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Souk and you shall find

Marrakech is a mecca for shopping — if you can take the pace, says Charlotte Metcalf

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

Marrakech is a mecca for shopping — if you can take the pace, says Charlotte Metcalf

The moon is a silver sliver in an inky sky. There is a smell of roasting meat with a sweet undertow of incense. Doves coo in the orange tree and the muezzin’s whine insinuates itself over the rooftops. Supine on silk cushions by a tiled pool among white roses, I sip sweet mint tea from a scalding glass. I feel a thousand and one nights away from anything to do with Christmas but paradoxically, I am here to Christmas shop. Many moons ago I returned from Morocco bearing predictable gifts of kaftan, baboush (slippers) and a couscous bowl. I have returned to explore Marrakech’s vast, rambling souk in search of less obviously ethnic presents and am staying at El Mezouar, one of Marrakech’s many historic, renovated riyads. ‘Riyad’ means enclosed garden in Arabic, referring to a residence built around a decorative rectangular patio, containing water and flowers.

Most riyads now offer a guide to the souk and the next day Michel, El Mezouar’s Parisian owner, is mine. Through snaking covered alleys we dodge donkeys, mules, handcarts, motorbikes, bicycles and seething swarms of people. The souk both stimulates and assaults the senses. The cacophony of clopping hooves, hooting, revving engines, guttural bartering, begging and shouting, the foetid stench of sewage and leather sweetened by spices, the riotous swirl of colour emerging from a haze of rusty dust and charcoal smoke, the heat and the jostling, hustling bustle of humanity can overwhelm you. You need time, stamina, a calm disposition and a superb sense of direction or a patient guide.

There are still kaftans, couscous bowls and baboush galore. Jewellery ranges from junky trinkets to handcrafted silver. Leather goods abound. Michel sniffs the embellished belts I am buying for godchildren to ensure they have been cured ‘vegetally’ and don’t suffer the rancid camel whiff of cheaper leather. There is an alley selling decorative bellows in hot colours and I buy a pair with which to tease a stuffy country squire.

Emerging blinking into the glare of the Place des Epices, we are assailed by the spice stallholders, rubbing our wrists with lumps of amber or musk and thrusting handfuls of dried mint under our noses. Here there are embroidered baskets and wooden toys — snakes that pop out of boxes, puzzles and carved camels. You will pay a lot or hardly anything, depending on your appetite for haggling. Michel’s is non-existent; mine is waning.

Sagging, we leave the souk for lunch on the rooftop of the 1960s-style Café Kechmare in Guéliz and, partially revived, continue to Aya, a smart boutique hidden away down another alley. Aya is expensive but I am tempted by an embroidered, velvet poncho. There are cashmere tunics for men and, for my nieces, affordable T-shirts with embroidered edging.

A taxi takes us to Sidi Ghanem, the industrial area where designers have their ateliers. This brutally ugly modern sprawl is best avoided unless, like me, you are on a dedicated shopping quest for something unusual and prepared to pay quite steeply for it. Michel takes me to his own studio, Fan Wa Nour, selling furniture and home accessories, and then on to Akkal, selling colourful ceramics hand-thrown in a pottery behind the shop. I love the gigantic garden pots but settle for a pair of tiny, packable teacups. Above Akkal, Via Notti sells embroidered linen ranging from hooded towelling djellabas for babies to delicate hammam towels. Bilokos sells funky children’s accessories: merino blankets with hoods, mini leather poufs and sludgy-coloured duvet covers for boys, printed with bats, spiders or lizards. Normally I find scented candles pricy, predictable presents but I am dazzled by the choice in Amira. There are hanging and floating candles, giant candles that double as vases and candles inlaid with maillecart, a sort of decorative metalwork. I buy star-shaped candles in candy colours for under £1 and neroli-smelling candles in glasses wrapped in twisted sabra.

Dusty, tired and grumpy, I limp back to my riyad. I feel like going out but I need a guide to escort me through the medina’s maze so there is more negotiating to be done. It’s worth the effort. Twenty minutes later I emerge from an unlit alley into Ana Yela — another crumbling riyad that has been transformed into an oasis of tranquillity in the medina’s hectic heart. A breathtakingly beautiful courtyard dances with light that flickers on water and glows from the surrounding arches: lighting is used to soothe and enchant and even the beds are lit from below so they appear to float like magic carpets. As cold wine and a fragrant tagine are served, I surrender to Marrakech’s ancient, sly charm.

Honestly, it would be cheaper and more efficient to shop on Oxford Street, but I am happy that most of my shopping is done and Michel has arranged to ship my purchases home. Ever the Brit abroad, I’m also delighting in the fact that, a far cry from John Lewis, I have haggled with enough spirit to have bagged a really good, exotic bargain or two. Mission accomplished. 

Fact file
Charlotte’s visit was arranged by Morocco Gateway

Riyad El Mezouar offers a winter shopping break package at a 10 per cent room discount including a shopping guide for half a day and assistance in shipping your goods home.
Tel: 00 212 (0)5 24 38 09 49

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