Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Mesmerising Marrakech

…for you, only 500 dirham", he murmurs softly … and I am almost hooked. Almost, but not quite because this is Marrakech, and these are the souks and here bargaining is a way of life.

“I'll give you 100”, I hedge, trying my luck.

Mohammed Zuhaf, my charming Moroccan trinket vendor, pretends to be shocked by my audacity but his eyes have lit up and gleam with pleasure. Invisible battle lines have been drawn and we’re off and away, engaged in the exhilarating age old ritual of bargaining.

To the victor go the spoils and after nearly twenty minutes of incessant banter, two cups of mint tea, discussions ranging from Nelson Mandela to the 2010 Football World Cup, outrageous flirting and lots of bluffing to “forget it “on both sides, I gleefully walk away with not one but three heavy, ornate, distinctly Moroccan necklaces, very pleased to have spent just 200 dirhams a piece. Until I spy them being sold for a paltry 150 dirhams at a stall not even ten metres away!

Mohammed, you sly thing you …

Bargaining in the souks is an expected pastime with stall owners actually looking forward to the opportunity to honeBargaining in the souks is an expected pastime with stall owners actually looking forward to the opportunity to hone and fine tune their negotiating skills. Most love clients who aren’t rushing off elsewhere and are willing to try their hand at negotiating.

In you’re invited and once seated on an exquisitely worked leather pouf, out comes the engraved, slightly battered, little silver teapot and accompanying tea glasses – often a very necessary part of the negotiation process. Syrupy sweet mint tea is slowly brewed and with an almost hypnotic lifting and falling arm motion, skilfully poured into glasses. Conversation is light and mellow with barely any reference made to the object of desire and it is only once you’ve relaxed that the bargaining begins.

Popping into Mohammed’s stall a few days later, I’m pleased that he remembers me and comes over to laugh at my latest antics. When asking about bargaining practices, he confides that “…always you must say half of asked price”, as in peak season most vendors put a significant, sometimes almost 100% mark up on their goods, and “bargain, you must bargain, we like it!” he adds.

I’m starting to get the distinct feeling that haggling over prices here gains you a vendor’s respect.

And then I’m off to the souks again, in pursuit of my next bargain and bargaining.

The Souks (markets)

The souks which cover over a square kilometre and extend from Djema el Fna to the northern walls are magical and a must for any visitor to Marrakech.

Alleys within alleys, labyrinthine, shrouded in shadow or open aired, they’re comprised of individual sections and enclose a host of colourful, highly exclusive handicrafts workshops and bazaars. Here you’ll find everything from imposing mounds of rich exotic spices, clothing, braziers, lanterns, wrought iron doors, antique furniture to the most delightful babush (slippers), sensuously exquisite carpets, shisha pipes, endless selections of big juicy dates and stalls selling natural medicines and every herb known to man.

Crazy. Loud. Alive. Frenzied, crowded and bustling with energy, except for midday prayers on a Friday, it is not uncommon to be hooted to the sides of alleyways by men in cars, on mopeds, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and creaking ramshackle wagons pulled by sage mules. Everyone one of them whizzing by at top speed and high volume.

In some parts of the souks the pathways are so narrow that you can literally touch the walls on either side but despite this and the sometimes dark and dusty alleys, it is not a threatening environment and any fear of getting lost is wasted as all alleys lead right back to the main path and Djema el Fna. 

Djema el Fna

There are few places on earth as exotic, or as strange as Djema el Fna (Place of the Dead). Listed by UNESCO as a "Masterpiece of World Heritage", it is the busiest square on the entire African continent, and much of the reason why travellers have been lured to Morocco for centuries. At any time of day there is something beguiling occurring on this public square, where wealthy sultans once beheaded enemies and criminals.

Food stalls, snake charmers, orange juice vendors, storytellers, shady henna artists and monkeys. Acrobats, coconut cookies, medicine men, twirling jugglers, musicians and sneaky pickpockets... Djema el Fna, the heart of Marrakech, has it all.

By day, a relatively quiet and empty square but at night, it transforms into a wondrous mediaeval plain. A thousand glinting lanterns hang from stalls or poles, wink and shimmer, casting their light wide to chasing away the dark. Hazy, incense-infused mist drifts through crowds and casts its spell.                                                                                                          
Locals and tourists, seduced by the exotic aromas wafting from hundreds of brilliantly displayed food stalls, descend in their hordes. Evocative drumbeats, trumpeting horns and the hoarse singing voices of Moroccan men fill the air. Parcels of friends wander leisurely from group to group breathing in Marrakech, listening to long ago tales woven by wizened Berber tribesmen, laughing at the antics of acrobats and jugglers, trying their luck at games which seem simple but turn out to be feats of strategy or simply hang out with a pot of mint tea on the rooftops of surrounding restaurants to watch the square come alive as the day bids the night salaam (peace).

Tasting Tajines

For the most authentic Moroccan dining experience, join the crowds and eat within the Djema el Fna itself. As twilight falls, hundreds of open air kitchens are swiftly set up, lined with benches and illuminated by overhead lights, creating one of the world's biggest open-air eateries. Most stalls specialise in one particular dish such as merguez (spicy sausages), grilled brochettes, pastilla (savoury chicken and almond filling in puff pastry) or harira soup. For the more adventurous try boiled sheep heads, eels and mounds of snails.

Clouds of smoke drift over the square as meats are grilled and served with cooked vegetable salads. Take your time, wander around the square and let your senses be your guide to Moroccan gourmet.

Once you've settled on your kitchen of choice, squeeze onto one of the benches and watch as your waiter theatrically pours your mint tea while your food is freshly prepared. Then using bread as your utensils, tuck into the feast of a lifetime.

Not to be missed though not generally found at the open kitchens, a tajine is a must for any food lover. A slow-cooked stew with aromatic vegetables, sauce and succulent, tender meat which falls from the bone, it is commonly served on a bed of couscous. Exquisite, sublime, a gastronomical delight, your first tajine is a life altering experience within itself and lives on long after you’ve polished off the last grain of couscous.


Marrakech consists of two parts: the old town or medina, which dates back to over a thousand years; and the new town, Gueliz, designed and built by the French early this century.

Gueliz is the wealthier, more westernised district of Marrakech where most of the major businesses are located. It is also a major shopping district, offering a wonderful range of luxury stores selling international brands. With its wide streets and squares with fountains, choice of excellent restaurants, night clubs, bars and street cafes, it is a real contrast to the winding alleyways of the Medina.


Framed by the snowy heights of the Atlas moutains, with rose-colored ramparts and a thousand year old palm grove, Marrakech casts a magic spell. Sumptuous and exuberant, the red city radiates splendour and mysticism and captivates the heart and mind despite of or perhaps because of it’s extreme contrast - impoverished yet industrious, ancient but vibrant and so much more … in every essence, a land where fantasy and reality speak the language of negotiation. 

What to See

  • Koutubia Mosque - a 12th-century mosque with a 70m high minaret, it is one of the most important mosques of the Maghreb countries. 
  • Ben Youssef Medressa - a 16th-century Koranic school with exemplary mosaics, wooden carvings and other hallmarks of classical Moroccan artistry. 
  • Museum of Marrakesh - a renovated 19th-century palace with exhibits by contemporary Moroccan artists as well as displays devoted to historical ceramics, metalwork and other crafts. 
  • El Bahia Palace - an especially large 19th-century palace: it had to be to hold an aide to the Sultan, his 4 wives and 24 mistresses.

Where to Stay

  • There are now about 300 restored riads in the medina that serve as hotels or B & B's.
  •  Many are quite luxurious, featuring fruit-tree-planted courtyards, beautifully tiled pools and rooms with colourful Moroccan elegance. 
  • Some agencies, like represent multiple properties.

 Where to Drink & Dance

  • For the best bars, nightclubs and discos, head for Gueliz and Hivernage. 
  • Going under the name of discothèques, music tends to range from Moroccan pop to groovy Ibiza-style dj mash-ups and belly-dancing. 
  • Clubs are an expensive extravagance so expect to fork out a hefty admission fee and bear in mind that getting into the hottest clubs over weekends is no guarantee regardless of how well you’re dressed or moneyed you are.