Morocco was quite unlike anything we had ever seen or visited before and it was everything we had expected but more with a riot of colour and frenetic activity that was exciting and vibrant. We walked through the square in a northerly direction and eventually arrived at what most people concede is the biggest Souk in Africa and we slipped into the labyrinthine maze of covered but sun-dappled market streets.
Here was a whole new experience with street after street of shops all overflowing with things for sale that we didn’t need but each with an owner who didn’t understand this and was determined to part us from the cash in our wallets. Some of the shops were no bigger than the tiny cupboard under my stairs and many of them sold exactly the same things and as we walked through we were under constant pressure from the owners all trying to entice us with a ‘special price’.
What didn’t help in establishing whether this was a special price or not was that nothing was priced in the first place which meant this form of shopping was very difficult process for people like us who are not used to haggling. A lot of the stuff in here was rubbish of course and my favourite was the honest trader who assured us that he only sold genuine fakes!
We walked past carpet shops, elaborate lampshade shops, slipper shops, silver and pottery shops, shops selling leather, silks, ceramics, spices and pastries and our senses were under constant assault from the colourful sights, the rich aromas and the constant chatter and noise of the traders. Occasionally a donkey and cart would send people scattering as new supplies were delivered and the shop owners were probably glad of this because the only place to go to get out of the way was inside the shop doorways where someone was waiting to pounce.
Threading our way through the heaving twisting lanes we nodded politely as we rejected invitations from all sides, trying all the time not to make eye contact and declining inducement to go inside.
Soon we were the only tourists amongst the crowds of men and women in their traditional Arab clothing, the men in long gowns called djellabas and the women in colourful kaftans, head-scarves tied around the hair, some with face veils and a small minority with a full burqa.
We were in unfamiliar territory now and although there was no danger and we felt perfectly safe there were no street signs to help with navigation so at a convenient junction we took a turning into a parallel street which seemed as though it should return us to Djemma el Fna.
By a stroke of good fortune it did and as we got closer the local stalls gave way again to tourist shops and we pushed our way back through the Souks and into the huge square where shifting circles of onlookers were constantly moving between acrobats, drummers, dancers and street apothecaries but we made sure that we kept a safe distance from the snakes and the monkeys.
Later on the terrace of our Riad we watched the sunset usher in the darkness and bring to an end a day of perfect blue sky and sunshine and refeshed and rested we made preparations for a night on the town. We were returning to Djemma el Fna and when we arrived there the place had taken on a whole new identity.
Sometime between the end of the afternoon and the early evening the square had been transformed from a market place to an open air theatre with swarms of people and this is something that occurs every single day of the year. The snake charmers and the monkey men had packed up and gone home and had been replaced by a carnival of musicians, storytellers, transvestite dancers and other entertainers. There were fairground stalls and all sorts of opportunists trying to sell things not just to tourists but to each other as well. There was a crackle of excitement around the square that was fuelled by the energy of all the players and it was impossible not to be caught up in it all.
Now we were in the food market where every night a corner of the square is transformed into an open air free for all restaurant with one hundred and sixty hastily erected stalls and kitchens all competing for business from hundreds of people, locals and tourists, as they pushed through the narrow aisles in between the steaming barbeque kitchens. At every stall there was someone trying to entice us inside by explaining the menu options and making impromptu offers and we didn’t get very far before we gave in and allowed one of them to lead us to a trestle table with a plastic tablecloth before thrusting the menus into our hands.
It was all really lively and good fun and there were local people eating here so we thought that might be a recommendation and we ordered a selection of food in a tapas sort of way and in only a short time the table began to fill up with bread and spicy dips, beef tagine, mixed skewers, couscous, salad, fish and chicken and we all tucked in to this rather unusual food combo.
After we had finished we left and continued walking and had to explain every few seconds that we had already eaten to the waiters that continued to accost us every few metres or so. Most of the stalls sold fairly similar food but there were some speciality places and at the edge of the market there were five or six stalls, next door to each other and back to back, all cooking and selling portions of steaming snails with glistening shells which seemed to be really popular with the locals but which didn’t especially appeal to us.
It had been a long day and we seen all that we wanted to by now so although it wasn’t especially late we negotiated our way back to the Riad first through the jostling crowds of people and then the traffic that even now showed no sign of easing up. Once inside the walls of the back streets we left the noise of the city behind and then through the heavy wooden door of the Nafis it was though it never existed at all.
Are you any good at haggling? Have you got any tips? Do share!