Shopping Secrets of the Media Tour with Urban Adventures

We stood in front of the Café France and waited and watched and wondered if we correctly read the instructions on the email from Urban Adventures. Is there another Café France in Marrakech? Did I miss one small line that said the Shopping Secrets of the Medina tour was to meet across from the café? Next to the café? At an unnamed café next to the café? Anything is possible in Morocco, so we found a tiny slice of shade that became even smaller with the passing minutes and watched the passing people.

 One of the many lamp shops in the medina

One of the many lamp shops in the medina

While waiting we were approached no less than 7 times by people selling watches, sunglasses, phones, cigarettes by the pack or individually. There was also an athletic showman who claps to draw your attention before running hard to build up speed before flipping and jumping and twisting in the air as if for a gold medal. The market before us was searing and crowded and I’m not too sure how he didn’t land on anybody or hurt himself on the dismount. I don’t know how anybody could be bored in Marrakech and we contemplated just sitting at the café instead of going on the Urban Adventures tour that sponsored this blog post. 

We started talking to two other people who seemed to be waiting and sure enough, they were on our tour as well. They were from Australia and had been gifted the tour by their thoughtful daughter!

Soon enough we found our guide and began to walk into the medina where he abruptly stopped under an awning and started to ask us what we wanted to see. The market is vast he explained and wanted to tailor the experience to our needs. While the Australian couple described wanting a pashmina I thought: I want to see the secrets of the medina! I don’t want to go on a shopping excursion with two complete strangers who then in turn would wait while we tried on caftans, bored out of their minds. I don’t even like shopping with people I really like!

But Jill had the fortune to answer for us by saying she wanted to learn more about the spices and off we went to find a pashmina and spices.

 A special mix of herbs and spices from the medina.

A special mix of herbs and spices from the medina.

Now if you’ve never been to Morocco, you should know that that it’s very touristic, and everybody tries to sell you their merchandise. Shopkeepers are very adept at drawing you into their shop to show you something or to give you some tea and to tell you stories. One of the “cultural” tours we took on the way to the Sahara consisted of a stop to see how argan oil is made before being ushered into a shop where you can buy loads of products. Here is how argan oil is made: On command when pointed to, a woman cracks the argan nut and separates it from the husk. Another woman slowly grinds the nut to produce a paste. This is exactly what we saw again at the spice shop before sitting down to be shown about a dozen herbs and tea infusions. Of course you aren’t obliged to purchase anything, but you know the true intent – you are a money farm and the shopkeeper is the harvester.

Our guide then dropped us off at merchant after merchant in the same way a parent delivers a child to school only to magically appear when we were through being shown the merchandise. At this point he was little more than a human map leading us through the market to prescribed vendors. There were no secrets exchanged and no knowledge imparted by either him or the vendors themselves.

We were taken to the rooftop of a leather merchant to see two men cutting and stitching in a sweltering room. One was making a piece for a handbag, the other an unlicensed YSL soccer ball. We were taken to a caftan shop where Jill was lucky enough to purchase not one but two custom tailored items while the other people on our tour waited outside patiently.

 A common site in the medina: rows of shoes

A common site in the medina: rows of shoes

But the really interesting part of the tour was walking between merchants. At one point early on the medina was unearthly quiet and cool. There were no people on motorbikes, no donkeys, no vendors. Just a small alley between two sections of the market was unusually quiet and cool and served as balm to our over fed senses.

The other moment that stood out was between the leather shop and the lamp shop where we walked through a street filled with the sounds of leather being gently pounded into shape by wooden mallets. I wish I had gotten an audio recording of it but I looked up and nobody in my group was around and I feared getting lost. This truly did seem like a secret of the Medina. It was as if the curtain had been pulled back to reveal the workshop where all these things are made by hand by real people. And just like that the moment was gone and we were in another shop.

 The natural pigments used to dye pashmina

The natural pigments used to dye pashmina

We’ve taken several tours with Urban Adventures and all of them have been great. I would highly recommend several of them around the world, but this one just wasn’t for us. But if you want to shop the medina and are intimidated by the hawkish nature of the local vendors, this tour would definitely help you get the items you want. Just be prepared to go shopping with strangers.