Thursday, 19 January 2012

Marrakech - survival tips

Marrakech is an amazing place. The first evening, last week after we'd just arrived, I couldn't have been happier. You can read here about my first impressions of Marrakech

However it soon became very clear, to get the most out of our five day break - we were going to need tactics. I hope that future travellers to Marrakech find them useful!

Take a compass

Maps will only get you so far once you've plunged into the Derbs (alleyways) and Souks (markets). When you need a road name - there won't be one. And when there is one - it won't be on your map. DON'T PANIC - the Medina is quite small and very walkable. If you keep walking in roughly the right direction you will eventually be spat out somewhere recognisable. Besides, getting a bit lost is part of the fun.

Be polite but firm

No matter how much you try not to look like a tourist - you are on a hiding to nowhere. Short of adopting a full burka (and believe me at times I was tempted), you are never going to look like a native. Which makes you fresh meat. 

People will constantly try and give you directions. A simple smile and 'non merci' usually does the trick. My rule was two smiling "non's" and then a very stern "NON" and raise of the hand. If you ignore them, then they will keep on going in French, English, Japanese, Dutch etc. until they get an acknowledgement. I know it sounds harsh, but if you want a chat then go into a shop or cafe.

50% of the population is under 20 years of age - most of them seemed to chase us at some point - mostly called Mustafa. If they you let them latch onto you, while appearing to be friendly and helpful, they will eventually expect 10-50 dh (80p - £4). 

If they tell you that something is closed or that the alleyway you are walking down is a dead end - don't always believe them!

And then there are the henna ladies and men with monkey's in the main square. We met some Dutch tourists. One had a henna tattoo all the way up her leg. She hadn't asked for it - the woman just grabbed her leg and then wouldn't let go! Tris got inadvertently grabbed by a monkey - although he didn't realise it at the time and slapped it off!

I'm not telling you this to frighten or scare you - if you want to stop, chat, buy, be henna-ed or photographed with a monkey in a nappy then go right ahead. But there will come a time when you'll need to say 'NON'. 

Let's just say that if 'Yes Man' author Danny Wallace ever visited Marrakech he would be broke and covered in brown flowers faster than a hungry Berber on a moped.

Do eat in the night market - but they make up the prices

The food in the night market is fabulous. You can try lots of different things which are cooked right in front of you. After running the gauntlet of young men with menus trying to entice you to their stall, as soon as you sit down you'll be given bread, chili dips and olives. We thought this was a lovely gesture - but it's not free. 

Neither are any of the other random things that you didn't ask for, that make their way onto the table in front of you while you are waiting for what you actually ordered to arrive. If you want to eat them then go ahead, but you will be charged. On the other hand don't be afraid to send things back.

Our first bill came to a convenient 200dh (around £16 for 2) which seemed like a lot in terms of what we'd ordered. It apparently included a tip for 'Jimmy Hendrix'! Still, being polite and English, we paid it. 

The next time we were a bit more on the ball. I took a photo of the menu with the prices before they whipped it away! This time it came to 100dh which didn't seem like enough. But we didn't quibble.

The men in the square who compete for your custom are quite amazing. While persistent they are cheerful and love a banter which they can do in several languages. Once they knew we were from England they would shout 'Starvin' Marvin' and 'Our food is bloody marvellous' after us which made us smile.

If you want to cross the road - slip stream a local

The traffic on the roads  - and quite often not even on the road - is fast, chaotic and varied. There are cars, mopeds, bicycles, donkeys pulling carts, caleches (horse drawn cabs) and even people roller blading - backwards to contend with. The mopeds in particular go at a terrifying speed down the Derbs. Don't do anything unexpected. They are very good at stopping quickly and driving around you. They go for gaps that even Lewis Hamilton would think twice about. 

Don't be surprised to see a whole family on a moped nipping through the traffic without helmets and in sandals. Or indeed someone balancing 10 trays of eggs on his knees (yes, that actually happened)!

You will need to cross a road at some point. The best thing to do is to slip stream a local - while chanting quietly under your breath "Holy Shit, Holy Shit, Holy Shit ......". I never saw a single accident or near miss the whole time we were there. Just to be on the safe side, try to find an old person, someone with a disability or someone pushing their child in a buggy to follow. 

Support a premiership football club

Coming from Manchester we've got a head start. The next question will always be "United or City?" If you really want to make friends in Marrakech - say "Manchester City". Then be prepared to have a competition to see how many players you can name. Start with Balotelli, Nasri will go down well because he is French and throw in a Toure or two.

If you really want to see the love, then learn the following list of Moroccan premiership football players off by heart (taken from Wikipedia):

If you are planning on a hammam - learn the word 'doucement'

The guidebooks will tell you - "After a hard morning of haggling in the Souks - spend the afternoon relaxing with a traditional Moroccan hammam."

A hammam - or traditional Moroccan steam, gommage (scrubbing) and massage - is certainly worth a try. Relaxing however is not a word I would have used. If you think you know what you are in for because you've been for a pamper day at your local spa then you're in for a shock.

Sitting in what can only be described as a giant couscous steamer in a disposable g-string with your 'thrups' out is just the beginning of your journey into the cleanest you'll ever be. Thankfully where we went, men and women were kept separate.

During the massage, don't be afraid to scream and yell 'doucement' ('softly' in French) because it feels like you are being beaten up by an octopus - that's in training for the Moroccan weightlifting team.

Tris said he felt like he'd been through a car wash!

It's also quite intimate. Most places get attention. Just tell yourself that it's not as bad as smear test and that you'll never see the people ever again.

Finally, on a health and safety point - at times you will be so oiled up that you might slip off the massage table (yes - that really happened too).

We went to 'Les Bains Ziani' on Rue Riad Zitoune Jdid'. A personal favourite hammam of Harvey Keitel and where they play 'It must have been love' by Roxette (the pan pipes version) over the tannoy.

It's obvious, but haggle lots

Quick rule - offer a third of what you'd be willing to pay and see how you get on. If needs be call on the global economic crisis and the problems in the Eurozone (they won't know that the UK isn't in the Euro) as a reason for your obscenely low starting point.

The spice market.

But, do make sure that you are haggling in dirhams. Tris thought he was onto a proper bargain when he haggled some camel leather belts down to three for 10. Basically, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is! Three belts for the equivalent of 80p! Turns out it was in Euros. This was still a good deal, but the belts weren't that nice. However, having shown interest, the seller was near impossible to get rid of. In the end I had to threaten him with Posh Spice!

Take some DVD's / cards / scrabble

You can't be out and about all day - you'd be exhausted / combust! Be warned, despite 1,000 TV channels, there will only be one you'll want to watch for any length of time. BBC World is great, but not after you've seen the same item for the sixth time.....

We did while away an hour or two one evening working our way through the other channels for a laugh. But by the time we got to 600 - we were losing the will to live!

I could go on .........

But I think it's best for you to leave a comment if you have a specific question and I will do my best to answer.

So if you are off to Marrakech - have a fabulous time. Give it some welly and have a mint tea for me :-)

PS. You might also like to read Marrakech - first impressions.


  1. Love this post! I'm off to Marrakech for the first time on Sunday and really looking forward to the mint tea and the haggling (I might give the hammam a miss though - I'm wussy enough in UK spas). Great writing.

    1. Thank you! It was an amazing place to visit. Just have some quiet time and places planned to recharge and if you have time, take a trip out to the Atlas Mountains. Oh - and make sure you go to the Menara Gardens for sunset - it's amazing. But check what time it closes as we got there too late on the first night.
      Have a brilliant time :-)