A day at the market in Essaouira, Morocco

I went to Essaouira for the DIPINTO17 Retreat for Creative Entrepreneurs – but as you all know, a retreat is never “all work, no play”. A retreat is first and foremost a learning experience, motivational, inspirational – and a great way to make new friends and learn about the culture of the host country. While visiting the traditional market (the souk) in Essaouira, I got to experience shopping in a way I hadn’t done since I went to Tunisia with my parents. I got re-introduced to the concept of haggling. Modest as I am, it’s not something I feel comfortable with – but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. Right?

There I was, watching and learning from others before – somewhat – getting the hang of it. After all, back in Tunisia it wasn’t me who took care of the haggling. I was a seven year old kid back then. I remember my parents buying me a lot of souvenirs from the island of Djerba, and little did I know how much effort they had to go through to buy me those souvenirs for a reasonable price.

Reasonable price is never the price written on the price tag. That price is a rip-off, and only naive and modest tourists (like myself) will ever pay that price for something you can get half price if you just grow a pair and speak up. When I first arrived at the souk in Essaouira, I ran around like a headless chicken, not knowing what to do or what to say. My only advantage was that I speak French and could pretend to be a penny-pinching French tourist instead of the vendors thinking I’m some rich American throwing money around and buying everything from everyone. Yes, those are stereotypes, and no, they’re not always true. I know that, you know that, the Moroccans know that.

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The market in Essaouira is a lot more relaxed than the one in Marrakech. Here, there are no snake charmers, no monkeys on a leash, no one trying to nearly force you to get Henna tattoos done, no one getting mad at you for not looking at their merchandise. Although I love certain things about the souk in Marrakech, and although the chaos and energy can sometimes be fun and although it adds to the experience,  I will have to admit that I prefer the traditional market in Essaouira.

The vendors are generally quite relaxed. If you don’t enter their shop, they will not say anything. And once you enter the shop they will ask you if you’re looking for anything special and help you find what you’re looking for. And obviously propose other options.That’s it. And that’s the way I like to go shopping.

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The number one beauty product to invest in when in Morocco – the motherland of Argan oil – is exactly that, argan oil for hair and body. And where better to buy it than in Essaouira, the part of Morocco where the oil is produced. I asked a vendor how much he wanted for a travel size bottle, and he pointed at the price tag. It seemed like a reasonable price to me. My new friends from the retreat – including a local – gave me a surprised look and asked me shockingly if I really did pay the price written on the price tag. I was confused. Of course I did. It seemed cheap. And doesn’t an actual price tag mean that the price is fixed? Apparently not.

“You should have haggled!” they said. I tried again somewhere else. I entered a shop selling beautiful pashmina scarves. I took a deep breath. The vendor offered a price. Was it high? Was it low? I had no idea. We negotiated. I suggested fifteen dirhams less. He suggested five. We met halfway, I paid and we shook hands. I was still confused as to whether or not I should have gone harder or if I was too hard on him. I took another deep breath and moved on.

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Leather wallets. I wanted to get one as a gift for my partner. I found the perfect one and I negotiated harder than I had done in the previous shop. I almost felt sweat dripping from my forehead as I tried to act stubborn and hard to sell, when all I really wanted was to say “I can’t do this” and just pay, shake hands, smile and leave. But I did it. I negotiated!

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I wanted to take a lot of pictures at the market but worried I’d offend the vendors if I photographed their merchandise without buying anything. So I purposely photographed only the places where I bought things from, the places where I’d asked for permission first – and a few sneaky shots taken in a hurry. While photographing my surroundings I noticed an adorable little kitten sitting on a man’s knee while the man was playing guitar. I couldn’t stop looking at the cute little kitten, and felt rather embarrassed when I suddenly made eye contact with the man – who probably thought I was staring at him all this time!

And then there was the strange experience that turned out to be the highlight of the day. One of my friends from the retreat had entered something that looked like Ali Baba’s cave, a tiny room with multiple treasure chests (yes, treasure chests) filled with gorgeous jewelry. The happiest man I’d ever seen, with a bright blue turban, welcomed me and three of my new friends (we had been separated from the rest of the group) to his cave and offered me and another woman a seat while the guys waited in the back. “What do you like? What do you need? You can try anything!” he said joyfully and dug his hands into one of the treasure chests and offered us a handful of random jewelry. “Try whatever you want” he said. One of our friends tried a bracelet that turned out to be a tad bit too tight and the vendor laughed and said “You eat too much couscous, my friend!”. “Here – try this one!” he laughed and suggested some other options. Before she knew it, she had three bracelets on her arm. She also tried on a beautiful necklace. Everything was gorgeous. She liked it too, but put on an act to not seem too easy to sell. “You are a strong Berber woman!” he laughed, referring to the Moroccan Berbers, an unconquered people.

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I tried on a few bracelets. Many of them were way too big for my tiny wrists (the only thing tiny on me). “You don’t eat enough couscous!” he laughed and offered me to try another one. A bracelet I fell completely in love with. I also tried on a lovely necklace but wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy it or not. “It is perfect for you” he said, trying to convince me to buy it. I hesitated and told him “If I buy too much, I’ll have no more money for couscous!”.

In the end we all ended up with jewelry for a ‘family price’ discount, and the funny vendor even handed out some freebies for our two male friends. Now this guy could sell anything to anyone, just by being the funniest and most dynamic vendor I’ve ever met. I didn’t even go there to buy jewelry. I went there for the entertainment. The jewelry was just a pleasant bonus. Someone give this man a one man show!

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What a day it had been. What an experience. Oh, how I’d love to go back to Essaouira with an empty suitcase and just stay at the market for one more day – or two. And that’s coming from someone who has a phobia of haggling.

Photos below are from a restaurant I want to visit next time I’m in Essaouira(we didn’t have time while we were there). There’s live music in the evenings, and just look at how amazing and artsy this place is!

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While heading towards the market, we saw a lot of this.

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And this. I love the colors!

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Our villa was a 20-25 minute drive from the city centre. Domaine La Colline des Oliviers .

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22 hours in Marrakech, Morocco

After four amazing days at a retreat for creative entrepreneurs by HDYTI in Essaouira, a port city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, it was almost time to return home. But I didn’t want to go home without having ever visited the city I’d be flying out from, so I booked a night in the gorgeous Sapphire Riad & Spa in the Marrakech medina and had less than 24 hours to explore everything I wanted to see and eat everything I wanted to eat in the dynamic city of Marrakech, a popular destination for solo travelers, couples, families as well as groups of friends. If you were ever in doubt whether 22 to 24 hours is really enough time, doubt no more. Perhaps you’d like to know more about my trip to Essaouira or read a little more about the luxurious Riad I stayed at? Don’t worry, blog posts will be up soon!

But first, here’s how I spent 22 hours in Marrakech

3 pm: Arrived in Marrakech, checked in at the Riad and got a tour around the gorgeous property – and enjoyed some complimentary mint tea and pastries. How divine!

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4 pm: The owner and staff members at the Riad were all lovely. In fact, they were so kind that I didn’t even have to worry about getting lost in the market as I was accompanied by a staff member to all the places I wanted to visit until it was time to return to the Riad for dinner. I guess he worried I’d get lost and never find my way back and end up sleeping on the streets somewhere. Which I am 100% certain would be the case if I had been wandering around completely by myself. I am a woman of few talents, but getting lost is definitely my biggest talent. I am always a damsel in distress whenever I travel solo. Always. Although that’s nothing to brag about, really.

Thanks to a male staff member from the Riad guiding me around the city, I felt safer than ever – except from when I almost got run over by scooters, bicycles and tuktuks going full speed through the small streets of the Medina.

First stop was the Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech – a museum of Moroccan photography. I would have never been able to find this museum on my own as it’s quite hidden past the souks of central old town Marrakech, down the narrow alleys of the Medina, somewhere around there, you’ll find this lovely little museum. Most of the photos displayed were in black and white and they all told a story. My favorite photo was one of a woman sitting next to two men, exposing her bare legs and laughing. She looked like a Moroccan Marilyn Monroe. Another photo I liked, was a photo of a group of veiled women. I loved the contrast between them and the leggy vixen.

I wanted to sit down and order a beverage at the roof terrace cafe, but impatience got the best of me as the waiter never came my way to take my order. So I skipped the pause cafe and focused on my photography instead.

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5:30 pm: “Do you want to visit the Ben Youssef Madrasa Koran school?” the lovely man from the Riad asked me. Of course I did. I wanted to see everything. Not trying to be holier than thou or anything but thankfully I was dressed like a conservative gal and not like a careless westerner in short shorts and a tank top like some of the tourists I’d seen in the Medina and even entering the Ben Youssef Madrasa. I love my shorts and tank tops just as much as the next girl, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a time and place for everything.

Founded in the 14th century, this former Islamic college is the most stunning piece of architecture found in the Medina (in my opinion). With a courtyard richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco, consisting entirely of inscriptions and geometric patterns, this historical site is simply too beautiful to miss out on.

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6:00 pm: We spent about one hour visiting the busy market in Djemaa El-Fna. I wasn’t planning on buying anything and I barely even dared to look and no way did I touch anything at all. The vendors at the market seemed to be quite aggravated whenever I said no to whatever they had to offer. One lady tried to push me into getting henna tattoos done – something I should avoid like the plague as I suffer from eczema. I declined politely and she got seriously offended and asked me one more time, purposely ignoring my previous answer. I told her yet again that I wasn’t interested and she rolled her eyes at me and mumbled “oh la la, les touristes”. Lesson one; if you want to sell me stuff, make me laugh. Works like a charm. Just ask the gentleman in Essaouira who almost had me rolling on the floor laughing my butt off – and sold me jewelry when I wasn’t even planning to buy anything.

We finished the tour with a cup of tea at the market square, watching the sunset while acrobats entertained us with their choreographed moves.

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7:15 pm Morocco is amazing in many different ways, one of them being the way disabled people are treated. With respect, dignity and given the opportunity to work a full time job just like everybody else. Just because you depend on your wheelchair to get from A to B doesn’t mean you have to be physically bound to it at all times. Just ask the Moroccan tuktuk-drivers. In Morocco the disabled are given the opportunity to work as tuktuk-chauffeurs – and I think we got the most fast and furious one of them all.  At times I worried we’d run someone over with our full-speed tuktuk. That guy was not stopping for anyone. Buses, cars, women, children, red lights, queues, you name it – ain’t nobody got time for that!

Back at the Riad, I had about thirty minutes to relax in my room before getting ready for my three course meal. I’ll tell you all about my meal in a separate post (on the Riad). I’ll tell you one thing, though. It was delicious. Just like everything else I ate in Morocco.

8:50 am: The Riad had arranged for a guide to come meet me in the morning to take me to the sites I wanted to visit before heading to the airport at 1 pm. A bubbly Moroccan woman with the most beautiful smile and charming accent waited for me by the entrance to the Riad. She introduced herself and promised me we’d have enough time to do both the Jardin Majorelle and the Bahia Palace before returning to the Riad for my manicure appointment at noon. We hailed a cab and left the Medina to visit these spectacular sites.

Luck was on our side as there was absolutely no line to enter the Jardin Majorelle. We took advantage of the situation and the guide had me posing for photos pretty much everywhere in the garden – also for some videos that I’m not even sure I’m gonna share with anyone as I am probably the most awkward person you’d ever see on video. It’s cringe worthy, I tell you. The garden was amazingly beautiful. With the exception of one thing: vandalism done by tourists who think it’s a great idea to carve their initials into the bamboo, cactuses and other plants in the garden. It upset my guide to see it. And me too.

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Jardin Majorelle (or Majorelle Garden) is a botanical garden and the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech. The building was designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s and the garden has been open to the public since 1947. Since 1980 the garden was owned by fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. Yves Saint-Laurent’s ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Garden.

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09:30 am Next stop, Bahia Palace. We hailed a cab and went to the opposite part of Marrakech. Ahead of schedule and again no line to buy tickets. Being an earlybird sure pays off!

The palace was built in the late 19th century and the name “Bahia” is actually Arabic for “brilliance” and “beautiful”. The palace was originally built for the Grand Vizier of the Sultan and was later occupied by his son and the four wives and several concubines.

Today, the spectacular Bahia Palace is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Marrakech.

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10:45 “Would you like to visit a Berber pharmacy and learn about the local products?” my guide asked me and explained to me that she loved the makeup from there as well as the spices, oils and scents. Curious as I am, I obviously said yes. I ended up buying a whole lot of products as well. A really good lipstick (finally one that actually hydrates my lips and doesn’t stain), a stinky cream for my eczema, some sort of remedy for when you have a blocked nose – and five or six other products. Saffron included – so I guess I’ll have to start searching for recipes and actually use it!

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11:30 am We still had about thirty minutes before I had to return to the Riad and I wanted to spend those thirty minutes wisely. My guide suggested that we’d walk to the Saadian Tombs and visit them quickly.

The Saadian Tombs date back from the time of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in the 15th-16th century). They were only first discovered in 1917 and were restored by Beaux-arts service. About sixty members of the Saadi dynasty were buried in the mausoleum. Their servants and soldiers were buried outside, in the garden.

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12:00 am Back in the Riad, just in time for my manicure appointment. My fragile, broken nails looked horrible and needed as much care and attention as possible. The lady who gave me the manicure told me to eat more bananas. In Poland they usually tell me to rub lemon juice on my nails. In Norway they tell me to drink more milk. Guess I should do all of the above to maintain good healthy nails.

1:00 pm The King was in town and traffic was worse than usual as everyone had to take an alternative route since the main one was blocked for security reasons. My taxi driver got me to the airport in time and even gave me a few mandarins to enjoy while waiting for my flight. I ate one and packed two in my handbag. A little souvenir from a country that has the freshest fruit juice I’ve ever had and the juiciest fruit salad I’ve ever tasted.

As I waited for my flight I browsed through the photos I’d taken during my 22 hours in Marrakech and smiled to myself. I might not have seen it all, but I sure am happy with everything I did see!

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