The secrets to shopping in Marrakesh
Hand-dyed wool yarns, spices, ceramics and perfumes all make excellent gifts for friends and family. (Colleen Clark)
I left Marrakesh 54 pounds heavier than I had been when I arrived. Somewhere between taking a carriage ride to the city’s main square, Djemaa el Fna, and weighing my luggage on the Royal Air Maroc baggage scale, I gave myself – and my bank account – over to Morocco’s mysteries, hungry to bring home a bit of the heady sensuality that hangs in its labyrinthine souks.
The booty? Two leather bags, six necklaces, antique textiles, pillows, slippers, spices, essential oils, scarves, tassels, a ceramic tagine, a tea set and teeny silver tea spoons, all magically tucked within the bulging seams of my suitcase.
I should have known better. No matter how savvy, how disciplined a shopper you fancy yourself to be, you are no match for Marrakesh. After all, they have been doing this for well over a thousand years. From the city’s early days as a desert outpost for caravans from Timbuktu, Marrekeshis have been honing the art of the sell. They know their wares and they know exactly how to shill them (often in a dozen or more languages). But settling into the staccato rhythm of bargaining is part of the fun.
We’ve put together a guide to walk you through what to buy and how to buy it. Study up on these insider secrets, and you will emerge poor in dihrams but rich in hand-crafted treasures.
Handbags, belts, luggage, shoes, poufs. Leather goods have been a hot item in Marrakesh since the 16th Century. The goods you see throughout the souks are still largely hand-produced in the city’s sprawling tanneries from the hides of camel, cows and goats. Prices on the higher-quality goods can be a quarter of what you would pay at home. But before you start the bargaining process, it is essential that you do two things. First, smell the item. Many of the lower priced leather goods get their suppleness via pigeon feces and urine treatments. The stench remains for months and is very difficult to get rid of, so tell the seller you want the same item without the smell. It will cost you more, but believe me, it is worth it. Secondly, dampen a cloth or tissue and rub it against the bag. Dyes used on cheaper items will often rub off, staining your skin and clothes. If the item passes these two tests, you are good to go. Let the bargaining begin.
Moroccan hair oil
Moroccan oil has become all the rage for hair and skin products. They shill the stuff for upwards of $20 a bottle at Barneys and Sephora. You can get the same stuff for a quarter of the price in Marrakesh. The oil, made from the argan tree, is generally pressed and treated in women’s cooperatives along the road between Marrakesh and Essouira. Avoid buying bottles on the street – they are often diluted with vegetable oil – and instead visit one of the city’s many traditional pharmacies. To be sure you are getting the real deal, open the bottle – it should smell of roasted nuts. Pharmacies also stock perfumes, dyes and spices, which make great gifts. You should be able to get fresh saffron and vanilla beans for a fraction of the price you would pay in your average grocery store. Be sure the saffron is a rich orangey-red and the potent spice should keep for three-to-four years.