The Medina of Marrakech is a sensory overload of exotic chaos. For a visitor, the most rewarding moments come from jumping right into the mayhem. But don’t leap into the madness of the ancient quarter without Global Gallop’s Marrakech Survival Guide:
1) Learn to say, “La-a shukran.” From the moment you set forth in the Medina, you will be besieged by volunteers seeking to guide you. They will be friendly, very persistent, and tell you falsely that no payment is expected for their assistance. Unless you secretly desire to be led to a rug shop for the hard sell and charged for the privilege, say, “La-a, shukran” (No, thank you) firmly every time you are approached.
2) Negotiate. The real price of just about everything on offer in the souks is somewhere between 20% to 50% off the initially quoted price. The real price is most readily determined by walking away.
3) Know the true cost. Establish the price of any interaction with a snake charmer or ape handler in Jemaa el Fna Square on the front end. Make sure the price includes the cost of removal of the snake or monkey from your shoulders.
4) Walk with purpose. You are competing with donkeys, push carts, motorcycles, stray cats and a legion of tourists and locals for passage in the narrow lanes of the Medina. It is survival of the fittest, so proceed with dispatch.
5) Pack your pockets with coins. Moroccans are industrious, self-reliant people and the governmental safety net is virtually non-existent. The folks you encounter begging in the streets are not doing so because they are lazy. Give them a few dirhams. You will be surprised how good a little interpersonal foreign aid feels.
6) You don’t have to be a teetotaler. But you definitely need a strategy to get your drink on within the walls of the Medina. First, stock up at the duty-free store in your departing airport and tote the allowable limit of alcohol in with you. Second, make tracks to the Acima Supermarket just north of the Medina which has a full liquor department. Finally, pull up a stool at Kosybar, the closest thing to a wine bar you will find within the Medina walls.
7) Cash is king. Most riads, restaurants and souk vendors either reject credit cards outright, or charge a 5% levy for the insult. The best currency exchange rates can be found at the-not-so-grand Hotel Grand Tazi, located about a minute’s walk south of Jemaa el Fna Square. The added reward of a trek to the Grand Tazi is the cheap beer sold in the lobby lounge.
8) Be a good ambassador. If you are female, try to make eye contact with the berka-shrouded women you pass on the streets. You will be amazed how many local women eagerly seek out the sisterly connection of a smile and a nod. If you are male, don’t wear shorts. Moroccans think that a man dressed in shorts looks as silly as a guy strutting about in his underwear.
9) Don’t stay in the Palmeraie. You might as well be in Palm Springs or Scottsdale. Total Marrakech immersion requires that you rest your head within the Medina walls. After a few nights, the 5 AM call to prayer will sound like a lullaby.
10) Find the frontier. Even within the Old City, the explosive growth of riads is squeezing out the local residents. Yet, on the fringes of the Medina, timeless, traditional neighborhoods can still be found. On the far south side of the ancient quarter, Villa Makassar hides a stylish art-deco refuge behind a nondescript door. If you are lucky, your mid-day departure from Villa Makassar will be thwarted by throngs of engaging children making their way to school. On the sequestered north side of the Medina, Riad Zamzam delivers blissful tranquility in a former fortune-teller’s house. You are guaranteed to get lost when venturing out from Riad Zamzam. That is a good thing.