Following a recent journey around Morocco, Wanderlust's Graeme Green shares his 5 things to know before you go...
The souks (markets, pictured above) tend to start quiet and get busier through the day. In particular, Fez’s narrow streets, in the area close to the iconic Blue Gate where many of the Old City’s cafes and restaurants are, can get clogged with tourists and locals in the evenings.
To see the souks in Fez and Marrakech at their most relaxed, it’s worth setting out around 10am or earlier, when many stall owners are just finishing setting up for the day and many tourists are still in their hotels.
The souks of Meknes are quiet and virtually tourist-free. Rabat’s souks are livelier, but also often free of tourists – a stroll around these, munching on street food, is a good authentic local experience.
Bartering in the souks is not just accepted - it’s expected. Whether selling leather belts or ornate metal lamps (above), stall owners start prices high and would be very (happily) surprised if you accepted the first price they suggested. Because they start the bidding high, they’re often fine with coming down by 50 per cent or more.
But don’t negotiate too hard; a few dirhams probably won’t break the bank for you, but can go a long way for locals in Morocco. Aim for a fair price and what you’re prepared to pay, rather than pushing for the absolute lowest you can get.
Hassle and hustle are hard to avoid completely, especially in Marrakech and Fez’ major tourist zones around the old cities. Stall owners range from laidback to persistent.
In particular, there’s a fair amount of hustling going on inside Marrakech’s Djemma el-Fna square, where you might be pressured to have photos taken with snakes (above) draped around your neck or with monkeys on chains, dressed in silly costumes. Just a bit of fun? It’s worth thinking about the conditions the animals are kept and working in, and the possible harm your money might do by sustaining the industry, and giving it a miss. The monkeys and other animals didn’t look to be having a good time to me.
Around Marrakech’s Djemma el-Fna and the backstreets near the leather tanneries, be wary of con men. A common scam is to tell tourists they're going the wrong way, then, when you look lost, trying to pick up work as a guide, which often means leading you to a café or shop (where they get a commission), pressuring you to buy something, or other dodgy outcomes.
If you’re offered goods or a service for free, refuse it; you’ll almost certainly be asked to pay later.
Compared to Marrakech and Fez, both Meknes and Rabat feel comparatively relaxed to walk around.
Quite understandably, not everyone likes having their photo taken in Morocco. A good rule in most countries, but particularly relevant here: always ask first. Older Muslim women, in particular, are likely to decline, as are many stall owners going about their daily business.
In tourist areas, especially Marrakech, if someone agrees that you can take their photo, they will expect a tip of a few coins, and request some money if it isn’t offered, usually just a few dirhams. If you’re planning to take photos of local people, it’s worth carrying around some coins.
A good city map can help you to keep your bearings, but it’s almost unavoidable that you’ll spend a little time lost, especially in the maze-like souks of Marrakech and even more so in the alleyways of old Fez. It’s part of the fun, and you never know what you might accidentally stumble upon.
Random wandering can be pleasant, but if you’re badly lost, try not to make the fact too visible, especially in Marrakech where young men sometimes scam lost tourists (above). If you need directions, ask a policeman or someone at a decent-looking hotel or restaurant. And if you can’t find your way back to your hotel or wherever you want to be, jump in a taxi.
The author travelled with Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com, 01993 838 420), who arrange tailormade holidays in Morocco, including a 10-day Imperial Cities tour (3 nights Marrakech, 3 in Fez, 1 in Meknes and 2 in Rabat).
For more on Morocco, see www.visitmorocco.com