Morocco, Marrakesh. One of the most beautiful places in the world. A short 200 years ago it stood as a pirate kingdom, and today the maddeningly winding streets with flat roofed houses toppled on one another are still reminiscent of this. The children move quickly through the streets and the wind carries in the desert from outside the city. In the heart of the ancient city lies the Medina, so narrow are the streets that cars cannot enter from 20 minutes on any side. Carts and walls are full of wondrous trinkets and leathers, wrought iron and gold. There is a feel that the spirit of the Kingdom Pirate lives on, and as a foreigner in a strange land you have to be quick on your feet, so a few simple tips learnt the hard way should prove useful (you’re welcome).
- Learn some French
Morocco is a French speaking country. There may be some countries you can travel to and the locals speak fluent English and like to speak English with you, however Marrakesh is not one of them. From the moment you arrive, from how you ask for your taxi from the airport, to bartering in street markets, having some simple French in your back pocket will prove immeasurably useful in both how you’re received and how much the locals will be prepared to help. And believe me, there will be a point in your travels you need their help.
Ah, yes, don’t we all relish being politely charged extortionate amounts of money because we are not locals? Unfortunately it is ever so slightly part of the Morocco experience. Like I said, knowing a bit of French will certainly help, and also learning to stand your ground if you think you are being charged too much is essential. A ride from the airport to the centre of the city should cost around 50 dirham’s per person – though I found myself unknowingly being charged twice this amount. Know beforehand roughly how much you should be paying and feel free to walk away and find another taxi driver – there will be plenty of others. A good website to reference to make sure you’re not being ripped off is http://www.priceoftravel.com/. Always, always check the taxi for a meter and picture identification and license.
- Getting to your hotel
If you choose to stay in the Medina, as you should for its authenticity and history of the heart of Morocco, I strongly advise arranging a transfer from the airport to your hotel. Most hotels will offer the service, and it may be a little more expensive than grabbing a taxi when you arrive but it’s well worth it. Because cars cannot get too far in the Medina, you will have to walk a part of the way anyway, and if you don’t know where you are going, the streets at night can be a little treacherous. Take it from someone who did not splurge the little extra, and as a result was lead to my hotel by a very helpful gentleman who then cornered me in a dark alley and asked for all my money. When I refused, four others appeared almost as if out of nowhere. The situation resolved itself (I ran and hid in my hotel) but the point is: be careful. Know where you are going and if you don’t just pay that bit extra through your hotel, on this occasion it’s worth it.
- Barter, Barter, Barter
You must, I repeat must learn how to haggle in Morocco. Everything, absolutely everything from the trinkets to the food markets to even most restaurants, everything is up for debate. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but never ever pay the first price on anything, or even the second or third. I would also advise not buying anything for the first couple of days, get a feel for the markets, get used to the real value of trinkets and leathers. Haggle around, see how low you can get the price but don’t commit and get used to what sort of real prices you’re dealing with, and then you will be able to make much better decisions when finally buying. The markets can be a little maddening and it’s easy to get lost, though they are also very beautiful; aesthetically you can gorge on the rows of green and purple gleaming olives, or the leathers strung up to dry being painted vibrant colours or the bounties of fruit and the swathes of multicoloured gold adorned silk. So take some time just to get to know your way around, become a known face with vendors and take your time before buying- this is how you can ensure you are getting the best value and experience of the Moroccan markets.
- You’re really probably going to get food poisoning
Seriously. Unless you have a stomach made of steel or you stick very religiously to the most heavily touristed overpriced restaurants, it just may be on the horizon. Once, bent over, in a queue for fresh bread from the market my stomach ominously rumbling I looked up and saw the woman in front of me grab the bread, crack it and shove it into her nose for a full seconds of sniffing, before putting it back on the pile and walking off. It was in that moment that I understood the dilemma I was in. Fresh made food from the markets and local restaurants is one of the best perks of Morocco, however the trade off is everything may not be as clean as you’re used to, and your delicate sanitised stomach may have a wobble for a few days. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s something to be prepared for.
- Be Aware
A really simple pragmatic piece of advice when visiting any foreign country is just to be aware. Health and safety as such in Morocco is probably not exactly what you’re used to, and though you’ve got health insurance and all your jabs etc, there are certain things you can’t really plan for. Upon arrival in my first hotel I went to turn on a lamp in the dark – which meant I didn’t notice the exposed wires. Once I turned on the lamp I was greeted with an electric shock that sent me flying across the room and left an electrical burn on my index finger. Once made aware of this rather serious incident the hotel manager simply gave me a bottle of wine and cheerfully advised me to ‘shake it off.’ He later charged the wine to my room. My point here is be careful, watch what you’re sticking your fingers in and always make sure the wine is complimentary.
- Don’t get lost/look lost
It’s a completely normal experience to not know where you’re going in a foreign land, part of the fun of exploring a new place is eagerly looking around, not really sure if you’ve just come or gone down the same road seven times in the last hour. It is, however, not always advisable to look lost. Boldly venturing out on my first day equipped with only a shoddy hotel map I wondered around the suks (marketplaces through winding cobbled streets) until dusk. Realising it would soon be dark I sought to find my way back to the hotel. I quickly realised, due to the winding hectic nature of the Medina, the map was essentially useless. Unless your map is very detailed and current it’s all too easy to get lost. As a tourist your presence will be, of course, noticed by the locals, and there is a common trick known to be played on lost looking tourists where you will be intentionally mislead and given incorrect directions so you continue to walk around and around, deeper and deeper into the ancient city. At its least harmless, it’s a tactic to get tourists to keep looking around and consequently buy more trinkets – at its most sinister it can be a dangerous situation to get yourself in. My strong advice would be that before you leave your hotel in the morning, have google maps in your pocket with a pre-planned route, or at the very least a detailed map. It’s much, much better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
- Jamaal El Fina
Jamaal El Fina is the main square in the Medina, by day it’s filled with market stalls bustling with people; locals, tourists, snake charmers and fruit farmers alike. Rows upon rows of fresh orange juice huts and piles of folded blankets are stacked up against thick oils, balms and soaps all made from honey and beeswax. Between stalls groups of women fan themselves behind veiled eyes, coaxing you to have your hands or feet hennaed. There are knock-off designer bags, belts, shoes and jewellery in abundance laced with piles of handmade crockery, all for your pleasure. It’s the heart of Marrakesh, and is just as lively at night. The dark square gets illuminated by handmade wrought iron candle holders, studded with coloured glass that beam red, blue and green through the dark. Rows and rows of food stalls full of barbequed meat and grilled fish with chopped parsley and tomato salads beckon with fresh bread by each chair. Old men sit beside one another on benches, pouring mint tea and playing dice. This vibrant atmosphere must be experienced and enjoyed, though my final piece of advice would be this – such busy areas a very prone to pick-pocketing. Always be aware of where your valuables are, be smart when talking to the locals – if a deal of any kind seems too good to be true, it is.
If you take note of these few simple tips, you’ll be well armed to make the very best of this historic, magical city, and able to immerse yourself in a culture unlike any other.