The donkey, its baskets laden with
wood shavings, winds down the narrow alley. Shoppers, themselves
carrying bundles of the day's vegetables or a side of freshly slaughtered lamb, yield right of way.
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 couples 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
*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
*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
*Watch your belongings. Pickpockets roam the
*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. 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.
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.
- Husband and wife team Paris Permenter and
John Bigley have authored over 20 guidebooks and also edit the FREE http: www.Lovetripper.com, a romantic travel
magazine featuring worldwide destinations.
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