Marrakech | Exploring the Souks

Marrakech is both everything people said it would be, and completely different to most of my expectations. I boarded the flight there apprehensively, thanks to the doom & gloom that others had loaded onto my trip - and embarked on my flight home hesitant to leave this intriguing city that had surprised me in many ways.

I took over 1,000 photographs during this trip, and have many observations, tips and recommendations that I want to record - so I'm breaking down my Marrakech blog posts into manageable chunks that will be mixed in among festive themed content over the next few weeks. To start things off, I'm going to delve into a subject that many of you have asked me about: the souks.

The smells are the first things that hit you. Incense, aniseed, rose, mint, spices, petrol fumes, cat wee; ranging from enticing to pungent. Wandering through the souks, expecting to be visually bombarded, it was my sense of smell that first told me that I was someone completely different than anywhere I had ever been before.

The next shock is the sounds. Waking up to the first call for prayer at 5am, something which becomes background noise by the end of your first day. The honking of horns is constant, motorbikes zipping between pedestrians as you navigate the narrow passageways of the souks. And the calls from the stall owners are relentless, if not at all as intimidating as I expected: "Hey Spice Girls", "Come and have a butchers", "Cheap as Chips" making us laugh as we passed by. 

And the sights are completely different to anything you've seen before. The cracked terracotta and blush walls that you constantly want to photograph, the constant visual bombardment of aesthetically pleasing interiors, the colourful stalls lined with trinkets and treasures to tempt you to stop. Colour and texture are everywhere, and if you're like me every scene is just waiting to be captured. I've never left anywhere with so many missing photo opportunities as Marrakech. I could have photographed everything.

Personally, I loved the souks, despite hating crowds and generally preferring travelling at a much slower pace. But there was something electric about the atmosphere there - the narrow passageways filled with locals, tourists, people on bikes, donkey carts and stray cats, all of them constantly moving. There's no place and no time to stop and rest when you're winding your way through the labyrinthine streets (although I am planning a post about how to discover the slow side of Marrakech). It's hectic and chaotic and you have to have your wits about you. But it's also exhilarating. 

Don't get carried away, however. The culture is very different here to back home (presuming you are from the UK, as most of my readers are) and there are precautions to take and traditions to respect. I wore long loose dresses and jumpsuits when out in the medina (the old town, which includes the souks) and carried a jacket to drape over my shoulders in case I felt like I needed to cover up more. Wearing skirts above the knee, strappy tops or anything showing off cleavage is likely to attract negative attention. It also helps to wear dark sunglasses, to avoid catching anyone's eye and to enable you to admire the stalls without being coerced into purchasing anything. 

When walking through the souks, have a general idea of the direction you are heading in and walk with confidence and purpose. If you dilly dally, you're more likely to attract local men or children that will ask if you need help, directions or leading to the 'big square'. When you do get asked if you need directions, simply shake your head and say "no thanks" or "non merci" and continue walking. Even if someone offers you assistance for free, they are almost certain to demand money when you reach your destination. Download Maps.Me on your phone and drop pins for your riad and any cafes, bars or attractions that you'd like to visit, and use the map to help to navigate your way out if you get lost in the maze.

If you're planning on shopping in the souks, be prepared to barter! This is all part of the fun and if you play by the rules you're likely to walk away with a bargain (although, be warned that prices aren't as cheap as they apparently used to be). Smile, laugh, joke and be friendly when you're negotiating a price. Always start with an amount around two-thirds less than what you're willing to pay and don't be alarmed when the stall owner quotes an absurdly high price. This is now the fun bit - you offer a bit more, he offers a bit less and this goes on and on until you both agree on a price. If he isn't shifting and the price is more than you are willing to pay, state your final price and if he doesn't agree, shake your head and walk away, thanking him but saying that it's too expensive for you. Nine out of ten times he will shout you back and accept your final price. Don't be worried about offending anyone - the bartering is a tradition and you can tell by the glint in the stall owners' eyes that they enjoy it!

Wandering through the souks is a little bit like navigating a labyrinth with all the twists and turns, but I must have a good sense of direction as we didn't get lost at all. It helps to pay attention to your surroundings - it may all seem the same at first but every passageway is different. Some of the souks are completely covered up, others have straw roofs. Some of the alleyways resemble tunnels, others are wide and spacious. There are many squares lined with cafes and filled with traders. Every now and then, you'll even walk into a peaceful square filled with beautiful plants and catch a glimpse of one of the ornate mosques peeking over a wall. Allow yourself time to simply wander, gazing at all the sights and soaking it all in - then refer back to Maps.Me when you want to find your way back out. 

If you are planning on visiting Marrakech and would like to ask me any questions, please don't hesitate to comment below or drop me an email!