Frequently asked questions about Marrakesh
Where is Marrakesh?
Located in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, you can just about see the mountains in the background on a clear day above the sandy city, the city of Marrakesh is an oasis of life amidst a desert backdrop. If you are lucky enough to arrive by train through the river valley oases, accompany your arrival with the tune Marrakesh Express by Crosby, Stills and Nash, evocative of the 1960s when Marrakesh was establishing itself firmly on the hippy trail.
How old is Marrakesh?
Marrakesh was officially founded in 1062 although there had been people living there long before that though, in fact the indigenous Berbers had been farming there since Neolithic times for 12,000 years. In the 600s Arabian invaders from Egypt discovered the area and soon Arab culture and the Islamic religion permeated Berber traditions and language. In the 12th Century the red walls were constructed around the city and it became and important trading centre, with desert peoples bring their goods to the markets.
What happened to the Berbers?
They didn’t die out. In fact there are still 25 to 40 Million Berber speakers in North Africa today. Did you know that half of the total Moroccan population consider themselves Berber and can speak the language, although many might not admit it as the Arabic and French languages dominate and opportunities for public high office for Berbers are still limited.
The Berbers consider themselves the ‘original’ Moroccans before the Arab invaders from Egypt discovered the country.
Where does the name Marrakesh come from?
There are a few theories. One theory is it comes from the Berber words mur and akush, meaning land of God although it could also be translated as the country of the sons of Kush. Marra could also come from the Greek word mavros, for black although this is disputed. From the Middle ages up to the beginning of the 20th Century, the whole of Morocco was known as The Kingdom of Marrakesh which shows the city’s importance.
Volunteer Charmaine avoids the prickles in the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakesh once owned by Yves Saint-Laurent.
When did tourism start in Marrakesh?
Tourism found its way to Marrakesh in the 60s when it became a mecca for hippies. Rock stars, fashion models, film directors and the ‘it’ crowd followed and helped from the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, The Beatles and the Stones all spent time in the city. Marrakesh is now firmly on the weekend city break map and many French people have second homes there in the same way Brits do in France and Spain. Marrakesh is also a hot spot for filming from TV, history and culture to films and adverts so don’t be surprised to see a film crew during a visit. The international blockbuster Gladiator was filmed down the road at Ait Benhaddou which is a popular excursion on the tourist trail.
What’s the Medina?
A Medina is a walled city, most Moroccan cities and large towns have one. It is often the oldest part of the city. In Marrakesh the Medina contains shops and the residential areas. The volunteer accommodation on our programme is within the Medina. Many locals who live and work here have no need to leave the Medina their whole life!
What are the souks?
Pronounced ‘sooks’, this is the area where traditional crafts are manufactured and after the main square are the main attraction for any visitor to Marrakesh. At some point everyone will be persuaded to enter the shop of a rug tradesman or leather specialist. You will probably be invited to view the workshops. Personally I prefer not to accept their encouragement from the outset if I am not considering a purchase but they will be used to many hundreds of people passing through their shop and viewing the workshop without buying. Do not worry if they appear frustrated with you for not buying anything. It is a well-rehearsed performance and they have been doing it for years, they win some they lose some.
No need to haggle for over the counter items at corner shops. Here volunteers buy snacks near the main volunteer house.
Do I have to haggle for everything?
Haggling is where the shopkeeper or street seller will give you the price, usually a silly one which is far too high, then you offer a lower one. A price exchange continues until the seller appears to reluctantly accept your offer. One method is to start at half the price and then creep up from there, this might be the best method for high value products. If you are not into haggling there are plenty of shops and supermarkets where you don’t need to.
A local shopkeeper approaches a volunteer passing-by.
There’s no need to haggle when buying bread and a soft drink at an over the counter shop. The shopkeeper will have no incentive to spend time haggling over a fizzy drink. Generally the price they tell you (which they will say using French numbers) is the real price.
You will come across young boys in the street selling all sorts of items from lighters to small packs of tissues. It is a good idea to know the exchange rate and pay what you would at home. At the onset of an unexpected October downpour, boys appeared out of nowhere with arms of cheap umbrellas imported from China charging 100 Dirhams (£16). It was a 20 minute walk away from the main square where I was headed so thought it would be a good idea to get one. I calculated what I would be prepared to pay in the UK. I offered £3 as a starting point with a plan to go up later as far as £6 if needed. It worked, I got my umbrella for £6 and seller ran off smiling looking for the next customer. I am sure this was still too high and the umbrellas looked suspiciously like they had been appropriated from hotel foyers but that’s the risk you take!
How do you stop getting harassed by street sellers?
Recently street sellers have been on the decline in the Medina following the use of undercover tourist police of which there are hundreds. They were brought in to tackle the city’s reputation amongst travellers for hassle and aggravation and it has improved things dramatically.
But if you are approached avoid British politeness. Smiles and a ‘no thank you’ will be interpreted as interest to buy. If you know you do not want to buy pocket tissues from the boy walking alongside you, continue walking without making eye contact, engage in chat with your fellow traveller and if this still does not work, a firmer than usual ‘no!’ on its own and a faster stroll should do the trick. Or try Arabic, ‘la shukran’ is no thank you.
Volunteers pose for a photo in the main square with the Koutoubia minaret in the distance. Be aware that the main income for street entertainers is from tourists taking photos not from their entertainment so be prepared to offer something. Some entertainers might expect you to contribute simply for stealing a discreet glance at them as you stroll past.
Do I need French or Arabic when shopping?
In the better craft shops, the sellers will understand English. For smaller shops off the beaten track a basic knowledge of French numbers for the price will come in very handy. Pointing at items and numbers should prevent any major problems. Don’t worry if your numbers are rusty and they don’t understand you on the first go when you try to say 25 Dirhams in French (vingt-cinq Dirham). French is a second language to many Moroccans, Arabic or Berber being their mother tongue. Many may not have any better French than you did at school so do keep repeating the amount until you are sure they have understood.
What should female travellers wear?
Each Muslim country has its own nuances of what is considered appropriate clothing for female travellers. In Morocco when outside of your volunteer accommodation or hotel it is best to keep your shoulders covered and ideally wear T-shirts and tops which are crew neck and do not expose the chest region. Shorts are fine as long as they are knee length and not the short short variety.
Is it safe?
The Medina of Marrakesh is very safe, not just because of the hundreds of undercover police but because it always was and still is a very close-knit community. Everyone knows everyone here and most of the population conduct their whole lives within the Medina walls. The two main pieces of advice for visitors in Marrakesh are (i) leave the main square in the evening when the locals do, only the drunks hang around after the stalls close even if the cafes surrounding the square are still open and (ii) be extremely cautious of new young friends who offer to show you round or go out of their way to show you to your accommodation. If you are attending an event at one of the large hotels in the evening it is best to travel door to door by taxi if possible and if you are in the Medina, ask someone, preferably male, to walk with you to the nearest taxi rank. Even in smaller hotels, one of the hotel staff should oblige and they are used to walking their guests to and from the hotel door. It can be quite dark in the alleyways at night, in addition your usual route may look very different at night when the shop shutters are down.
Volunteers lead children through the pedestrianised Medina on a trip out.
How will I get round the Medina?
There are few, if any public roads in the Medina, getting around is on foot around the narrow pedestrianised alleyways. Deliveries are still brought in by donkey and cart. They used to say keep an ear out for the donkey handlers shouting out ‘balak!’, ‘look out!’. These days motorbikes are just as likely, despite signs saying they are prohibited they can still whizz by.
Most visitors get lost at some point, it is like a maze and it is easy to turn around at junctions and not recognise the alley you have just walked out of. To avoid getting completely lost stick to the wider routes where most people are walking until you get your bearings. These should be on even the most rudimentary maps and will lead to either the main square or the ring road around the Medina, just follow the noise and people!
Visitors staying in the Medina can find it quicker to get around as they are constantly coming and going between their accommodation and the main square along the same route every day. A day tourist would be amazed how volunteers negotiate the Medina and know the route through after only a day.
The little doors you see in the Medina’s alleyways can be the entrance to lavish family homes beyond.
What is a Riad?
All those little doors in the alleyways aren’t bin cupboards but the main entrance to a family home with a spacious courtyard hidden on the other side. Pronounced ree-add, the word means garden in Arabic and were designed for the hot desert climate to stay cool. The central courtyard allows the heat to rise out of the property. The coolest Riads are those with water features to cool the air even further with pools acting as an natural air conditioner.
Many Riads still have delicately plastered walls, ceilings and balconies and tiles with quotes from the Quran, the religious text of Islam. An additional reason of enclosed courtyards was to enable privacy for female members of the family which is why there aren’t any windows on the outside walls. Did you know that even the strictest Muslims will wear the same clothes as you and I inside their Riads when they are with their immediate family? Sometimes visitors staying in Riads, not realising there are no external windows, will ask to move room only then to find rooms with windows on the roof terrasses more uncomfortable in the heat and realise their mistake!
In the main square, the snake charmers can be quick to place a snake around your neck – if you are not a fan of snakes close up – keep a safe distance behind other onlookers and enjoy from the distance.
What do I need to know about the Jemaa el-Fna?
The Jemaa el-Fna is possibly the best-known square in the whole of Africa. It is said to mean “square of the dead” although it is more likely to be the mosque or assembly at the end of the world. The Jemaa el-Fna is the centre of all city activity and the first place visitors head to. Here you will see snake charmers, acrobats, fire-eaters, musicians, story tellers, pick-pockets and even dentists pulling teeth. If the artist sees you taking photos they will expect a payment so be discreet and take a long shot or give them some money and then start snapping then a little more at the end. Be careful to keep a distance from the snake charmers or they will not hesitate to wrap a snake around your neck and ask you to pay for the experience. Best to stand behind other tourists if you don’t want to get a scaly surprise.
The fresh orange juice stalls in the main square offer juicy refreshers on hot days but be careful not to over do it as the water used is often untreated.
Can I drink the orange juice in the square?
It is lovely but the water used will not be treated bottled water so chances are you may experience some side effects over the next 24 hours! If you want a safe orange drink, order one at a better restaurant or, better still, buy some Moroccan oranges and prepare your own. Squeeze the juice of two oranges into a glass, top up with water, add sugar (sugar is the magic ingredient) and stir – delicious! Learn this method and you’ll never buy carton juice at home again.
Volunteers drink a home made sweet mint-tea at the volunteer house in Marrakesh.
Where can I get a Moroccan mint tea?
Just like British tea, Moroccan mint tea is best prepared at home by a local far away from the cafes and coffee bars. Ask an older Moroccan to make one for you at their home or take an organised tour to a traditional Berber house. The next best thing will be one of the cafes surrounding the main square. Avoid the mint tea sold in the middle of the square at the evening stalls, any local will tell you it’s as bad as dish water. Moroccan tourists can often be seen arguing and refusing to pay for the tea.
Volunteers enjoy a meal as the sun sets over the Jemaa El-Fna square in Marrakesh. Most volunteers eat out in the square each evening.
What’s the weather like?
The weather in Marrakesh often worries the summer traveller but there are clever ways to avoid the heat. Did you know for example that many of the alleyways in the Medina are covered to provide shade and that if you are staying in an older property in the Medina the walls are likely to be a metre thick. This helps keep the temperature down. Try to sleep on the lower floors to stay cool or sleep on the roof. Having said that, for volunteering, half of which takes place out of the Medina walls and will require a walk in the sun or a bus journey make sure you take the following with you:
• A wide-rimmed sun hat and sunglasses
• A white long sleeved loose shirt to reflect the sun (or at least shoulders covered)
• At least a 2 litre bottle of water
• A spare T-shirt you can wet if necessary for your neck on a hot day volunteering/touring
Are there any nightclubs?
Morocco has a more relaxed attitude to alcohol to its neighbouring countries so there are a few nightclubs in Marrakesh. The main bar area is on Avenida Mohammed V in the new town (Gueliz) The café bar de L’escale offers pavement tables which are rare as alcohol consumption in public is still frowned upon, especially near Mosques . The top club of the moment is Pacha on Avenida Mohammed VI which attracts DJs from all over Europe and New York. It is only worth going at the weekend when busiest but can be hard to get in even if your best attire. For live bands try African Chic. http://www.pachamarrakech.com/
I hope you enjoyed this article on Marrakesh. For your own thoughts and personal experiences: [email protected]