Marrakech… a dream destination for many travelers all over the world. This African city is strong in its cultural traditions, yet open and acceptable of the foreigners eager to explore what was previously considered not safe for tourists. Splendid riads, busy souks, traditional food, bright colors and friendly people. It’s true… Marrakech is dreamy, mysterious and alluring. Social media certainly portrays 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 an 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, I have compiled a list of things you should know about one of Morocco’s most popular cities before setting off for your journey. Here are eight things you should know about Marrakech.
“Standard Rate” Is Not Real
Although Marrakech is very walkable city, at the end of a full of exploration, you might want to rest to your tired feet. Whether you need to get from the medina to your hotel, or venture to the desert or Atlas mountains, you will find yourself with multiple taxi options.
A few drivers will promise to take you to your destination in the most convenient and fastest manner. 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.
Our educational taxi adventure started the moment we stepped out of the airport. Pondering our next actions and the best way to get to our hotel, 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.” 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 proved that you should become a skillful bargainer while hunting for the ride.
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).
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”. If you are still dissatisfied with the price, 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.
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 woman’s hand. Quietly observing other restroom attendants, we saw similar patterns. While some ladies in white modestly accepted gratuity from the fast-passing passenger, others lost their patience and were tossing the coins to demonstrate that the tips for making the restrooms ready for use were expected.
Transportation & 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 or 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 drawn by donkeys remain predominate type of transport. It is also not uncommon to see a little bit bigger carriages drawn by fine horses dashing through the narrow alleys of the old city and presenting its famous sites to the curious tourists.
The official language in Marrakech is Arabic. However, if you are lucky enough to speak French, you’ll feel very comfortable.
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 unofficial language. With the increasing popularity of the city among tourists from all over the world, the English language also has expanded its territory and is spoken by many local merchants, taxi drives and hotel employees.
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 its tea.
Being one of Morocco’s favorite beverages, this 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 is 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!
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 traveling!
Bollywood Cinema Raving Fans
Hollywood might be the world’s biggest film industry producter in the whole world… except in the eyes of those who live in Marrakech.
Enchanted by bright dresses and magnificent Indian dances, this Moroccan Pearl of the South tirelessly watches classics and new arrivals of Bollywood cinema. 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!