Thursday, June 4, 2009

Out and about in Marrakech

Marrakech medina

Morocco has many wonderful features and different places in it are differently captivating. But when i'm in Fes or Marrakech, my utmost favourite activity is to stroll around aimlessly in medina (the old town). Fes and Marrakech medinas are quite different, from size, color, architecture and so on, but they both are very intriguing and photographically provoking.

Marrakech medina is a busy busy beehive, if you're not careful you can get stung a bit. By "stung" i don't mean anything too serious, at most maybe pick-pocketed. While i'm sure there are also areas, which might be actually criminal or dangerous for tourists to walk in, the biggest threat i've encountered so far was getting nudged / driven into with a motorcycle. Most medina streets in Marrakech are wide enough to be able to drive there with a roller/scooter/bike etc. Add occasional donkey carts and even small cars and it's suffice to say some streets can get quite busy. The bikers are usually quite good in navigating between the people, but every once in a while you'll meet one that over-estimates his skill-set and drives right into you. It's not necessarily painful, just annoying to get a tyre-print on your clothes.

The further you walk from the Djemaa el-Fna, the less tourists you will see. Overburdened and crowded shopping streets slowly converge into living areas with usual people going about their business. It's very interesting to walk around randomly, because you often end up in places you would never even find with a map. Or meet people who you wouldn't meet in tourist areas. Medina is cool because it's entirely unstructured and unexpected. Medina in Marrakech has somewhat more logic to it, than the one in Fes, but the general idea is the same - total maze of streets and houses, often without any names or numbers. You never know where does the street you walk on actually lead and smaller streets often just end with a wall. Some of the streets are narrow and covered, others quite wide and open. One moment you are passing a fresh vegetable market and the other you find yourself on a street full of leather workshops or tailoring businesses (which are the very same back-alley places that cater for the shops on the main streets) etc. Deep in medina are hidden homes of some very rich people, both local and foreign. If you could just see the rich decor or tasteful renovation of some of those houses, you would never guess it by the simple door from the street.

Door knocker, this symbol is called Hand of Fatima

There are very few to non-at-all tourists walking significantly far from the Djemaa el-Fna. I don't have a map of Marrakech or a map of medina, but i feel that i don't even need one, because it's quite easy to navigate. If you want to stay in the central area of medina, follow the flow of tourists. The less tourists, the further from Djemaa el-Fna you are. If that is indeed your aim, just keep choosing streets without tourists and you will soon find yourself surrounded only by locals. Works every time. The locals are actually very kind and helpful, but they do seem to have a trouble with the concept of "just walking around randomly", because as soon as you're a bit out of the tourist area, you get some helpful people stopping you on the street and informing that the direction you are walking in "has nothing to see" and/or the "big square" is the that way.

Photographing + people

I've never felt unsafe in Marrakech having my camera out (in daytime) and i do literally carry it everywhere with me. OK, i might also be a bit careless sometimes, but even with that in mind i still think Marrakech is very safe for a photographer. You should try to be respectful while taking photos of the people though - most of them do not want to get photographed and shoving your camera in their face is considered very rude. Some people want money, but it's quite rare and i almost never pay anyway. I have few times given some dirhams to children when they've been posing to me cutely, but only because i wanted to give. In my experience Moroccans are not aggressive when it comes to asking money for photos and not getting it, so feel free to say no.

I had a situation once in Fes - i was walking in medina and there was an interesting looking man in the market, holding a live bird. I asked if i can make a photo of him and he said yes, for 2 dirhams. I was ok with the price, so i started shooting. When it came time to pay and i was fumbling in my pockets to find coins, two other guys stepped up and started picking a fight with the bird-man for charging me in the first place. Needless to say i was very pleasantly surprised, my very own Moroccan protectors :).

My "model"

And my "protectors" :)

Riads in Marrakech

While hotels are the standard means of accommodation in Morocco, you can also choose to stay in a local style ethnic riad (ryad), meaning basically a guesthouse/bed & breakfast. Riad is usually kind of a luxury place, a small house in medina converted to accommodate guests. Riads are very private and peaceful, with only few rooms to avoid crowds. Traditional riad is a house with an open courtyard with rooms/apartments around it. As a rule the morning starts with traditional Moroccan breakfast, usually served on the rooftop terrace. Most riads also offer lunch and dinners. It's a very nice way to live in Morocco, but also a quite expensive one. One night in a riad in Marrakech can cost from 1000-5000 EEK a night (1440-7200 DH), the upper price one being already a super luxurious place.

Same as hotels, riads can also be in a very different range of quality. Arabic culture has a strong history with appreciating luxury and style, so a high-end riad can be almost like a palace where your every wish is granted swiftly and you feel like a royalty. The beauty of interior can be breath-taking, making you feel like you are part of "The Thousand And One Night" tales. So if your budget allows, stay in a riad for at least a day; allow yourself the experience of being wealthy in Morocco, even if it's just for one night.

Typical riad breakfast for one person (middle-range riad)

Inner courtyard of a simple riad, with lantern hanging down


Marrakech is a city of enormous variety. If you like shopping, just enter the medina and you will have a vast choice of souks (markets), offering you all the imaginable Arabic style products, from teacups to handmade exquisite furniture. Some of the souks are dedicated to one certain item like souk of babouches (slippers), jellabas (long ethnic robes), leather, metalwork etc. You can even commission custom made things from a local master. Of course bargaining is a must. I wouldn’t recommend buying your souvenirs too close to the tourist areas, like from the shops close to Djemaa el-Fna. Prices are higher and the sales-guys less motivated to meet you half way – if you don’t buy, the next tourist will.

If you don’t quite like the market quality or style, you can do your shopping in the high-end designer boutiques, that offer higher quality and more distinguished design. In Gueliz, the new part of the city, you have all the western shopping choices that one could wish for. The same goes to food, means of transportation, accommodation, entertainment etc. The choice is very wide and budget range flexible. The same money that a budget traveler spends in Morocco in a month, another person can blow in few days. There are some insanely rich people living in Morocco and the city caters accordingly. It all comes down to choices you make.

At this point in my life i get to mostly experience the authentic ethnic Morocco. My budget as such would not withstand me dipping into trendy nightlife and restaurants of Marrakech. But considering that at the moment i have very little interest to the modern part of Morocco anyway, i’m quite happy with the situation. Maybe in 5 years or so i would yearn to climb up the local social ladder, rubbing elbows with the rich and richer, but at the moment i like my backpacking travel-style and simple and often like-minded people i meet along the way.

Beautiful necklaces

Shoe shop for women

Metal bracelets

Moroccan teapots

In Marrakech markets you can easily find also modern stuff, fake of course.

Moroccan tea glasses, adorned with hand-painted art

The whole wall full of tea glasses

Moroccan tajine dish, Safi ceramics. Though sales-guys will tell you that you can easily cook with those dishes as well, they are still meant for decoration. The dye used in glazing is too poisonous for everyday use

More ceramics. Almost all ceramics in this style comes from a small town called Safi

Carpet shop

Fabric merchant. Interestingly, almost all merchants in Morocco are men. I've seen only few women selling on food markets or independently some handicraft on the street-corner.

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