In Morocco, the souk is a marketplace: both a social one and a physical goods one. It’s pretty much where most business happens, and once you’ve seen one, you’ll realise that it’s hard to describe all of the commotion inside a busy souk. There are the colours – bright fruits, pastel coloured pottery, rich earthy tones of carpets and racks of spice. The sounds – a souk isn’t a quiet place, with lots of chatter and bustling activity. And of course, the smells! The rich scents of spice, cigarette smoke, and foreign foods.
I really think the souks are the ultimate Moroccan experience, but what to buy and where?
The biggest souks are in Marrakesh and Fes, and you’re bound to find something of interest wandering around. But some souks are focused only on specific products – for example in Marrakesh, Souk Kassabine is only for spices, and Souk El Kebir is only for leather goods. That doesn’t mean you can’t find what you need in one of the bigger markets, but if you go and don’t find something or are after a very specific thing, perhaps a specialty souk is the way to go.
Carpets are one of the most popular tourist purchases in a souk – and buying one is an experience in itself. You won’t have to look hard to find a carpet shop – most merchants will usher you in and sit you down with a cup of mint tea before you realise what’s happened. Then they’ll want to show you everything in the shop, just in case you thought that instead of a small brown carpet, you really wanted something enormous in bright red or burgundy. Prices can range anywhere from £100 for a smaller rug to £7,000 for a proper (and large) carpet. Don’t forget to factor in shipping costs, or any charges your airline might have in getting you and your big rug home!
Leather is another popular souk purchase. It’s interesting to see just about everything made in leather – from typical wallets to children’s toys and shoes. Some say the leather in the souks isn’t a very good deal, but if you find yourself in Fes, you have to go to the leather market there. Fes has a couple of big tanneries, and so you can learn first hand what raw processed leather smells like. Tip: if you carry a sprig of mint, it helps diffuse the smell!
Clothing purchases are also another wonderful souvenir for yourself or someone else. You can buy a traditional Moroccan outfit, but you might be interested in something a little more modern. We mentioned shoes already, but for the ladies some of the elaborate veils make wonderful scarves. There are dresses and pashminas Or maybe just purchase some fabric to bring home and make something on your own? The fabric sections of some of the souks in Marrakech and Fes take up an entire block.
You can get a guide to take you around some of the bigger souks, explaining to you some of the history and helping you with finding your way around and with the haggling process, though I can’t help but wonder if you wouldn’t get a better deal in the long run doing it on your own. Don’t pick up a guide at the market entrance – ask your hotel to make a reservation with some of the more reputable guides. If you don’t go with a guide, don’t worry – there aren’t any hard and fast rules for haggling, except that be friendly, be fair, and if you can’t get the price you want, walk away – this isn’t your corner shop back home! The biggest problem is finding your way out once you’re in. But perhaps that too is just all part of the souk experience.
Some of the best things to buy aren’t things on any list. Maybe there’s a vendor around the corner with some fresh pastries she made that morning. Perhaps a random busker has a CD of the music you love. Maybe the old man in the tea shop has some fresh leaves that you can’t wait to take back with you. Just take in the experience, soak up the atmosphere, and let the souk show you what it has to offer.
Posted : Wednesday, August 11th, 2010 at 11:18
Andy Hayes is a travel journalist currently based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not criss-crossing the world to have his next travel adventures, he is spending time hanging out on his own website, Sharing Travel Experiences.