A view of Jemaa el-Fnaa

Marrakech: Day 2

by Céleste | March 11, 2015

Day Two was market day, so I will be describing a lot of the feel and experience of being in a real Moroccan souk (market), as well as the things that you can find for sale if you wander around. Marrakech is a strange and interesting place, and if you don’t watch out, you can get lost amongst the winding and seemingly unending market stalls. The souks make up part of the Medina area, which is the old town of Marrakech. As I mentioned in my first post, our apartment was in the new town, so we started each day with a mile-long walk into the old town to explore.

Ramparts

To get into the Old Town, you first have to enter through the ramparts surrounding the city. There are a total of 12 miles of ramparts surrounding the old town, and they were built in the 12th century to protect Marrakech.

We took these photos in the morning, so they are quite dark. But hopefully it gets the point across! Before I forget, Marrakech is also called the Red City. That was repeated to us quite a few times throughout our stay.

Jemaa El-Fnaa

After passing through the ramparts, we made our way into the main square of the Medina, the Jemaa El Fnaa. This is the main starting point of the souks. It’s a vast square, and in the morning, it’s filled with vendors selling fresh-squeezed orange juice for 4 dirhams (yes, that’s right, 40 cents). We had been warned before going to not drink the Moroccan water unless we wanted some unfortunate bathroom time, so we always made sure that we asked for bottled water. We also always checked that the bottles weren’t just refilled, by making sure they had that little “pop” sound when we opened them. We didn’t have any issues throughout our trip, lucky for us. I also learned that I’ve been pronouncing the French word for bottle incorrectly for like 12 years. Oops.

Various shots of the square.

In the afternoons and at night, the square fills up with hot street food and street performers. They included snake charmers, water carriers with strange frilly hats, and monkey handlers. All of the street performers demand payment for pictures, so we didn’t take any; we’re cheap. Plus, the snakes and monkeys looked miserable, and we didn’t want to support that. The snakes barely moved, and the monkeys were filthy. There were also women doing henna for anywhere from 10 to 50 dirhams. You have to be aware of what’s going on around you, because the henna women will grab your hands, start their designs on you, and then demand payment. My cousin and I were able to avoid this, though we saw it happening to other women. It’s sort of cool, so I wouldn’t have been too angry, but I would rather make the choice myself.

Breakfast at Yamy

Next, we had breakfast at a tourist-friendly place called Yamy. Just so I don’t forget, almost everyone we ran into spoke English, and those who didn’t speak English were able to speak French. And it was really rare, even for merchants and street performers, to not speak English. So communication was no problem. I usually just communicated in whatever language was spoken to me first. But it was nice for us all to hear English as well.

So delicious. Maybe I’ll look up a recipe.

For breakfast, we had msemen, which are square Moroccan pancakes served for breakfast with honey or cheese or butter. They were delicious, and the woman making them was cooking right in the front of the restaurant. We also had our first mint tea. Well, I did. The others had coffee. Mint tea is the drink of Morocco. Everyone makes it and drinks it. We saw people in the middle of the alleys drinking mint tea with each other. They typically drink it to signify a deal being made, and really it seemed that everyone just drank it all day. It’s served with a little sugar, though we felt that they typically gave us more sugar, maybe because we were tourists. Pouring Moroccan mint tea is also quite an art form. It’s meant to be poured from far away, in order to aerate the tea. We bought a tea pot and some mint tea before we left, and we’ve been making it ourselves at home.

Souk Shopping

The Souks. Where to begin? Maybe some photos would explain it.

The souks are a wonderful, confusing, frustrating, unbelievable, amazing, scary, and an unforgettable experience. The smells of mint, fried fish, leatherwork, and butchered animals surround you. You see merchants all around you, each wanting you to come to their stall for their goods. The typical Moroccan goods include leatherwork, like house shoes, slippers, and poufs; metalwork, like tea pots, mirrors, and lanterns (see below); dresses and scarfs of all kinds, as well as traditional Moroccan-wear for both men and women; pottery; rugs and carpets; and woodwork, like elaborate chess sets and beautifully-carved kitchen utensils. Besides these products, there are also touristy tagines that say “Marrakech” and fake Louis Vuitton handbags.

Getting around the souks can be overwhelming but here are some tips to keep from being lost: use Google Maps and the Marrakech TripAdvisor City Guide. Both offer offline maps and the souks were navigable via GPS fairly easily (GPS will work even when cell/data is disabled — all you need is a working SIM — we never enabled our French cell network but we still used GPS). TripAdvisor was good for finding places and Google Maps was good for navigation. We never got lost because Vincent could always pull out the phone to pinpoint where we were. We didn’t try to navigate too much our first time — there’s something to be said about being lost in the labryinth. But when you need to get somewhere — like that hole in the wall restaurant you had super good tagine at? GPS is a Godsend. Throughout our trip, Wi-Fi was spotty at best so we wouldn’t recommend assuming you’ll always be connected.

A cameo by Vincent and I.

There are specific shops for apothecary items, like spices, black soap (from the Argan oil harvested in Morocco), tea, and even dead lizards and sharks. There were live chameleons from the Atlas mountains, and pots full of slugs. There were little water-filled buckets of shark eggs, and a man who dutifully sold individual human teeth at a table each day.

Spot the snake skin on the right.

So, I’ll go through a typical sale to show you how it works. First of all, don’t point at merchandise or look at anyone or they WILL try to call you over or get you into their shop. They know all the right words for “you can just look” and “looking is free,” but they really want you in the stall so they can pressure you to buy something. Just remember, you don’t have to buy anything you don’t want. I was looking for shoes, and each time I saw a shoe stall, I would stop and attempt to look for what I wanted. Many of the Moroccan house slippers are strangely shaped, at least for someone with long and thin feet like me. They are very rounded or very pointy, and that wasn’t what I wanted.

But each time I tried to look, I would be ambushed by a merchant looking to make a deal. They would see me pick up a shoe or touch one or merely point to one, and they would pick it up, asking me what price I was willing to pay and telling me they would sell it to me “for a good price.” Many vendors will say, “You are my first customer,” and “I give good price only to you,” which of course are lies. They just want the sale. Many times, I would just walk out at that point. When Vincent bought houses slippers, the vendor originally offered his pair and a child’s pair for our cousin for 450 dirhams ($45!) It’s okay to offer much less — we offered I think 60 dirhams as a counter. He scoffed, we scoffed, it was like playing a game. Finally, we settled on something like 100 dirhams for both. Perfect! We found that typically, the vendors would offer really high prices at first, probably because they thought we wouldn’t know any better. Again, it pays to research beforehand (thanks, Vincent!).

I couldn’t find shoes I liked anywhere, until we hit up the vastly superior…

Ensemble Artisinal

This is the exact same thing as the souks, but less crowded and no one will hound you. These are indoor markets selling the Moroccan products directly from the artisans, many of whom have education and training in their fields. Whereas the souks are just for vendors of the goods, the people at the Ensemble Artisanal actually make the products themselves. They tend to be slightly more expensive, but they won’t hound you or get in your face. I actually found the shoes I wanted here because I got a chance to take a breath and actually look around!

Parks

Like I’ve said, Moroccans know how to do parks. On our adventures on the second day in Marrakech, we went to three parks: Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdeslam, the Roseraie, and Parc Lalla Hasna (named after the Moroccan princess). They were all beautiful parks, but the Cyperparc stands out because not only was it just an excellent park to look around in, but there were free Wi-Fi hotspots all around the park! During the day, if we needed to send a message, look up a restaurant, or look at a map, we were able to do so.

However, there was a weird dude in the park that kept coming up to us (four separate times, on three separate days!) to bother us and say inappropriate things about women and how rich he was. Emilie finally had to yell at him to get him to leave us alone.

Koutoubia Mosque

The mosques are not accessible to those who aren’t Muslim, so we couldn’t get a peek inside them. However, they were beautiful to look at from the outside. This particular mosque was built in the 12th century and measures 253 feet in height.

Cafe Snack Rahba Kedima

For lunch, we ate atop the Cafe Snack Rahba Kedima, which is in the Rahba Kedima square. This square used to be where slaves were sold; now you can buy straw hats, tea, and get henna done. Many of the restaurants are on the rooftops, and it’s fun to look around as you eat. The couscous, tagine, and chicken brochettes were delicious, too! One thing we noticed at every restaurant, was that they always serve olives as a pre-appetizer. We all hate olives, so we never ate them. Sometimes they would bring out two or three bowls of olives, and we felt so guilty wasting them! We all tried them at least, and yep, we still don’t like olives.

Aux Merveilles de Marrakech

We decided to go back to this rug store in the midst of the souks, because Emilie wanted to buy rugs for herself and her father. Vincent and I decided to get one too. The staff was friendly, and the rug store has actually been open since 1936. They had a whole team of rug dealers taking the rugs down from the walls and spreading them out for customers to see. It would have taken several days to see every one. One word of warning: the sales staff really want you to pay in cash. They convinced us to pay part in cash, part with our card, because we told them we only had 200 dirham on us (this was a lie). So we paid $20 worth in cash, the rest on the card. Strange, but we took our tightly wrapped rug, now the size of a lumpy infant, and went on our way. We got it back to France through customs with no worries. Our rug has lots of colors; it wasn’t any of the ones below.

It wasn’t any of these.

Dinner and Dessert

We ate dinner overlooking the main square. At night, the place really comes alive, there’s so many people. We felt safe, though it was dark, and enjoyed a leisurely walk after we ate. We had dinner at Les Terrasses de l’Alhambra, which was terrible. The prices were too high, the portions were tiny, and the quality of the food was awful. Emilie had ordered the pastilla, which is traditionally made of pigeon and almonds. According to her, it tasted like chicken coated in peanut butter. We hoped it wasn’t pigeon; they usually use chicken for the tourists!

A note on cats: as we ate, a cat sat on the roof next door and meowed for food. He had a hurt leg, and was looking ragged. We relented and gave him some chicken. There are tons of stray cats in Marrakech; we counted a total of 131 on our 7 day vacation. It was amazing. Many looked well-fed and taken care of, so we hoped they were living good lives.

After dinner, we went to get ice cream at a place called Ice Legend. They had a cone for 12 dirham, or $1.20. As we ordered, some street children begged us to buy them ice cream. I wasn’t sure who they were or where they came from. When I questioned where their parents were, they ignored me. Emilie ordered pistachio, Vincent had chocolate, and I had orange cinnamon, which is a Moroccan favorite. They like to put cinnamon on oranges, which I would have never thought of, but I love it. This was an exhausting day, and we definitely needed ice cream to energize us for the next day!