Carpets, Leather, and Spices, oh my! Exploring the Markets of Marrakech

When visiting Morocco, it is essential to stop by the souks to do a little shopping. Morocco’s markets are globally known for their unique artisan products, from argan oil to carpets to leather and more. Most cities have at least some level of market, but the some of the most notorious are in the imperial city, Marrakech. In fact, Marrakech is home to Jemaa el-Fnaa, an incredibly popular market square that has been featured by National Geographic and other big name travel magazines for its unique nature.

In the old Medina

Navigating the souks can be incredibly difficult. They are tightly packed, ever-changing, and full of people who are all going separate directions. Many people will recommend getting a professional guide, but in my opinion it is not completely necessary if you have a bit of prior knowledge.

That being said, I would start with downloading a map of the area to your phone. If you don’t have an international SIM card, losing access to internet and a back up map may result in disaster. Make sure to recognize some key landmarks to recognize your location from any direction as well. For example, in Jemaa el-Fnaa, Koutoubia Mosque is the tallest building in Marrakech and is visible in most locations in the square, giving you a general idea of where you are. After a bit of time, the markets will become more familiar and less daunting.

If you do become completely lost, try to avoid asking directions from young men and instead ask women and families. Rather than a safety issue (Morocco is a very safe country), asking for directions can be risky because many men earn commissions from taking you by one or two vendors or restaurants or may flat out ask to be paid for their guidance. Asking from other people can save you a pretty penny that could be used to buy more goods!

The narrow streets of the Medina

Another thing to keep in mind is to always bargain and never accept anything for starting price. Not only does it save you money, but it also considered customary to do so and insulting if you don’t. To get a sense of prices, make sure to look for the same product with numerous vendors. For a reference, the only thing I ever paid over 100 USD for was a camel hair carpet in Casablanca and I scored a sheep wool carpet, several camel leather poufs (for way cheaper than the knockoffs you can find on Amazon!), jasmine and gazelle fat perfume, and many other items.

For bargaining here are some key phrases in Arabic and French, the two most spoken languages in Morocco:

English ArabicFrench
HelloMarhabanBonjour
How much is this?Bikam haadha?Combien ça coûte?
YesNamOui
NoLaNon
Thank youShukranMerci
GoodbyeMasaalemaAu revoir

Of course learning the numbers is also important and it is easy to use those to negotiate a medium price. Keep in mind that if you decide against an item, you can say no. Some vendors are very talented at making you feel like you must purchase an item, but it not obligatory by any means.

Jemaa el-Fnaa by day

When shopping in the market, it also important to be wary of certain scams aside from asking for directions. Especially in Jemaa el-Fnaa, there are lots of performers that will demand money if you take photos, recordings, or even watch for too long. Around dusk, there are many snake charmers, monkey handlers, acrobats, and storytellers that will use this method. Another classic trick is the women who do elaborate henna artwork. Often times they will grab your hand to demonstrate and the next thing you know, they have completed your entire arm and are asking a high price. While they are incredibly talented and fun to watch, if you aren’t looking for a henna tattoo, try to steer clear.

According to most people I have consulted, pick pocketing and catcalling has also been a problem within the souks. I personally never had any issue with this, nor did anyone in my group so I am not sure if the issue is exaggerated or not. That being said, we still made an effort to dress within social norms and paid attention to keeping knees and shoulders covered.

Watching the streets outside the markets

So with all this information, what can you buy?

Carpets are a very popular buy in Marrakech and for good reason. However, most of the genuine carpets aren’t found in the markets themselves but in the cooperatives. Here, you will be offered mint tea or water and then shown many different types and shapes of carpets. There are Berber, Touareg, and other peoples’ style of carpet made of many materials, from camel hair to sheep wool to agave. Through a process of elimination, you will likely end up finding a carpet you love. Before buying, double check to make sure the co-op has good reviews, otherwise the shipping might take a long time or not happen at all.

Learning how to weave carpets

Leather products are also incredibly popular. Camel, goat, and sheep leather are all used to create purses, poufs, bags, shoes, and much more. Markets are a great place to find some of these items. In the leather making process, the hide is softened using traditional methods (part of this involves pigeon poop) and then stained with oil. This being said, leather may have some leftover smell from the tanning process so try to keep it separated from other fabrics until you can let it air out at home. Once I did get home though, I just left my leather products out in the sun for a few days and the smell went away pretty quickly.

Some of our leather goods

Morocco is also famous for a large number of herbs, spices, and other natural items. Argan oil is infamous for improving hair and is found in plenty of expensive shampoos, but can be found in Morocco in its pure form. Aside from hair care, it is thought to have a number of medicinal properties, such as improving heart health, lowering risk for diabetes, and improving skin as well. In addition to Argan oil, spices from paprika to turmeric to saffron (which is the most expensive spice in the world) are in numerous stalls, often piled in colorful cones. Saffron grows naturally in Morocco, therefore it’s a lot cheaper and a very popular purchase item.

The markets also hold plenty of other natural items. For art lovers, there are lots of natural dyes, including indigo, madder, chamomile, and henna. Some are even ground up and ready to mix into paint, while other come in whole pieces, such as indigo. Many of these dyes are used in the bright Moroccan buildings, such as Jardin Majorelle. There are other great gifts as well, such as perfumes and lotions. Many of the perfumes are made from gazelle musk, which curiously doesn’t smell bad. It’s added to jasmine to create a create deodorant as well. In some places, you can purchase the musk itself, which can serve as a perfume on its own. Honestly, there are so many natural items that are great gifts or items to take home.

Gazelle musk

Overall, the markets in Marrakech are magical. There are so many opportunities to find great buys and see such unique things, from the carpets to spices to leather. Especially with prior knowledge, the markets are the best place to experience Moroccan culture and lifestyle!

Juices in Morocco

Have you been to the markets in Marrakech? What did you or would you buy?

A Day in Casablanca

Casablanca was the introduction into my time in Morocco and Northern Africa! Many people fly in and out of the white city on their way to explore the other pieces of the country, such as Fez, Marrakech, Ourrzazate, or Meknes as the flights are usually cheaper. This being said, Casablanca is easily worth the one day trip if you can squeeze it in and here’s how I would spend it:

Casablanca from my hotel view

I would start by first visiting the Hassan II Mosque early in the morning. This Mosque ended construction in 1993 and is the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. It is also one of the few mosques that non-Muslims may visit during times between prayer. Almost all of its materials have been sourced from Morocco itself, which gives valuable insight to the beauty of the country, as well as its natural diversity. Its construction was completed by modern day specialists in each craft, from the tiling to the carving to the painting and collects aspects from Moorish and Islamic design, along with more local Moroccan aspects.

Hasan II Mosque

The mosque leads insightful tours conducted in a number of languages, including English. Our guide was incredibly kind and offered plenty of information on the construction of the building and the religion itself. For instance, she told us that much of the woodwork is cedar, due to its natural insect repellent and its resistance to the salt and harsh conditions from the Atlantic. She also told us that the roof opens (not unlike a car sunroof) to let in natural air and help with crowding during busier prayer days, especially during Ramadan. This was something I had never seen or heard about in any sort of mosque, church, synagogue, or other place of worship and frankly I thought it was pretty incredible.

Details in the ceiling

The prayer room is at ground level and is a large space that may hold up to 25,000 people. The walls and ceiling around the area is heavily detailed with impressive mosaics, carvings, and paintings. There is some view of the Atlantic Ocean as well, which also brings in soft natural light.

Gorgeous mosaics on the outside of the building

Underneath the prayer hall are the absolution rooms where people may wash before going to prayer. The rooms are separated by gender, but both look identical. Like most of the building, much of the room is made with local marble and Arabic calligraphy is be found on the walls.

Calligraphy in the absolution rooms

After visiting the absolution rooms, the tour is over. However, being there early in the morning gives one the ability to take more pictures outside and explore some of the nearby areas, including the fountains and the shore. The place where one buys entrance tickets is worth a second stop to revisit the samples of the designs and overall history of the building.

Beautiful artwork

After visiting the mosque, I would then take the time to stop for lunch somewhere along the coast. Casablanca, while still having common moroccan food just as tagine and cous cous, also has a large amount of seafood. We stopped at a small, quiet restaurant called Restaurant Essaâd (مطعم السعد ير حب بكم) where we enjoyed much of the local twists on tajine and sandwiches. Typically, olives and bread are served as appetizers and mint tea is incredibly common as well.

Restaurant Essaâd

After grabbing a bite to eat, one could stop at the Casablanca Cathedral. Unfortunately some event or construction was occurring when we visited, so we were unable to enter. However, it is labeled a must for visiting Casablanca, even though it stopped being a center of worship around 1956. Be sure to check times and entry prices because they apparently change.

Instead of the cathedral, we went to pigeon park, or Mohammed V Square. There are by far, many more pigeons that I have ever seen in my entire life. They crowd around the fountain and bathe in the waters. Nearby, there are lots of families hanging around and small rides for the children.

Mohammed V Square

Right across the street from the square is a store called Exposition Nationale d’Artisanat (العرض الوطني الصناعة التقليلدية). It has a few different floors full of souvenirs, from poufs to camels to shoes. Not all of it is artisan, nor would I recommend this place for more expensive purchases, such as leather goods or carpets, but it gives an idea of what can be purchased in the markets and what a reason price would be for that product. Also, there are a lot of smaller trinkets that you can find cheaper here than in the markets, such as mini tajines, post cards, and magnets. Either way, exploring here is a wonderful experience.

After that, we went to some more specialized shops. Our first stop was a carpet shop. When we walked in, we were warmly greeted and asked to sit in a large area. There were carpets stacked everywhere I could see. After getting the customary mint tea, the owners started rolling out carpets made of camel hair, agave, and sheep wool of all sorts of shapes and patterns. The man explained how each type is made and different features of them. Once each carpet was explained, we were asked to give a “no” or “maybe,” to each. Both parties in my group narrowed down to a carpet we wanted and then the bargaining began. As is typical, we were given a collective starting price. Unfortunately, I was the only one that ended up reaching a deal and I left with a multicolored camel hair carpet.

Make sure that you aren’t in a rush when visiting carpet shops, as it can take a few hours, especially if you find some you like. Also, from my experience, Marrakech had cheaper options, but Casablanca had more agave carpets if that is what is of interest. My last piece of advice is to certainly not take a starting price. It’s typically considered rude not to bargain and prices are set high to begin with. Even if don’t make a purchase, the experience is very unique to Morocco and worth having.

Carpets galore!

After that I would take the remaining hours to explore the older part of town. This part is the best glimpse of what Casablanca looked like before French colonization. Our hotel, Hôtel Central, was in the middle of the medina, the old, walled part of the city and provided easy access to the port and markets nearby. This area is easily reached by foot and offers excellent views of the ocean and is a great place to visit!

The stairwell at our hotel

Some of the markets have great options for gifts and food. We got so many wonderful items, from a camel leather pouf to a “magic” box that there was a trick to unlocking. There were plenty of clothes, leather products, and souvenirs available. Most of the vendors were friendly and willing to help us find the products were looking for. There are a number of places offering Moroccan street food, including several types of meat and vegetables in the forms of wraps, sandwiches, kebabs, and more. The best part is the fresh squeezed orange juice. There are so many people selling fresh squeezed fruit juices from watermelon to avocado to oranges and more, definitely a must buy.

Overall, Casablanca is a great place to spend a day exploring and taking in the sights. Between Mohammed V Square and the Hassan II Mosque, it is worth the day trip or more if you can make it!

Have you ever been to Casablanca? Or tried tagine? Or explored Moroccan markets?

Venice (Venezia), Italy

Venice is the primary destination in the northern part of Italy and a beautiful one at that. I loved my time there, although I do have my critiques. Venice is a city of history, culture, and brilliant sights; however, the heavy tourism has degraded a lot of the city’s natural aura and it’s beginning to show. However, many of the places are still worth the experience and I would recommend going if you are in the area!

Venice Canals

Originally, around 400 AD, Venice was founded as a refuge from the mainland of Italy, where Goths and Huns were a threat. The islands were a sanctuary, since their opponents could neither sail or understand the seas. Venice remained out of the turmoil of Italy for vast amounts of time and grew to be the 118 islands it is today, of which some are man made. Their community was led by a doge, who was originally elected by twelve people. Over the years, Venice became a center of trade, due to its position on the Adriatic Sea and eventually, in the 1200s, it was the most prosperous city in Europe, but that ended after other countries began to explore overseas and the plague became widespread, killing tens of thousands of people. In modern times, Venice is largely prospering from tourism, but the population of locals has heavily decreased due to high living cost. In this sense, this is the part of Venice that I did not enjoy as much: there is not a lot of genuine authenticity due to a lack of citizens who actually live on the islands.

A seagull perched over the water where tourists come flooding in from ships

However, Venice is touristy for true reasons, as there is much to see and do. The architecture of the islands themselves, as well as the buildings, is stunning and exceptionally detailed. Venice is also famous for glass blowing, of which you will see many fine examples of in the area, especially in the island of Murano. The food is also great and there are many opportunities for pictures if there aren’t too many tourists in the way. I was there in January, hence my photos were nearly empty of people since many did not want to endure the bitter weather.

Venetian streets

If you are going to Venice by any other means than cruise (which hopefully that is true, since the cruise ships pollute the water and damage the historical city), the best way to reach Venice is by train, since no cars are allowed on the islands. Italian public transportation is super easy to use and cheap; just make sure to punch your tickets at the little kiosks to avoid any fines! The view from the train station exit is also beautiful and is fairly near the main attractions and other little places you might want to see.

The view out of the train station

Not sure what to do with your time there? Here’s a list:

PIAZZA SAN MARCO:

This is probably one of the more iconic sights in Venice besides the massive canals and rightfully so. Here you will find lots of little bars, cafés, designer brand stores, but the most interesting attractions are the Doge’s Palace, San Marco’s Basilica, and the clocktower. I have been fortunate enough to see many fine works of architecture and the Basilica is definitely one of my favorites, probably only rivaling Machu Picchu.

The Doge’s Palace was built for the rulers of Venice and now serves as a museum. It features Gothic architecture and actually connects to the prisons, where those accused could be taken directly from the courtroom to the cells. Here, you can find the Bridge of Sighs, where as legend has it, convicts would sigh during their cross because it was their last sight of Venice and the outer world. While there may be little truth in that statement, the Bridge is fascinating to look at, as well as the Palace.

Bridge of Sighs

San Marco’s Basilica is a massive church that is ornately detailed and built in a mix of European and Byzantine architecture styles. Its construction began in the mid-eleventh century and continued over many years, especially due to its beautiful mosaics. Part of the church is now a museum, that I would completely recommend entering because it is stunning and full of history. You also get a chance to see the artwork, which is a great opportunity to take a break from all the traditional frescoes that one sees across plenty of Italy and see the sculptures and mosaics that aptly give the building a nickname of “Church of Gold.” You can also take the stairs all the way up to the balcony, which gives an awesome view of the square and allows you to see the horses that tower above the plaza up close. Admittance the building only costs a few euros (usually between 2.50 or 5) and is totally worth it.

San Marco’s Byzantine Domes
Entrance to the Basilica
Mosaic work on the exterior
The Horses of San Marco
Image result for san marco basilica ceilings
Basilica’s interior; photo credit to Gary Campbell-Hall

Some of the other iconic sights in Piazza San Marco include the clocktower named San Marco’s Campanile, a beautiful clock face with the Zodiac symbols, and many of the beautiful cafés and views. I loved the face and its beautiful decor. I wish I had more time to stop here and enjoy espresso or a spritz, but we kept exploring.

San Marco’s Campanile
The 24 clock with the zodiac signs

RIALTO

Rialto is the main commercial center of Venice and is home to many of the markets, and of course, the infamous Rialto bridge. Rialto is mentioned in many works of art or literature, including Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” The bridge itself is made of steps (be careful if you have wheelchairs or strollers!) and has shops lining its sides. You will also come across lots of tourist traps here; I wasn’t pickpocketed, but I did have people giving me roses and demanding money or people asking for money. However, despite its down falls, it is a must see area, especially if you are interested in markets.

Rialto Bridge

OTHER ODDS AND ENDS

Losing yourself in Venice is one of the best ways to experience the city and the many things to do. You can easily stumble across many of the grand churches or bridges or museums from any direction you can go. There are plenty of places to pick up souvenirs and take phenomenal pictures. If you are interested in a particular sight, such as the cathedrals, there are many routes you can take that allow you to hop from sight to sight.

BITS OF ADVICE

  • You will likely see this in other blogs or publications, but the gondolas, in my opinion, are overrated. Especially in the summer seasons, the canals can be filled with too many people and the rides are often super expensive. I never went on a tour because I didn’t have the funds to do so, but I seriously don’t think I missed anything. I know people who have and the majority feels as though it is a fun thing to say you have done, but didn’t feel like it was worth the amount of euros they forked over.
  • I would advise eating away from central areas because the prices go up, but there is also so much to explore away from the common streets. Food in Venice is expensive as is, but it certainly increases the closer you get to some of the main attractions. 
  • Don’t fall for scams that I mentioned above, such as someone handing you a rose and then demanding you pay. This is also common for someone demanding pay for taking your picture, among other pickpocketing tricks.
  • Definitely take advantage of some of the free tours that Venice offers. You can find some online and many will take you places that are off the beaten path. Our guide took us to a gorgeous pier where we could look across the basilica. 
  • I would certainly recommend bringing home some of the stunning glass pieces as well! Even the little animals are absolutely adorable and I bought a few to bring home as a gift.
Where they make the gondolas
Markets in Venice
One of the churches we visited on our tour
Arches in Venetian walkways

Overall, I loved my experience in Venice, especially in regards to architecture, but it wasn’t exactly my favorite place I have been. It was so beautiful but it also revealed the true impacts of heavy tourism and how difficult it can be on a culture. I don’t know if I would return (aside from visiting family friends), but I think it is worth a stop if you are in the area for sure.

At the top of San Marco’s Basilica