A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

I take a ridiculous amount of photos when I travel. Although I tend to attribute this quality to my mother (who was a fervent snapper of every single thing she saw on holiday) it’s also a crucial part of being a travel blogger. Not just for illustrating articles, but also for remembering the details that I want to write about later.

That said, there are times when you take so many photos and end up never actually using them. A case in point is Morocco: I visited Marrakech back in 2012 for a much-too-brief weekend, and although my finger was poised on my camera shutter the entire time, I somehow I managed to avoid writing about the trip at all.

Luckily, there’s no time like the present. This week, I’m heading back to Morocco for a brief trip to Fez and Chefchaouen, and part of my preparations have involved looking through all my photos and getting more excited with every shot.

The horse drawn carts moving bumpily along palm-tree-lined highways.

The red flags with green stars, and the banners filled with Arabic script strung from lampposts.

The eerily beautiful words of the call to prayer emanating from dozens of minarets all at once.

The huge dishes of steaming tagines, their dark clay tagine lids balanced on white table cloths.

But the vast majority of my photos are from one of my favourite elements of Moroccan culture, and the place where I spent most of my time in Marrakech.

The souks.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

A Moroccan souk is a fascinating place. While the vast majority of tourists come here to bargain for souvenirs, take photos and walk about with their mouths agape, local residents actually do the bulk of their shopping here.

At least you sincerely hope that the stall laden with fresh cuts of meat hanging from butcher’s hooks is only frequented by locals.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

I’ve tried to think of the best way to describe a Moroccan souk for those of you who’ve never been inside one, and the word ‘chaotic’ comes to mind; a seemingly never-ending set of twisting lanes and alleyways, laid out in the closest resemblance to a labyrinth that I’ve ever seen.

Even if it’s a labyrinth that sells an inordinate amount of sweets.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

Yet from the outside, it doesn’t look too daunting. Sure, it’s got high walls and austere brick archways, but you don’t get the impression of the sheer wealth of energy that lies in wait on the other side.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

But then you duck your head a little to walk beneath those archways (which often feels as though a piece of souk decor is going to tumble downwards and onto your head).

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

You turn down an alleyway at random, running your fingertips along the rough paint – which has somehow retained its brightness, despite flaking away as soon as you touch it.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

This is where the ‘choose your own adventure’ portion of a walk through a souk really kicks in. If you’re with friends, it’s also the time to establish some kind of identifying whistle so you can find each other again. Or at least attempt to.

Things are about to get somewhat disorientating.

The world inside the souk

It’s not that the souk is cramped, exactly – more that the action surrounding you at every turn is so energetic, so tight with movement, that it takes a long moment to adjust. The air becomes thicker and less accessible; but when you look upwards, expecting to see a solid roof above your head, you see a succession of thin wooden slats instead.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

The slats splinter the bright sunlight outside so it falls in shafts, illuminating some objects and obscuring others.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

This is how you begin to focus in on the objects on sale in the souk – almost like someone’s pointing a torch straight at the things you should think about buying. How about those tagine cooking pots, or the painted ceramic plates?

If you’re not keen on pottery, how about something else handmade by the ‘very people’ (it’s true, someone told you) who own each stall? The jewelled lanterns would look beautiful in your living room, wouldn’t they?

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

Souvenir shopping in the souk

I tend to think logistically, so the size of my suitcase waiting in the hotel room is of particular importance. Lanterns and pottery probably aren’t going to fit, but the smaller souvenirs are much easier to pack away.

“They’re also likely to be cheaper,” I think – and suddenly I’m lost among the seemingly never-ending shelves of knickknacks that my mum would’ve had a field day over. In terms of both photographing and purchasing.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

 

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

 

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

Eventually, as is the case in most markets around the world, I gravitate towards the leather.

There is so, so much leather in this market.

I see leather slippers, as soft as butter, erupting from woven baskets in every colour of the rainbow. Shining leather handbags and shoulder bags are hung from thick silver nails on the rafters of every third stall. Even the leather bracelets are calling to me – and don’t even start on the wallets, the belts, the notebooks…

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

I spot a stall selling circular ottomans made of leather. Hiding amongst the samples is a beautiful one, divided into triangles of white and turquoise. I approach with caution, hoping to get a good amount of scrutinising in before the stall owner spots me.

“I give you good price lady!”

Too late.

Haggling: the only way to spend in the souk

The problem with buying things in the souks isn’t just the overwhelming amount of choice. It’s also agreeing on what you’re actually going to spend. Moroccan prices are often negotiable, and although the best methods for bargaining in Morocco depends on who you ask, but there’s only one way to really get it right – and that’s purely by practicing.

Whenever I arrive in a country where haggling is a standard way of life, my confidence crumbles a little (what if I start too high? Or try to go too low and then get shouted at?) but soon I get into the swing of it. Ok, so I probably pay way too much in the end, but getting the initially suggested price cut in half, or even taken down by two thirds, brings a certain smugness to eventually handing over your money.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

When you step back from the purchasing part of souk life though, it becomes a photography paradise. Look at your surroundings with a photographer’s eye, instead of a shopaholic’s. Notice that every single available surface is used as a place to display produce.

The walls are hung with carpets and bunches of coloured string. Cupboards housing electrical cables double as display cases. The mosaic-patterned steps leading through a doorway and up to a ladies hammam have been detailed with tiny wrought iron boxes.

Occasionally, you stop and wonder exactly what some of these objects are being sold for. And to whom.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

If you let it, your imagination can go into overdrive. Are these bikes waiting here for their owners? Are they for sale? Or did someone simply prop them up to lend even more aesthetic value to the beautifully chaotic souk atmosphere?

As that last thought dawns, you also realise that old bikes next to older walls and doors is actually a rather lovely scene to photograph.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

You get more adventurous with your camera as you notice more and more everyday scenes that now seem to scream ‘PHOTOGENIC’!

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

When you glance down, you see boxes near to overflowing with sticky dates, and nobody around to claim them.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

You pass by tall sacks filled to the brim with herbs and spices you don’t even know the names of.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

You gaze wistfully at perfect pyramids of coloured powders, wondering how on earth their owners keep them looking so pristine.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

Eventually you emerge, blinking, into a much wider space. Here you spot motorbikes with trucks and carts attached; outstretched parasols casting shadows over figures sitting in white plastic chairs; stalls backing onto each other or simply set up on an empty patch of ground.

These marketplaces provide much more room for people to move around. The attitude feels slightly more relaxed, and people chat as they walk slowly between the stalls, browsing.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

 

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

The animals of the souk

With the sunshine and the somewhat fresher air, a number of animals congregate in these areas too. Be forewarned; it’s easy to want to pick up (and/or adopt) basically every animal you see in the market.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

 

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

 

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

 

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

 

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

On the fringes of the souk, you notice the seedier ways that people try to grab the attention of the wandering tourists – like the monkeys dressed in children’s clothes, being led along the pavement by metal chains.

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

Or the clusters of snake handlers, surreptitiously ‘charming’ the wriggling serpents from flat wicker baskets.

These men also object most strongly to having their photo taken. Almost as if they know what they’re doing isn’t that animal friendly…

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

Leaving the souk behind

And just like that, you’re out of the souk – and in this case, right in the middle of Marrakech’s famous square, the Jemaa el Fna.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a rattling collection of Hands of Fatima and little jewelled lamps to cement the memory of so much sensory overload, and will probably be desperate for a steaming glass of mint tea.

Although if you’re still desperate for that last bargain you can always keep on shopping. Just remember to get out before the last lamps go out…

A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

Have you ever walked through a Moroccan souk? How many souvenirs did you manage to pick up along the way? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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17 Responses to A Wander Through the Souks of Marrakech

  1. Kim March 3, 2015 at 2:29 am #

    Just wanted you to know I enjoy reading about your travels. I live in Alabama. I live to travel too. The colors are amazing in your photos of Marrakech. Kim

  2. Landon @ Uneven Sidewalks March 3, 2015 at 2:48 am #

    I love your pictures of the markets! There’s always so much going on and new sights and smells. It’s always hard to pass by all the beautiful souvenirs that won’t fit in my backpack!

  3. Veena March 3, 2015 at 9:38 am #

    Stunning pictures and great descriptions! Enjoy your upcoming return visit :)
    xx

  4. angkisland March 3, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    wow nice trip

  5. Zdenka March 3, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

    Great post and pictures! Heading to Marrakech tomorrow and can’t wait. Now after reading your blog I’m even more excited about this trip. :-)

  6. Simon Fenton March 3, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

    I’m in Chefchaouen and heading to Marrakesh later this week, on my way home to Senegal – lovely photos!

  7. polly March 4, 2015 at 12:17 am #

    It’s funny how taking a picture of something removes it from time and makes it calmer and more solid, somehow. My only experience with a market of this sort was at the Khan el-Khalili in Cairo. Looking through your pictures, I was marveling at how neat and sedate the souks of Marrakech seem to look compared to Cairo. Then I flipped back to my own pictures of Egypt and realized they make the Khan el-Khalili appear the same way! I love looking back at photos from different trips – it’s so true they help you focus on the details – but it’s amazing how the feel of a place changes when your other senses are being bombarded as well.

  8. Sabina March 5, 2015 at 6:28 pm #

    Your pictures are amazing! It’s amazing how they seem to really capture the essence of the place.

  9. River cruiser March 12, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    Wow, what a fantastic post – your photos are amazing! I love how colourful the Souk is

  10. kami March 13, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    These are some incredibly beautiful pictures! I feel I haven’t spent enough time in Marrakesh and now you just make me want to return there really badly!

  11. Jess March 15, 2015 at 1:16 pm #

    Wow, I bet I can find many interesting objects on the streets there.
    That monkey is funny how it walks with her handler.

  12. baba March 16, 2015 at 5:33 pm #

    hi
    ilove what you do and i m happy to meet you in chefchaouen

  13. Sarah@Travelcake March 25, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

    I love Moroccan souks! Despite the hassle from some vendors, I can spend days and days exploring! I think you used the right word to describe them: fascinating!

  14. Nikki Vargas July 29, 2015 at 1:32 am #

    Another fabulous post! Ah getting so excited for visiting Morocco next week! I am going to have a million photos, I can already tell. Did you run into any issues taking photos in the souks? I read somewhere that sometimes people ask for money if they see you snap a photo.

    • Flora August 1, 2015 at 8:18 pm #

      Well usually people get a bit annoyed if you take photos of them but if you’re sneaky, then..! There’s a lot of asking for money but I generally would only be willing to pay someone if I was clearly taking a portrait – in which case I would’ve probably asked beforehand anyway. That’s just my opinion though!

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