The impressive red walled medina is an extensive labyrinth of tangled tight streets, unfortunate homeless, everyday survivors and kids calcitrating donkeys. A city of snake ‘charmers”, monkey entertainers and aggressive sellers. Sore for the eyes, arduous on the heart, but it is the reality of the place, whether you like it or not. Despite the poverty of the people and the cruelty towards mules, the 11th century built city is a beautiful destination with a lot to offer. Once the capital of the kingdom, the imperial city now serves as a major economic center and is one of the busiest cities in Africa, attracting visitors from all around the world. The Red City, given the name from its red sandstone walls and buildings, is also an important cultural, religious and trading center for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.
Avoid getting lost for fun in the medina. Grab a map and familiarize yourself with the area. The fortified city is a seemingly endless maze and will bring you to less desirable places; areas you don’t necessarily want to see. If you stay around the Jeema el-Fnaa square and the Souk, you’ll have plenty of streets of markets to meander through and eye-popping things to see.
*** Tip: don’t follow the directions to the square from the souk. They will mislead you and make you go around the whole market. From the souks, keep a right to get back to the square.
The souks are a panoply of alleyways of tiny retail cubicles. Each sections specialize in local goods: carpets, maroquinerie, crafts, pottery, blankets, thuya fabrications, and the list goes on. Marrakech also hosts the largest traditional Berber souk in Morocco.
- When you enter a store, walk with blindfolds. Don’t look straight at items, especially not something you might be interested. Look wide and uninterested.
- Once you are really sure you like something with the intention to buy, have a look at it. The vendor will be standing next to you in a heartbeat.
- Ask for the price. They will start with a number. When it’s your turn, cut by a 3/4. Then you will meet each other somewhere halfway between the original price of the seller and yours.
- If he doesn’t play along, or keep his price too high, start to walk away. Most likely they will chase you and let the item go at your price. Example: you are interested in buying a pair of babouches (Moroccan shoes). The seller will start at 150dh. Your turn: “50dh”. “120dh”. “70dh”. “100dh”. “80dh final price”, you say. “Ok 90dh”. “No, I’m sorry, 80dh was my final price”. Then, walk away. “Ok, ok, ok”. The seller puts them in a bag. Hand over the money. Done.
If you need to get away from the hustling and bustling of the Red City, why not enroll in a cooking class? You’ll spend a day out in the country testing your knowledge about spices and learning to cook delicious authentic Moroccan dishes. Enjoy your concoction outside in the garden with fellow students. Perhaps a glass of wine will be offered. For more information, visit Michel’s webpage: www.faimdepices.com
And how about treating yourself at the spa at the end of your stay? Marrakech has a variety of spas offering a wide range of massages, facial services, body treatments and beauty work. The best is to finish in a traditional hammam. Try out Hammam 1001 Nuits located at the entrance of the Jeema el-Fnaa.
The raw reality is apparent and harsh to admit. From wealthy tourists photographing poverty in the streets, to sellers fighting severely over a sale. Tourism has a huge impact on the people of Marrakech and it is hard to know if it’s for better or worse. For instance, those snakes aren’t charmed by the charmers. In fact, not only are they tranquilized, but their mouth is also sewn to prevent bites. The reason why they stand straight is because they are scared. Becoming extinct animals, they are most likely to die after 3 months of work. And how about those cute little monkeys? Their life isn’t so cute. Taken away from their mothers at an early age, they endure months of cruel training, such as chains around their necks, hands tied behind their back, food denied until they adopt the right acrobatics. Their teeth are pulled out and the animals are then kept in cramped boxes all day under the heat, making them suffer from heat stroke and illness. At night, they are forced to perform for the tourists, the latter to be smiling towards a proud picture to show off friends and family. Please, please, please, show consideration towards the cruelty for the animals. Don’t encourage such tourist traps. Marrakech is a lovely place, with more to offer than cruelty towards unprivileged animals. Be a smart traveller. If you wish to help and donate, visit Fondation Helga Heidrich SOS Animaux.
If you are looking for an out-of-the-ordinary holiday, an out-of-your-comfort-zone stay, or simply are thirsty for a cultural adventure, visit Marrakech, the city that never sleeps. Wander around the colourful alleys illuminated by candles and lanterns. Find your way through the smoke from the cooking stands in the middle of the square. Be charmed by the sounds of flutes erecting the snakes, the rhythms of the locals jamming in the public place, and the prayer chanting from the minarets. Maybe you’ll find some magic intriguing your senses.