The multicultural Marrakech experience
Earlier this year I went to Marrakech with my girlfriend for four days. Located in the northern tip of Africa, within Morrocco, the city is famous for its vibrant markets, colourful souks and larger than life characters.
I have always tried to avoid very busy city centres, so it took a little while to get settled in around the main marketplace. We decided on staying in a quieter Riad, just a few minutes walk from the main centre, which was owned by a lovely lady called Sabba (via Holidaycheck.com). She lived in another part of town, but owned two Riads, which she probably simply rented to other visitors to the city. The interiors were as you might expect, lots of rich red tiles, colourful glass hanging lights and a sense of somewhere unique.
The little riad just south of the town centre
Each morning we would sit out on the terrace, overlooking the local bath houses and eat our selection of pastries, bread and preserves and enjoy our first mint tea of the day. The french influence in Marrakech is clear, with not only the French language pervading the culture, but also cooking (snails, crossiants, breads etc), but also clothing and architectural stylings.
(A little bit colder than i expected at breakfast time..)
I have heard quite a few stories about Marrakech, all of which played in my mind as a walked through the town. I had visions of pickpockets, crowded streets, chaos… And, while some of those things did ring true, the place exceeded all of my expectations and gave me a new found love for the city. A few of my favourite activities included:
Eat at the local food stalls at night
The Jemaa el-Fnaa is the beating heart of Marrakech at night, a large open space with eateries, musicians, stalls and entertainers occupying the large central market place. Enticing chatter form the owners can often be a great experience in itself, with many of them remembering funny lines or quotes to get you into their stall. Each stall in the market place is numbered, which can often form form of their chat up lines. One of my favourites had to be “remember, number one one seven, always take you to heaven”.
Expect a large array of grilled meats, the occasional hint of seafood and a selection of local favourites like harissa soup (which is a spiced tomatoe based dish with ingredients sometimes including chickpeas and lentils), served with a traditional flat bread.
A meal in the Jemaa el-Fnaa will never cost you more than around £5-10 per person at the market stalls and that will be eating well. The more touristy style restaurants lining the market would normally charge prices more commonly seen at home.
Drinking tea by the barrel load
In Marrakech, the people are predominantly muslim (although you can get alcohol in some westernised restaurants), so the locals take to tea and coffee for their evening tipple. They are also known for an extremely sweet tooth, so love all things sugary. The spiced tea stalls that surround the food court are fantastic way to finish your meal. As we arrived in February, the evenings were bitterly cold, so the spiced tea stalls were a blessing. The drink, which was very warming, contained a variety of spices including galanga, cardamon, cinnamon, star anise and a number of mystery spices i couldn’t detect. Costing just 2 dirham a glass (around 25c), this was a fantastic thing thing to engage in, as you rub shoulders with the locals who are happy to chit chat in broken French.
The tea is also served with an extremely sweet, but enticing sugar cake covering in sesame seeds. I couldn’t quite figure out its name. Spiced like an English christmas cake, this sticky delight is spooned onto a plate and served alongside the warming tea.
The shopping experience
The market stalls are where Marrakech come alive. Spices, herbs, nuts, meats, metal teapots and clothes are just a sample of the things you can find in town. If you fancy an artisan gift of any description, i recommend you delve into the Souks for the best shopping experiences. The main Souks are north of the Jemaa el-Fnaa. I picked up a small hand made chess board, backgammon board, pieces and a small box for around $20. As a rule of thumb you should always assume the true cost of most Souk bought items is roughly a third of the initial quoted price. We got this tip directly from our landlady Sabba – although she she scoffed at my bargaining skills – “My chess board was 14$, and it’s better than yours.” Enough said. You will see how the price from a merchant falls when you feign interest or decide to walk out the shop.
Figure out what you are prepared to pay and stick to your guns, that way you can easily say no if the price is too high. Also don’t be afraid to be firm with pushy sellers – they will soon realise you are not an easy target to be pushed around.
One last tip from Sabba was that if you feel threatened in any way, just walk away from the stall. The owners will not leave their goods unattended, so will not usually follow you out of the shop.
Overall i feel the Marrakech, despite its subtle issues through a reliance on tourism and to some extent over ‘westernisation’, the city still retains the charm of a world far away from home. It is chaotic, but organised and messy yet beautiful. I can see why it draws travellers from around the world and will continue to for years to come.Scott on Google+