Winding, uneven, disorientating streets, packed with every kind of sight and sound and smell. A maze of chaotic, pulsating brilliance, cross crossed with shards of light as the boiling heat penetrates awnings made of grass and bamboo. These are the Souks of Marrakech, the utterly mesmerising completely confusing labyrinth of tightly packed market streets which sit at the heart of the city’s ancient Medina, and of its inhabitants. For trade has always been central to the functioning of Marrakech, which grew up around its perfect positioning for business with Spain and the rest of mighty Africa. Today the Souks remain the ancient location for the thousands of craftsmen eking out an existence selling their handmade wares, and easily the most fascinating place to visit.
The Souks are intrinsically beautiful. Packed with gold and ivory, leather and metalwork, great piles of spices, others of candied fruits, stalls loaded high with magical carpets, they are a real sight to be seen, as well as to smell. But be under no illusion. A visit to the Souks is an endurance test and a hard often intimidating slog for any westerner (since, lets face it, we stick out like a sore thumb against the more traditional dress of the locals). Wherever you go, you draw attention. Many see money, others see a nuisance, but almost everyone will want something from you and every 5 seconds you will need to handle an approach or a plea. Walking along those precariously narrow streets is no stroll in the park – locals use the same narrow lanes to drive like maniacs on mopeds, weaving as they do so in and out of poor donkeys, still heaving along heavy carts like a rewind back 200 years, and chickens who meander around clucking, unaware of their forthcoming bloody fate. For those on foot, you must get used to jumping out of the way, being careful not to fall into one of those precariously balanced spice piles as you do so. Then there’s the merchants. Catch their eyes, and like spiders they will ensnare you in their web. Look at their produce, take an interest in their wares, and they will lure you further still until the trap closes in. Try to get out without purchasing something I dare you! And don’t even think of looking at a map. Suggest for one second you are lost and you will be surrounded by mischievous teenagers who will try to persuade you to take them on as a tour guide. Their tricks are well known. They will get you all the more lost, taking you deeper into the Souks, before demanding money for your release.
It all sounds rather terrifying, I know. And going to the Souks is never exactly comfortable. But there is something so utterly mesmerising about this magical world that you cannot help but go back for more and gaze in sheer wonder at this incredible picture of a wonderfully different life. Until you go to the Souks, you will never truly appreciate what is Marrakech, nor Morocco. This is where the cultural differences are at their most extreme. The authenticity of the scene makes the so-called Moroccan shops in Southern Spain look like a sham. And the beauty of the place is such that you will want to photograph until your camera battery is exhausted – but be careful with this too. The locals hate being photographed and those less shy will demand money for the privilege.
So those are the Souks that ensnared our souls, scaring us aplenty but which provided the most memorable experiences of our trip. And we came away with some Saharan pottery, a metal lion, a miniature red tagine and some orange blossom essence. Not bad, especially as we were required to barter as part of the process, something which is inherently uncomfortable for the polite English. Long will I remember this maze of plenty, its exotic smells and hardened people. Most of all I will remember the multiple colours which characterise this dazzling place.
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