Marrakech… A dream destination for many travelers all over the world. An African city with strong cultural traditions, yet open and acceptable of the foreigners eager to explore what was previously considered not safe for tourists destination. A city that entices with its splendid riads, busy souks, traditional food, bright colors and friendly people. So dreamy, mysterious and alluring…
However, considering all pros and cons and many unknown things about this exotic place you would still probably find a way to subside your strong desire to visit this Pearl of the South. If you are anything like me, you would definitely do it, if not for Instagram throwing at you gorgeous images featuring city’s out-of-this-world décor and gigantic feasts that look so good that you are even afraid to touch them. Social media portraits Marrakech as a fairy-tale city, a place of absolute beauty and relaxation. But is it all true?
As much as I agree with other travelers’ viewpoints, I have to add that behind every beautiful picture there is real life. During our recent short visit to Marrakech we spent most of the time outside exploring the city and talking to the locals. With such experience under my belt, I can assure you that real Marrakech is not only pretty décor and abundance of cheap exotic items to purchase in the souks. It is a place with rich culture, real people with their real struggles and happy moment. A place full of unwritten rules and uncommon practices. A place that you need to know and learn about way before your get off your airplane at Marrakech Menara Airport.
With that in mind and learned from my own mistakes, I have compiled a list of things you should know about one of Morocco’s most popular cities before setting off for your African journey.
HERE ARE 8 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MARRAKECH:
1. Taxi Ride at “Standard Rate”…
Although Marrakech is very walkable city, at the end of a full of exploration day, you want to have a little break and give rest to your tired feet. Taxi comes very handy here. Whether you need to get from medina to your hotel at the new city of Marrakech, or venture to the desert or Atlas Mountains, you will find yourself with multiple taxi options. Not one, but a few drivers at once will promise to take you to your destination in the most convenient and fastest manner.
To be completely honest, “a few” is just an understatement. Before you even think about asking for a ride, at least five Marrakech natives attempt to escort you with all your belongings to a car parked just a few feet away. Walking a lot in the city, we could not appreciate such accessibility of four-wheeled transport, which at times overwhelms and frustrates you, other times makes it hard for you not to burst into laughter, and almost always amuses and lets you take a pick at Marrakech’s culture from inside.
Our educational taxi adventure started the moment we stepped out of the airport. Pondering our next actions and the best way to get to Mogador Menzah hotel, our home away from home in Marrakech, we were approached by a slim, fast-walking Moroccan. Without hesitation, he directed us to the taxi cars taking the whole front row of the nearby parking lot. On our “How much will it cost?” question, he just pointed at the waiting in anticipation of the passengers taxi drivers. Assuming that our “guide” did not understand English, we followed him with an intention to get the answer from his English or French speaking colleges. “200 Dirhams is a standard rate”, a tall man next to a small yellow cab rapidly informed us in a perfect English. Standard rate? All the way to the hotel this so-called rate nagged at the back of my mind. How it is possible to determine the standard price without a taximeter?
Later that day, out of curiosity, we asked two different people how much they would charge to take us back to the airport located just 1.5 miles away. After a brief silence, a little bit apologetically our formal city guide was willing to undertake this task for 150 Dirhams. A random taxi driver waiting for potential customers at the main entrance of our hotel asked for 100 Dirhams and presented us with a proper business card in case we needed his services in getting around the city.
Even if we still had any doubts about non-existence of fixed fares, these three significantly different rates for the same distance completely dispelled them making us realize that in Marrakech you need to be a skillful bargainer while hunting for the ride.
2. Haggle Frequently
The bargaining does not stop behind the closed door of the taxicab. Quite the opposite! A short conversation with a taxi driver can easily serve as an introduction lesson to a complex bargaining world of Marrakech that fully reveals itself in the famous souks of medina.
Berber rugs, extravagant lamps, Aladdin-style slippers, colorful Tagine pots and glassware, traditional Moroccan jewelry and abundance of spices of Marrakech markets allure amateur and expert shoppers alike looking for exotic African souvenirs to take home. Wandering eyes of tourists overwhelmed by the richness and colorfulness of the Moroccan goods do not escape adept merchants who try to pitch in everything from teas and harem pants, jewelry, oils and magical beauty potions that seem to solve any problems you can think of (for the price much higher than the locals pay for it).
“Standard rate” is not very frequent here. However, you will still encounter some stalls with big numbers carefully written on small pieces of paper attached to the bottles and shelves. Seeing your hesitation, the smart vendors, strategically offering you their signature herbal teas, hurry to inform that every product at the stall has its own fixed price aka “standard rate”. But try to mention that the price seems to be a little too high, and before you even turn to exit, the same “fixed price” gets dropped instantly and “only as an exception for you”.
If you are still dissatisfied with the presented to you deal, do not be afraid to walk away. After some vigorous haggling and demonstratively showing you their discontent, the merchants at the next stalls will be willing to exchange their goods for significantly less money.
3. Tips are Expected
Simple as it is: tips in Marrakech are highly expected. Common practice of giving tips as a sign of gratitude and satisfaction with the services rendered has an additional value in this African city. Tipping somebody in Marrakech is viewed as an act of support of its poor and less fortunate residents. According to our city guide, for some people tips compound a big chunk of their earnings. Born and raised in Marrakech, Yomnes admits that the thing he dislikes most about his own city is the lack of jobs and opportunities to earn living. Making on average 75 Dirhams a day, he goes on to tell us that the average salary for middle class Marrakechi (as he calls himself) does not reach more than 3000 Dirham a month. Most people do not come even close to this number. So they work hard, haggling relentlessly, and expect tips often.
I cannot think about any better example of expecting tips than that that we witnessed at Marrakech Menara Airport. Waiting for our departure, we noticed that every restroom had a female attendant. Dressed in white from head to toes, these Moroccan women acknowledged every person with a friendly “Bonjour”. Assuming that it was a custom, we quickly stopped paying attention to these airport employees, until a few jingling coins flew up from an outstretched women’s hand to land back on the same hand a split of second later when a nicely-dressed foreigner was leaving the restroom. We could not believe our eyes. Was she the only one who was giving such a direct hint?
Quietly observing other restroom attendants, we saw similar patterns. While some ladies in white modestly accepted gratuity from the fast-passing passengers, others, loosing their patience, were tossing the coins to demonstrate that the tips for making the restrooms ready for use were expected.
Quite amused, we did not see any better way to part with our last few Dirhams than to place them in a hand of one of those dark-skinned African ladies.
4. Transportation and Traffic Laws
Like people in most countries in the world, Moroccans drive on the right side of the road. And like in most counties, the streets of the new city of Marrakech feature some standardized traffic lights (although notably less than anywhere else we have been so far). The question is… Do they serve their purpose? Yes and no.
Yes, in regards to the car and motorcycle drivers, who show respect to each other and abide the traffic laws. But when it comes to giving pedestrians their right to cross the street on the green light, that respect disappears in an instant. Dominating and ruling the road like a king rules a kingdom, the drivers honk as soon as they think that the pedestrians proceed across the street too slowly, or they simply continue driving without even stopping and acknowledging the walking pedestrians.
The old city of Marrakech does not have any traffic lights or any traffic laws whatsoever. While in some parts of the medina its ancient streets are wide enough to let a modern car fight its way through a heavy stream of people to its final destination, motorcycles and carriages drown by donkeys remain predominate type of transport. It is also not uncommon to see a little bit bigger carriages drown by fine horses dashing through the narrow alleys of the old city and presenting its famous sites to the curious tourists.
5. Spoken Language
The official language in Marrakech is Arabic. However, if you are lucky enough to speak French, you might feel like a fish in water in the city where seemingly everybody knows and understands this language. This does not come as a surprise considering that from 1912 until 1956 Morocco was predominantly under French protectorate with a small part of the country colonized by another European powerful country, Spain.
Although the period of French colonization is long gone, the language remains in use and is considered Marrakech’s main unofficial language. With the increasing popularity of the city among tourists from all over the world, the English language has also expanded its territory and become a spoken language of many local merchants, taxi drives and hotel employees.
6. Mint Tea
Marrakech (and the whole country for that sake) and its traditional mint tea are two sides of one coin. There is no way to visit the city without succumbing to the pleasant aroma of the tea. Being one of Moroccan favorite beverages, sweet refreshing drink is served everywhere and at any time. Households and hotels welcome their newly-arrived guests with a glass of mint tea. Mastered a long time ago, skillful Marrakech’s merchants negotiate their best deals over a kettle of this traditional drink. Even a hammam session cannot be complete without taking the last sip of the delicious herbal tea.
Mint tea in not just a drink. It is a century-old custom, tradition transmitted from generation to generation. It is a sign of hospitality and courtesy. It is in the blood of every Moroccan!
7. Semolina for Breakfast
You read it right! Semolina, not a typical breakfast consisting of oatmeal and coffee, is offered to the guests and family members almost every morning. Cooked with cinnamon and served with honey, semolina can satisfy any gourmand and easily become one of your favorite breakfast choices. However, despite the amazing taste and a full range of health benefits, semolina might be out of question for celiac travelers. Made from wheat, this glutenous grain is linked to causing stomach and other abdominal pain that, by all means, you want to avoid especially when travelling!
8. Bollywood Cinema Raving Fans
It is a well-known fact that Hollywood holds strong positions as the world’s biggest movie producer. Yes, it might be true! Yes, Hollywood might be popular in the whole world but Marrakech.
Enchanted by bright dresses and magnificent Indian dances, this Moroccan Pearl of the South tirelessly watches classics and new arrivals of Bollywood cinema and like any raving fans follows the lives of its biggest stars. The names of such icons as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aishwarya Rai, and Kajol along with the new generation of Bollywood stars represented by Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, and Shahid Kapoor were flying from our cab driver’s lips while he enthusiastically narrated how much the people of Marrakech love Indian movies.
In matters of taste, there can be no dispute. But you can surely mention the newest Bollywood movie while haggling in the souks. Who knows, you might get the best deal ever!
With a few modifications, it was originally posted on www.dametraveler.com