Who knew shopping could be so enlightening? You can glimpse a maâlem’s mosaic techniques, learn Berber sunburn remedies from apothecaries and get the ceremonial mint-tea treatment in carpet shops. You can probably get that pillowcase made to match your sofa or a suit tailored to fit, and artisans will proudly show you how it’s done. Factor friendly banter into your shopping time for a warm reception and probably a better price – everything is negotiable in the souqs except obligatory pleasantries. Whether you buy or not, the shopkeeper will remember you tomorrow, and greet you with ‘Labes?’ (‘Happy?’) At these prices, who wouldn’t be?
You haven’t really been to Morocco until you’ve gotten lost in a Marrakesh souq (covered market). Slow down and look around: when rays of sunlight through the palm-frond roof illuminate a lute maker at work, you’ve found the Instrument-makers’ Souq (Souq Kimakhine), and if you glimpse sparks flying as old bicycle parts are re-fashioned into lanterns, Blacksmiths’ Souq (Souq Haddadine) has found you. Dyers’ Souq (Souq Sebbaghine) is the most picturesque, with skeins of freshly dyed saffron and vermillion wool hung to dry against Marrakshi pink walls and Saharan blue skies.
But don’t stop there: dive into the labyrinthine qissaria (also, covered market) between Slipper Souq (Souq Smata) and Leather Souq (Souq Semmarine (Leather Souq), where artisans in cubbyhole workshops fashion next season’s It bag using tools and techniques inherited from great-great-grandparents. From morning to evening, this area buzzes with the sounds of handiwork in progress and artisans calling out greetings to passers-by in five languages. Anyone who stops by is promptly given a nickname – divulge your favourite footballer or hobby, and there you have it – and return customers are treated to warm greetings and hot tea.
Before you get to Fez, ensure you have your wallets refilled and you’ve recharged your credit cards. If you’re a shopaholic, Fez is most certainly the place to be. We challenge you to explore every souk, suss out every bargain and still stay under the excess baggage cut-off for your flight home – we’ve been trying for years and reckon it isn’t possible. Best buys are babouches (traditional leather slippers), silver Berber jewellery, the famous blue-glazed Fassi ceramics, hand-sewn linen and cotton embroidery, Berber hendiras (traditional woven cloaks that make great wall hangings), argan oil (for cooking or in soap), saffron and other spices, brassware, and carpets of every type, style and quality. Sensational shopping strips and souks are everywhere, but don’t miss Talaas Kebira and Seghira, the Attarine Souks, Chemmaine Souk and the kissariat (covered markets) at the bottom of Talaa Kebira, near the Kairaouine Mosque.
Pause for unexpected beauty and banter in these souqs often, because what are the chances you’ll come this way again? Even locals and compass equipped cartographers lose their way in millennia-old Medina streets flanked by some 3000 derbs (winding alleys), which predate city planning and defy satellite mapping. You could hire a guide, but you’d be missing most of the fun and all the deals – odds are your guide is related to the shopkeeper or gets a commission. Go it alone instead, and never be too proud to bow gracefully out of a bargaining session or backtrack the way you came. Think of the souqs as the Bermuda Triangle of shopping: if you emerge blinking in the sunlight clutching fewer than five shopping bags, a victorious glass of mint tea is in order.