This medieval market plays out daily in the streets of Morocco. Lying at the crossroads of Africa and Europe, for centuries Morocco has served as a place to buy and sell goods ranging from magic potions to magic carpets, from brass goods to burnooses. The exotic romance of the souks is contagious and even non-shoppers find themselves entranced by the myriad of goods from throughout Africa.
Souks are found in many of Morocco’s cities but the most expansive shopping areas lie in the cities of Marrakech and Fes. Here within the ancient walls of the medina, daily life follows a centuries-old pattern. Goods are haggled for in tiny shops and stalls, often over glass after glass of what might be considered the national drink–hot mint tea as sweet as liquefied chewing gum. Craftsmen pound out designs on brass, as the echoes reverberate along narrow passageways where veiled women move through the day’s activities.
The heart of Marrakech’s shopping experience is found at Jemaa el Fna. In this sprawling square performers gather in the late afternoon and into the evening. Watch a cobra dance to the sway of a wooden flute, photograph the colorful watersellers with their chests covered in dangling brass cups or have a look at the “dentist,” whose quick extraction skills are advertised by a table full of teeth. Behind the square lies the souk, with miles of twisting walkways that offer an array of goods.
Marrakech’s souk is best known for its circus-like square, a dramatic stage that’s fascinating for the shopper and non-shopper alike. In the city of Fes, however, the souk is a practical market, used primarily by local residents as they carry out the business of daily life. Since medieval times, the souk has been reserved for pedestrians — and donkeys — only. Keep an ear out for cries of “barek” to warn of incoming donkey deliveries.
Whether you shop the souks of Marrakech, Fes, or one of Morocco’s other cities, you’ll find the narrow, winding streets and alleys of the souk are far more orderly than they first appear. Specialty souks within the souk are devoted to fabrics, spices, meats, brass and ironwork, clothing, and other wares. The meat souk, with its open-air displays of goat heads, sheep feet and live chickens, is best experienced in the morning hours, before the heat of day turns the sometimes stagnant air foul.
You’ll want to budget at least one entire day for shopping the souk, even longer if you’re a dedicated bargain hunter. Here’s a run down of some of the top souk offerings:
An unforgettable part of any souk experience is a visit to the rug merchant. Expect to drink three or four glasses of sweet mint tea and spend at least half a day in during negotiations for one of Morocco’s top products.
To step into the store of a rug merchant is to walk into a den of designs, no two of them alike. “There is no plan; each is in the mind of the ladies who make them,” explained Mr. Youssaf, spokesperson for La Porte d’Or in Marrakech. Fifteen types of Moroccan rugs and carpets are found in shops throughout the area from the High Atlas rugs, made with 100% wool and dyed with vegetable colors to the woven and embroidered Kilim rugs. Prices vary with the degree of work, from US$6,000-$12,000 for a High Atlas carpet to US$5500 for a reversible carpet (with a summer and winter side) to as little as US$150 for a kilim rug. Prices are generally one-half to one-third of those found in the US. Arrangements can be made with merchants for shipping and delivery to be included in the negotiated price.
Although fine leatherwork is sold in souks throughout Morocco, the best selection is found in Fes. This city is home to an expansive tannery, one of Africa’s most photographed sites.
Although we were warned of its odoriferous qualities (leather is treated in vats that contain everything from pigeon droppings to lime), our guide provided us with a sprig of mint to smell during our view of the multi-colored vats that produce some of the area’s finest leather goods.
Purses (US$10 and up), sequin-dotted leather camel toys (US$3-5), and babouches or soft slippers (US$3-$25) were some of the most popular items in the tannery store. Outside, street vendors sell colorful billfolds embossed with Moroccan designs for as little as US$2.50.
Another shopping experience in the souk is the dress shop. Caftans, traditional women’s dress, and the djellaba, a long man’s garment with a deep, pointed hood, are available in a variety of styles and materials ranging from cotton to polyester to silk. Prices start at about US$25 and go as high as $600 for a special occasion garment.
Look for other traditional wear as well. The burnoose, an elegant hooded cape, can sell for US$450. Djellabas come in three styles: Arab (large, flowing garments), Berber (with straighter lines) and Pasha (a two-piece garment worn for special events).
Need an inexpensive gift? Veils that double as scarves average US$12-20.
Even if you’re feeling perfectly healthy, don’t miss the chance to visit a Moroccan pharmacy. Like a witch doctor’s den, these mysterious shops tucked in the souk’s alleys, offer local residents cures for everything from toothaches to arthritis to broken hearts. Powders and potions, concocted of local herbs, not to mention dried lizards seen hanging on the walls, provide a cure for whatever ails you.
Travelers will be especially interested in the spices and perfumes. Saffron can be purchased for about US$2 per gram (minimum of five grams). Moroccan curry, a different blend than Indian curry, and a heady mix of Moroccan spices called “Head of the Store” are popular choices.
In the natural pharmacies, you’ll also find stencils for henna designs (US$1), kohl eyeliner (US$3), musk (US$3 per gram) and numerous oils.
Tips for Souk Shoppers
*Get a supply of Moroccan coins for tipping. Tips are expected for photos; the going rate is 1 to 5 Dirhams (10 to 50 cents US).
*Exchange only as much money as you expect to spend. Always exchange money in banks or at the larger hotels, never on the street. The official currency is the dirham (dh). At press time, the exchange rate was about US$1 = 10 Dh.
*Credit cards are accepted for larger purchases but carry cash for most souk buys.
*Negotiation is the name of the game. When presented with a price, counter with a price of about 1/3 the amount. Keep the process friendly yet firm. If you counter with a final offer and are allowed to walk away from the shop, you’ve obviously underestimated the value.
*A guide is an invaluable asset in the winding, twisting alleys of both Fes and Marrakech. Licensed guides can be recommended by the hotels.
*Don’t plan to shop much on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. Most stalls close at noon or 12:30.
*Watch your belongings. Pickpockets roam the souks.
*Be prepared to be jostled. The souks are crowded, especially in Fes.
IF YOU GO
Getting There: Air service from the US and Canada to Morocco is quick and easy, just 6-1/2 hours from New York’s JFK International Airport to Casablanca. For more information, call 800-344-6726 FREE. Fare information and schedules can be found at the Royal Air Maroc web site, http://www.kingdomofmorocco.com. Short flights connect Casablanca with Marrakech, Fes, and other cities.
A valid passport is required of all visitors.
When to Go: Fall and spring are excellent times to visit. Winters can be cold and shoppers will find limited activity during the holy month of Ramadan.
Health Precautions: No immunizations are required for a visit to Morocco. Travelers are advised to drink only bottled water and avoid ice as well as food that has been rinsed in water such as salads and most fruits.
Language: English is spoken by many merchants but the official language of Morocco is Arabic. Most Moroccans also speak French; Spanish is spoken in the northern cities as well.
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