Buying a slice of culture in the souks of Marrakech

by rachael bell

Morocco's spicy city can serve up a short break crammed with colour, culture, caleches and consumer delights

With just a four hour flight time, Marrakech is the perfect cultural getaway. Your starting point should be the Djemaa El-Fna, a unique spot with endless food, stalls and entertainers. By day snake charmers, fresh orange juice and a host of spices await you but by night it is transformed into a throng of hot food vendors, storytellers and dancers. Don't be surprised by shouts of "pukka" and "cheaper than Asda price", as stall holders tempt you to eat with them. The food here is tasty, cheap and home-cooked. Grab a seat at one of the benches and enjoy your meal while soaking up the authentically Moroccan atmosphere.

The legendary souks, or markets, sit just off the square - a maze of leather, jewellery and pottery shops. You have two options here. If you have plenty of time and little money, try making your own way around. It's not an easy task but you'll discover stalls and shops you never imagined. If you have little time but a bit of money, pay a local guide to show you around. They know their way but beware, they may just take you on a tour of their friends’ shops. The souks are truly an experience and you are sure to pick up a couple of holiday souvenirs, but they can also be a bit overwhelming with shopkeepers competing for your attention and your money. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

At the centre of Marrakech stands the stunning and intimidating Koutoubia Mosque. It is certainly worth taking in the majesty of the most famous symbol of Marrakech but it is frowned upon locally to take photographs up close, so make sure your holiday snaps are from a distance.
Situated between the Koutoubia Mosque and the Djemaa El-Fna is a long line of caleches, or horse-drawn carriages, a fantastic, and at 80DH or £6 an hour, affordable, way to see the city. The drivers have a vast local knowledge and are generally happy to tailor your ride for you.
Just a short walk from here is the Ensemble Artisanal, in Avenue Mohammad V, displaying art, clothes and pottery from local artists. It can offer a much-welcomed break from the hustle and haggling of the souks but prices are generally fixed here so bargains are harder to come by. In the centre is a small café, perfect for a cup of mint tea and a snack.

Meal with a view

For an evening meal with a view, try the Terrace de L'Alhambra in the north eastern corner of Djemaa El-Fna. It is the perfect spot for people-watching as the square comes to life. The menu is mainly pizza and pasta and the food is satisfying but this restaurant is all about the view.

Most sights in the city are within walking distance but taxis are relatively cheap and easy to come by, around 15-20DH across town by day and 25DH at night.

If you fancy getting out of the city, a day trip into the Atlas Mountains is highly recommended, although the bumpy drive is not for those with a delicate stomach. It is also worth a stop at the J'ardin Aromatique, in Tnine Ourika Haouz, a beautiful garden and shop selling all manner of lotions and potions. You can enjoy a tour of the herb garden but expect the hard sell afterwards as you will be shown every available product from perfume to "Berber Viagra." Prices are non-negotiable here but you will need a strong head to avoid buying anything.

As for somewhere to rest your head, riads, guesthouses with courtyards, are plenty. Some can feel a little cramped so if you fancy an escape, the Hotel Tichka Salam is a perfect getaway. A quiet hotel with a lovely pool, it offers an ideal place to relax after a day in the sometimes stifling heat. The staff are polite and speak good English and the vast breakfast sets you up for the day.

Visiting during Ramadan

If you find yourself in Marrakech during Ramadan be aware of eating and drinking too obviously in public. Do make your way to the Djemaa El-Fna in time for the breaking of the fast, however. It is truly a sight to behold as a mass of people descend to eat together.

In all, you will never be bored in Marrakech. The intensity of the heat and the competition of the locals for your attention may be a little over-whelming but the culture and history more than make up for it.



rachael bell

I have had a passion for writing, both fact and fiction, since a young age and likewise with travel. After every holiday, I would make a scrapbook and diary of everything that we did. I have a scrapbook and photo album I made from a trip to London when I was five years old! The older I get the more I yearn to travel and I am planning a fly drive trip to the west coast of America next year. I currently work in the Backstage department of a television channel and live near Cambridge.