even though 3 of us knew nothing about plants. Beautiful and calming with a small but exquisite café. Only downside was the extremely expensive gift shop.
We then got a horse drawn carriage ride into the main souk. Do barter with the driver on the price – it can be reduced.
My friends enjoyed the ride – I hated it. The driver spent a lot of time whipping the horses to get them moving faster – we were amongst cars & motorbikes – and I am a complete animal softy. My friends enjoyed the view from the carriage, being amongst the crazy traffic, laughing at the argument between our carriage driver and a car driver as they both pulled away from a junction. They felt part of the city – able to feel the breeze as we moved and experience the scents of the streets. It was just not my thing.
We were dropped off at the Koutoubia Mosque side of the souk, ready for a tour of the infamous Jemaa el-Fna in daylight.
We toured the market with limited hassle. I did get nabbed by a ‘henna’ lady who would not let go of my hand & squirted henna on me then asked for payment. I had said “no” and “la” at the time, but this did not deter her and she had a serious grip. I refused payment and started shouting “police” at which point she let go and I walked away. I don’t think the word “police” made any difference – it was a question of me making a scene and attracting negative attention. It’s sad that people operate like this, targeting tourists, as that could have spoilt our afternoon and given us a negative view of the Marrakech people. I felt she had chosen me, as when she approached our group I was the one who responded “La shukran”. It was after this that we actually decided that although the guidebooks and online sites had recommended this as the best response – we got better results by not making eye contact or responding to the ‘hawkers’. If they do not know your nationality it is harder to engage with you – so they quickly move to more obvious possibilities.
After this we only responded if we wished to engage in conversation. It worked well.
Our main aim at the market was to get some gifts to take home and have a go at haggling. This was a new activity for my friends and we aimed for everyone to give it a go. We used a different method than the ‘choose a third of their price and meet somewhere in the middle’. The traders seemed to have learnt that this is a recommendation and have changed their tact. You ask “how much” and they answer “how much will you pay”? When no price is given it’s really hard to find a point to haggle from – there is no from!
We worked on – how much would you pay for this at home? Then that was the price we would not exceed. It worked for us.
We walked away a couple of times and saw the same / similar products on another stall and tried again. Our entire group managed to haggle and buy an item – and everyone felt a sense of achievement. It was a lovely feeling that we had tried something new and not felt ripped off. That said – the haggling process is slow and it was about enjoying the traditional custom and not quickly grabbing some souvenirs. Haggling takes time.
We headed back to our hotel. We had been told how much it should cost by our hotel and we bartered the price to this and headed back. We were beginning to recognise the route, and our taxi driver took the direct route. As a group of girls there was always an undercurrent of concern that they may take us to the wrong place and charge us to get back – but his never happened. We found the taxi drivers took you where you intended but spent a lot of the journey trying to convince you to hire them to take you to the mountains or desert the next day.
The evening was spent at our hotel having drinks by the pool and a meal in the restaurant. We were on an all-inclusive package so always returned to the hotel in time for the evening meal.
Day 3 – astray and annoyed
My friends decided that after two hectic days – a day by the pool was in order. I needed to get some fabric for my daughter so decided to brave the city myself. I had not felt threatened by our two previous visits into the city and believed a lone journey would be fine.
I got the hotel shuttle into the town and was dropped off close to the Koutoubia Mosque. I gave myself 5 minutes in the gardens to check the map ready to walk to Ensemble Artisanal where I would get an idea of prices before trying elsewhere. I had read reviews on Trip Advisor and this seemed like a sensible plan.
Whilst I was in the garden a man wearing a green jacket with emblem on its lapel came over and told me the gardens would be closing soon for maintenance. This did not seem unlikely as there was a big climate conference coming to Marrakech the following month – and half the city appeared to be either dug up or showing off new elements. I said thanks and got ready to leave.
On exiting the garden – the same man came up to me and asked if I was OK and knew where I was going. I said yes and pointed to my guidebook. I started walking and the man started walking beside me. He said he was walking in that direction and would keep me company. When I got to the main junction he told me the shop was to the left – he knew the way and could get me there – I said I was fine but he stayed with me. However, I did turn left – and this was my mistake. I should have referred to my guide book, as he directed me on a complete detour and to the wrong shop. When he said we were there, I couldn’t believe it – not the place I had wanted and I wasn’t really sure where I was.
He demanded money for having kept me safe and showing me the way.
I can’t believe I gave it to him and hurried inside. I was mortified.
I like to think that I am an independent women who can manage for herself and here I was – heaven knows where and feeling ripped off. The shop was totally wrong – selling expensive leathers in dark rooms in a back street, I felt no safer inside than out on the street. I could have kicked myself.
I left the shop within a few minutes – I would walk to a main street and get my bearings. I had a guide book – I’d be fine.
The man was waiting outside the shop.
Did I look a complete push-over?
He came up to me and started to speak. I just shouted “La” at him and walked on my way – not actually knowing where I was going. I was worried he would follow me. But thankfully that was not the case.
A few minutes later I came to a main thoroughfare and decided a café & cup of tea (how very English) would give me a chance to breathe / work out where I was.
I was miles off – out in Gueliz (Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni and Avenue Mohammed V). I walked until I found a café (having lost my sense of adventure I was looking for a European style place) and found one close to the Carré Eden Shopping Centre. Here I sat in a seat wielding my guidebook and sunglasses as a barrier.
20 minutes later I was ready to resume my exploration.
I Googled the French for “material” – I had thought “fabriqué” would be the term I was looking for – but Google corrected me.
Asked the waiter for advice of where I should continue my hunt – he recommended to the main souk in Jemaa el-Fna.
I walked unaccompanied down Avenue Mohammed V. Crossed over the Place 16 Novembre, following the road until I came to Cyber Park, and to my surprise, a still open Ensemble Artisanal. I mooched around the little shops and then sat in the shade drinking a lemonade. I began to feel that all was not lost.
There were no material shops – so I was left with 90 minutes before my hotel shuttles departure, to brave the souk.
A brisk walk and I was back in amongst the alleyways of confusion. Definitely designed to keep you in and take every opportunity to try to wrestle your money from you.
I was on a mission so not easily distracted. I paused occasionally at stalls with lovely djellaba’s – but only to admire the material. One asked me which one I liked – and I answered I was looking for “matériel de couture”. He told me there was none for sale in the market.
Needless to say – I found a whole alleyway full of material shops a short time later. They seem to cluster similar shops together which can be useful, but also should encourage a competitive spirit. I wondered desperately looking for material for my daughter with a Moroccan feel. But found none. I had imagined that I would find material with vibrant colours and intricate patterns like the amazing Moroccan tiles. Alas – the material I found and decided to purchase turned out to have been printed in London.
I was unsure whether to barter or not. A local lady entered the shop and I pretended to be indecisive about which material I preferred whilst they served her. When they gave her the price for the material she wanted – she paid. There was no haggling. Maybe one did not haggle in a material shop – I know you don’t for food.
Was this the same?
I have no idea the answer to this. There were no other customers so when they gave me the price. I paid it and left. I did purchase another few metres in another shop, but again did not haggle. I decided to enjoy the process of getting a gift for my daughter that she would love and use – even if it was not made in the country (which had been the aim).
I was almost out of time – so now it was a fast paced walk to find an exit from the rabbit warren of stalls and get to my hotel bus. It ended in a jog across the gardens beside the Mosque – but I made it. Complete with promised souvenirs – mission fulfilled.
I returned to find my 3 friends relaxed by the pool and drinking cocktails. What a calm serene day they had – refreshed for the night flight back to the UK. But I had a story, an adventure, a lesson learnt, a little more insight into who I am, and a bundle of material made in England.
Top Tips based on a short trip:
- Take a conversion list in your purse with how much your currency is in MAD for £5, £10, £15, £20, etc. You can use it as a quick reference guide which can be helpful when working out the equivalent cost.
- Learn about the history and culture of Morocco – we felt that we were able to gain a better understanding of the people and the country by talking to our guide about a wide range of subjects – including how many wives he might have!
- Get out of the city and experience real Morocco – Marrakech is a bit of a tourist trap bubble – but fall in love with the old buildings, the rich colours, the sound of the muezzin issuing their call to prayer and the amazing tiles.
- Try local food – the Berber cooked tagine was delicious and has lingered long in our memory and on our taste buds.
- Only communicate with stall holders in the souk if you want something from them.
- When leaving the country you need to get your departure card stamped by your airline – even if you have e-tickets. So complete the card > queue at your airlines check-in desk for the stamp > head for security / passport control.