Retail Therapy in Marrakech

Retail Therapy in Marrakech

Marrakech is up there as one of the craziest, loudest, most colourful, chaotic, beautiful, exhausting and intriguing cities we’ve ever visited. Hot and dusty (even in January when we’ve visited), it’s somewhere that we only do for a couple of days before escaping to the calmness of the coast, and the gorgeous Essaouira. You can never be bored in Marrakech – it’s a non-stop feast for every sense. And, if you like shopping, and your normal retail therapy haunts are on sedate high streets or out of town shopping centres, you’ll need to brace yourself!

Souk Shopping

A souk is a traditional marketplace. Historically, the souks of Marrakesh were divided into retail areas for particular goods such as leather, carpets, metalwork and pottery, and these divisions still roughly exist but now with significant overlap. Many of the souks sell items like carpets and rugs, traditional Muslim attire, leather bags, belts and lanterns. Haggling is still a very important part of trade in the souks – some people are very adept as this, and I really admire them, but I find it very difficult and uncomfortable. This is definitely something I need to get better at!

One of the largest souks is Souk Semmarine, which sells everything from brightly coloured bejewelled sandals and slippers and leather pouffes to jewellery and kaftans. Even without resorting to haggling, prices are more than affordable, as a tourist – which, again, is why I think the price which is asked, is more often than not, for me, a fair price. Especially when you look at the craftsmanship and feel the quality. And, look at those colours. Eye-popping!

Leather goods in the souk

In the Souk…

A number of souks contains stalls which specialize in foodstuffs – big, fat, juicy, bright yellow lemons, vibrant red chillis, olives, and aromatic, fresh mint. A must for the Moroccan tea which you will be determined to make every day back home. Our Moroccan tea kick lasted approximately a day, I think. But how pretty…

Moroccan Rose Petal Tea

Moroccan Rose Petal Tea

The Marrakech Tanneries

However, it’s just not the souks where you can shop, shop, shop. If you have a strong constitution – in more ways than one – then head out to the outskirts and visit The Tanneries. The main leather tanneries are located in the Bab Debbagh quarter, which is quite difficult to navigate as it’s largely a maze of alleyways. This is where you need to completely have your wits about you. You will be immediately identified as a tourist and you will be approached by a “helpful” local, who will offer to show you the way, and probably offer you a free guide of the tanneries. If you are in this situation, it’ll now be very difficult to extricate yourself from it, because these faux guides are experts at what they do. It can be very intimidating, as they can be very pushy – and they often work in small teams so as soon as you think you’ve shaken one off, another will appear from around the corner. There are terrible reviews on Trip Advisor about the Tanneries – so our advice would be to read them, read other reviews, read about the Tanneries themselves and decide BEFORE you set off (probably on foot), if this excursion is for you. As I say, you need to have a strong constitution to deal with the “guides” – AND be prepared to hand over money for their efforts. About 30-40 dirhams (approx £3 by today’s rates) should suffice – but do not underestimate how persistent (and how many in number) these guides can be. We experienced all of this – and it was definitely a very unnerving (OK, at times, downright scary) experience, BUT with hindsight, it’s something I’m glad we did. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to do it again, but our experience did ultimately turn out to be a positive one.

So, you’ve survived the onslaught of the guides and you’ve reached The Tanneries. You’ll know you’ve been getting closer by the smell. Some reviews really focus on this, and as I remember, it was pretty horrible, but not gut-wrenching. What was worse for me, was what the Tanneries looked like and the visible working conditions. Workers tend to be young, and they are often immersed in these enormous pools, separating the skins, soaking them in various vats filled with quicklime and water to begin the treatment process, before placing them in other vats to strengthen the leather. The stench comes from the treatment process – search on it if you really want to know what it involves – and as a visitor, you will be given a sprig of mint, to hold to your nose. You do have to prepared for this experience, as it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.

We knew exactly what we wanted if we were going to make a purchase and we had a very determined attitude that we would NOT be pushed or co-erced into doing something we did not want to do. We had also done some research and had found out that within the Tanneries, there was a co-operative, which seemed to operate along much more ethical lines and so we knew this was the one we wanted to visit. It wasn’t easy avoiding being railroaded into other shops, but we were focused on getting to where we wanted to go. And, when we arrived, what an oasis of calm! No hassling, no demonstrations of carpets being rolled out in front of us, no rushing around. Instead, a lovely guy who welcomed us and explained about the co-operative – profits ploughed back into the Berber communities where the workers came from. Men and women (no children as far as I can remember) working in clean and peaceful conditions.

Now, I am not stupid. I am well aware that this could all have been an orchestrated front, and that behind the scenes, conditions were pretty deplorable. And, although we didn’t get the unasked for theatrical carpet/rug display, once we explained what we wanted, we did get a version of it. We didn’t feel any sense of hard-selling or pressure, but rugs that we hadn’t described were brought out for us to look at. However, when we identified the ones we weren’t interested in, they were taken away. And then, the one that we had been visioning, appeared…

I think we managed not to reveal our cards too quickly, but this was definitely the stand out rug. It was priced more highly than most of the others we looked at, but we inspected it very closely and it was really high quality. We were told it was an original Berber rug, probably about 80 years old, and that minor repairs would be done if we decided to purchase it.

Because of the size and weight of it, we could not take it back with us, as we had only had hand luggage. We were also not prepared to pay cash, and even with a written receipt, run the risk of it not being sent to us. This part of the process was the most protracted as we wanted absolute assurances about payment and delivery. We were shown a big hand written ledger, with details of previous purchasers. No bank details were recorded in this book, but delivery addresses (many to the UK) were there, along with thank you letters and notes and cards which we were advised had been sent by people who had received their goods. A card machine was available for transactions, and the guy explained how the rug would be sent to us, back in the UK. Probably to seal the deal, he also offered us a chocolate brown leather pouffe, which we could have taken away there and then. Again, if were cynical, we might have thought that however nice this was, once we’d paid for the rug, he could have just ciphoned off the money, having placated us with a leather pouffe, which was a fraction of the cost of the rug, and we’d maybe never see the rug again. However, gut instinct was telling both us it would be OK – and having also seen his records of postage proof from the post office, we decided to go for it. We asked for the pouffe to be included in the delivery, and as we weren’t actually leaving with anything on the day, he gave us both a little leather coin purse, each. Both still used today to keep our euros separate from our kunas. We knew we’d have to pay tax on the parcel once it arrived in the UK, so we asked if he could post a week later, knowing that we’d definitely be back in England. He told us the day he would post it and the day it should arrive. And, off we went…

Of course, doubts did creep in. Had we been stupid? Had we been ripped off? Was the co-operative a front for something more dodgy? Were our card details safe? Would our bank account be bled dry? We could have driven ourselves mad, but we decided that for sanity’s sake, we had to accept what we’d done and that we had researched and probed and asked for documentation etc, so hopefully all would be OK.

And, guess what? It was! On the day he had said it would arrive, we got a phone call to say we had a parcel from Morocco but that we must pay the tax before it was released to us. Once done, it was delivered – and we had our beautiful Berber rug. True to his word, every bit of repair work which had been identified had been done, and the chocolate brown leather pouffe was also in the parcel.

Riad Mimouna, Essaouira, Morocco

Riad Mimouna, Essaouira, Morocco

This is riad is quite simply, stunning.

Located right on the sea walls, and converted from a very grand 19th century residence, you just could not have a better place to stay in Essaouira. The entrance to the riad is breath-taking – hand carved thuya wooden ceilings, stained glass windows, mosaic tiled walls and floors, a central fountain, winding stone stairs, an open fireplace. Just jaw-dropping!

We stayed in January so the hotel was probably much quieter than in spring/summer months, and we were actually upgraded from the booking we made – and were thrilled to be allocated a suite on the third floor, which had real wow factor. It was huge, with the biggest bed we have ever slept in, an amazing bathroom – and then the highlight. Floor to ceiling (sound-proofed) windows which overlooked the Atlantic, and the waves crashing against the medina walls directly below. Everything in the room was spec’d to the highest standard – you could not find fault with anything. (Wi-fi is not available in the rooms, but is great in the entrance/reception, which is a huge space, full of comfortable sofas, so not having it in the room was not an issue).

The quality of the rooms does seem to be consistent across the riad, as we also managed a couple of sneaky pics in empty rooms, that had just been cleaned…

Breakfast is served in the roof-top restaurant, which has views on all sides across Essaouira and the Atlantic coast. What a way to start the day, as the sun rises! It was very windy when we were there, and the glass windows were closed – which made it even better to watch the seagulls swooping & circling outside, knowing that they weren’t going to snatch your breakfast!

There’s also a sun terrace with loungers, and up a little flight of steps, the highest point of the riad, with a few more loungers – perfect.

We had six nights at Riad Mimouna, and spending a little extra than we would normally have done, was the best decision we could have made – our flights from the UK were booked in advance, so were very affordable & Essaouira is not an expensive place for eating out/shopping so we felt we could justify a little more luxury. And, we cannot recommend doing the same, highly enough. You will NOT regret it!

(A word of warning – don’t be alarmed by the route to the riad. Essaouira is an ancient town, full of narrow, dark, cobbled alleyways, and this is how you get to Mimouna. However, it is also a very safe town, and once we got our bearings, and realised that as long we were just aware, there is really nothing to be alarmed about. It’s all part of the magic of Essaouira).

We flew, return, to Marrakech from Manchester by Easyjet for just under £300 (for two of us). After staying two nights in Marrakech, we travelled by coach to Essaouira, with Supratours, a four hour journey west (plus a 30 min comfort stop). Riad Mimouna was booked online (via Booking.com) and for a seven night stay (we booked a superior room but were upgraded, at no additional cost, to a suite) we paid 763 euros. This was definitely one of the pricier riads in Essaouira – we checked out a number of others which were less expensive, but just as beautiful – and we return in Jan 2015, now that we know the quality of accommodation generally in the town, we’ll be looking into one of the others, simply so that we have a different experience. On our return to Marrakech, to fly home, we actually took a taxi – this worked out at approx £40, but the plus side of this, was door to door, in less than three hours.

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The Marrakech Express

The Marrakech Express

For anyone who’s not been to Marrakech, you need to know that everything you’ve probably ever heard is true. It is hot (even in early Janaury when we were there). It’s dusty and dirty. It’s a city of vibrant colours, aromatic aromas, constant hustle and bustle. There’s incredible wealth and the most appalling poverty. In the souks, you’ll find the most adept and skilled sales people. It’s a safe city, as long as you have your wits about you, especially in Jemaa el Fnaa, the main square & market place. The other thing that is true, is that it is a city full of the most polite people we’ve ever encountered – everyone smiles, everyone greets you like an old friend and everyone seems genuinely sad when you leave their stall, restaurant or riad.

We arrived on 2nd January and it was hot & humid, although the temperature drops considerably at night. The airport is a sight to behold – and just a tiny glimpse of what is to become in this very exotic city. We took a taxi from the airport to Marrakech – not a long journey, and inexpensive – well worth doing as public transport needs to be fathomed! The rules of the road just seem to be that there are no rules 😉 Apart from if you’re a donkey, and you have right of way. All the time.

Riad Mouna, where we were staying for two nights before heading west to Essaouira, is right in the heart of the medina, which is closed to most* traffic, so we were dropped off outside the walls and taken on foot to the riad. This could be quite an alarming experience, especially at close to midnight, but take a deep breath & go with it. It’s worth it! I’ve never had such an introduction to a city before – but dragging your cases through the medina streets doesn’t half prepare you for what’s ahead!

(*except scooters, donkeys, vans loaded with a million things destined for the souks strapped to the top/sides/next to the driver. So, not closed to traffic at all. Just to let you know…)

Riad Mouna is right at the end of an alleyway (off the street leading to the main square) – once off the main drag, and the noise, it’s surprisingly quiet. Apart from the children playing football – which is what every child in Morocco seems to do 😉 The entrance to the riad is through a very small doorway – remember to stoop, and then this…

Riad Mouna, Marrakech

Although compared to some riads it’s quite basic (!), it is beautiful – full of Moroccan artefacts and intricate mosaics. There’s also a lovely roof terrace where breakfast is served – very traditional with pancakes and juices and wonderful coffee, with a view over the rooftops of Marrakech and away to the Atlas Mountains.

We spent two days exploring Marrakech – and to be honest, as amazing as it is, I don’t know that I could have done any more. Obviously, in the medina restaurants, alcohol is a no-no – we did hear about the “coca-cola rouge” but that was after we’d left – so advice would be to stay in riad or a hotel where you can get alcohol (and in most you can – but sadly not Riad Mouna, as we discovered), if you think a dry holiday is out of the question. However, it wasn’t due to lack of alcohol that meant two days was enough – it’s the fact that it is an assault on your senses and we just needed to get to Essaouira and soak up the laid back, hippy vibes 😉

So, here it is, in all it’s noisy, colourful, dramatic, hot glory. Marrakech…

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And, yes, we did buy the beautiful rug pictured above. But that’s another story, for another blog 😉

Riad Mouna – 6, Derb el Bir. Quartier Riad Zitoune Lakdim. Médina – Marrakesh – MOROCCO

Moroccan Doorways

Moroccan Doorways

That’s right. A blog about doorways. But not just any old doorways, you understand. These are Moroccan doorways. Some astonishingly elaborate, some mosaic framed, some brightly coloured, some literally hanging off their ancient hinges, some huge, some hobbit like. But all different and all beautiful and all just so, well, Moroccan…

And every doorway, quite literally, is a portal into an amazing, incredible, wonderful world…

Marrakech Menara

Marrakech Menara

We’ve been so lucky recently to be able to do a lot of travelling and so have seen quite a few airports. Much are much of a muchness. There’s often very little that really sets one airport apart from another. But, the latest airport we flew into and out of, is definitely one of a kind. Marrakech Menara

A very fitting introduction to one of the most wonderful countries we have ever visited.