Morocco: A land of charmers
We explain how to become a savvy souk shopper in the mystic east.
Djmaa el-Fnaa: a sprawling plaza of beggars, hucksters and fortunetellers
If ever there were proof that you can't always believe what you read in the travel guides, it's Conde Nast Traveller's assertion that "there are 12 times as many cows in Morocco as humans".
Disappointingly, I have to report that the cow population of Morocco does not seem to reside in Marrakech. Despite an assiduous search over four days, we failed to spot any more than one miserable, scrawny beast, lurking in a field in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Sheep, goats and donkeys aplenty; snakes, stoned to the eyeballs; and even a whole cageful of tiny tortoises, were among the wildlife on offer. But only one cow.
No matter. Even Conde Nast, I don't suppose, goes to Marrakech for the cattle quotient.
Instead, Marrakech runs the gamut from quasi-European sophistication, complete with winter sun, to enjoyably ethnic mystic East. The aforementioned snakes in a trance are the star players, together with their charmers, in the city's Djmaa el-Fnaa central square, a vast sprawling plaza of beggars, hucksters, fortune tellers and shamans, swirling with noise and colour.
Depending on your age and appetite, Djmaa el-Fnaa is an endless source of photographic delight, heaving with orange-seller stalls in the morning and dark with barbecue smoke as the dusk settles, rich with nameless food odours.
Or it is the main gateway to the city's famed souks, or central market, the place in which, apparently, you can buy absolutely anything you can think of - and more besides.
Fly: Heathrow to Marrakech with bmi, British Midland International. Economy fares from £138.
Stay: Sirayane Boutique Hotel. Standard room (by the pools) with private terrace, is 150 euros a night b&b. A three-night package costs 195 euros per person b&b, including: one private hammam session per person; one Moroccan dinner for two excluding drinks; access to the gym; free shuttle to and from the Medina.
Forget shopping as you understand it in the UK. If you've spent any time in Israel you are off to a flying start. (And your hidden advantage, in Marrakech, is that Israelis can only visit the country as part of a group tour, so you're unlikely to encounter random Israelis beating you to the count in the bargaining stakes.) Nothing is the price you first hear. Think of the souk as the very opposite of Ronseal. Instead, your mission is to figure out a realistic price for something you have set your little heart on - and always remember that, as with the principle of wholesale, more will cost you less.
You may not want six plates or four tagines, but you will almost certainly have friends at home who will be happy to have a proper Moroccan souvenir.
So, what to buy? Without doubt the cheapest and most accessible items in the souk are the spices. Just drift past a spice stall, heavy hessian sacks full to the brim with myriad reds, yellows, greens and browns, and breath in the scent of the east.
Or go inside one of the stores and be enchanted by the tiniest of sets of scales, fit for a doll's house but actually for weighing out minuscule amounts of saffron strands, perhaps the most expensive and desirable of all the spices.
Don't leave Marrakech without the ubiquitous argan oil. It comes from a tree which they say grows only in Morocco and you can buy it for cooking or for your face and body. The most popular use of the latter, by the way, is for putting on the hair as a treatment, once a week. It's highly prized in this usage and has many fans in the UK. You can buy argan oil in Britain but it is fearfully expensive, so take advantage of the local produce.
You might also be tempted by the glorious colours of the scarves and textiles. Just be aware that - unlike in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, where every stallholder is a human calculator who will accept every currency and credit card going - the Marrakechis only take Moroccan dirhams. On the new side of the city, of course, the Western shops do take credit cards. But why would you want to go to a Western shop here?
Everywhere you turn in Marrakech, there are well-dressed businessmen walking, cycling, or zipping along on puk-puk motor cycles, weaving dangerously in and out of the traffic. And over their smart Western suits, you are just as likely to see them wearing the national dress - long djellabahs with pointy hoods, worn by everyone from the King downwards. It is, indeed, a nation of hoodies, but a relatively well-behaved one, knocking back glass after glass of mint tea rather than copious amounts of alcohol.
There is alcohol, of course, and none in more classy a joint than the grandest of hotels, La Mamounia, Churchill's choice whenever he was in Morocco. Gorgeously restored recently, La Mamounia reeks of money; in one of its many bars, designed to pander to your inner leopardskin, even the armchairs have epaulettes, and the drinks menu is eye-wateringly expensive. But you should go, just once, just for the experience.
For another view of Marrakech that is diametrically opposite, it's not hard to gain an invitation from the famously hospitable Moroccan Berbers - some of whom say they were descended from the Jews. In the village of Ait-Ourir, just outside the city, nestling at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, lives Fatema Souah and her husband. It's fair to say they don't have much in the way of material goods: water is brought by donkey cart, and electricity is intermittent. But Mrs Souah and her family could not be more welcoming and the sumptuous spread she served up for lunch for a group of Western strangers - complete with vegetable tagine for the non-meat-eaters among us - was a highlight of my trip.
The Berber language, Amazigh, is properly impenetrable.
But even if you don't speak that or Arabic, just a smattering of school French will get you a long way.
Not with the cows, though.