Like Ali Baba’s cave, Marrakech is crammed with hidden wonders and glittering trinkets. Its souk – a jumble of interconnected market streets – is the beating heart of the city, and a must for any visitor. Yet there’s more to it than bubbling mint tea and snake charmer selfies. Navigating your way around can be an adventure in itself. There are few street names to speak of – or that you’ll notice. You’ll need your elbows out and your wits about you. But pocket the map and get lost in its labyrinthine streets’ – and you never know what treasures you’ll discover.
There’s a knack to shopping in Marrakech. Start by looking around and working out what the average asking price is for whatever you’ve set your heart on. When it’s time to begin haggling with a vendor, be prepared to walk away from the first offer – it’s all part of the fun. After you’re ushered back to the stall, ask the seller for his or her best price. After some toing and froing, you’ll be presented with a final figure.
Remember, Marrakech stallholders are renowned for their persuasive sales patter. But if you don’t want to buy, a polite yet firm “no” will do the trick. For an alternative, head to Cooperative Artisanale des Femmes de Marrakech. This is a fair-trade cooperative set up to showcase the work of the city’s female artisans – and a refreshingly relaxed space to browse. Fixed-price and hassle-free, it’s even possible to have clothes and beautiful leather shoes hand-made and tailored.
Not everyone has an oven at home in Marrakech. Instead, some locals still take their bread dough to a communal oven for baking. If you catch the scent of freshly crisping crust, you’re near one. Start somewhere central, such as Jemaa el-Fnaa (the big square). Then either follow your nose or one of the wagons heaped with flour and pulled by donkeys – it will lead you into the souk and to a bakery. Time it right to see flat, disc-shaped loaves laid out on cloth and waiting to go into the oven. The best way to sample the finished product is by picking up a market stall sandwich’ stuffed with harissa spice and all things nice.
Marrakech markets are a street food lover’s paradise, offering a tantalising selection of jewel-like olives, spiced kebabs and moon-shaped pastries. But to really get into the souk spirit, you should sample snails. They might be considered one of the slowest creatures of the animal kingdom, but here in Morocco they’re a fast food. Look for stalls with vast, steaming cauldrons and piles of toothpicks, ready for plucking the meat out of the shells.
The old Jewish quarter offers a different take. Here, kaleidoscopic spices are piled high next to intricate jewellery stalls and centuries-old shops. You can even stop-off at the synagogue. Perhaps not as pretty as other souks, what Mellah Market lacks in looks, it makes up for in authenticity – a truly beguiling bazaar.
After all that indulgence and pavement pounding, seek out one of the apothecary shops within Marrakech’s medina. You’ll discover shelves stacked with intriguing glass jars that hold spell-like remedies for every ailment imaginable – often concocted from local Argan oil, herbs and spices. Be sure to bring a healthy dose of curiosity with you.