Sensory Delights at the Berber Market in Morocco

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One of the things we wanted to do while traveling through Morocco is visit a local market. We fell in love with them in Turkey, and we knew that we could find some good produce, maybe some souvenirs, but more than anything it would be a glimpse into the lives of the locals. We’d just begun on our road trip and had to pick a direction. The choice was to head out to the coast and drive north along the water and then south through the interior or the other way around. They both seemed like similar sides of the same coin with no real reason to choose one way over the other. Until we came across one line of a three paragraph entry in the Lonely Planet Morocco guidebook. There was a tiny listing for a small village named Azrou along the old highway from Marrakesh to Fez describing the town as a Berber market center and indicating (in parenthesis) that the weekly souk was held on Tuesdays.  We were sold and on our way.

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If you’ve been to farmers’ markets or other weekly markets you might have some idea of what to expect; stands selling fruits and vegetables–the ripest offerings of the season. You wouldn’t be completely wrong. To be sure, there are always heaps of produce for sale, but the Berbers take it 100 steps further. On a given date of the week or month a flat barren expanse of open land is transformed from a rocky, dusty field into a sprawling open air community of sellers, buyers, gossipers, diners, friendly banter, cut-throat negotiating, bleating goats, braying donkeys, smoking grills, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that will have your mind reeling. Of course, driving north out of Marrakesh at the start of our two week driving trip through Morocco we didn’t know any of this.

Driving to Azrou

As it was Sunday night we had our solution. We left first thing in the morning taking the smaller national road through the interior and up to Azrou where we would spend the night and be up bright and early for the Berber market on Tuesday. The drive itself was calculated as a five and half hour drive through farming villages, small towns, and winding mountain roads. We knew there was no way we’d be able to do the drive in such a short amount of time. We are notorious for stopping for photos, side-tracking up or down dirt roads, and succumbing to other temptations along the way. However, leaving at 8:00 A.M. in the morning should get us into Azrou by 3:00 P.M. at the latest. More than enough time to find our hotel, check out the town, and find a nice dinner.

Additional Reading:
Magical Marrakesh
Intriguing Food Stalls of Jemaa el Fna, Marrakesh
The Gorgeous City of El Jadida
Exploring the Souk and Tanneries of Fez
Visiting Volubilis – A UNESCO World Heritage Site
What to See in One Day in Essaouira
The Shining Gem of the High Atlas Mountains – Ben Aithaddou
Sunset on Morocco
Guide to Shopping in Morocco

We didn’t quite make our 3:00 ETA, in fact we were behind schedule by more than a few hours, due to several earlier pullouts for sweeping vistas, donkey carts, and picturesque villagers. And to make matters worse, the transmission on the car was really acting up. Down shifting was nearly impossible and when I came to a stop and pushed in the clutch the little car would keep on going, as if the gears weren’t completely disengaging. I had to hold down the brake a little to keep the vehicle stopped at all! As the sun went down in my rear view mirror I had a sinking feeling. This was going to be a beautiful sunset and of course the photographers would want to stop. I had to put my foot down firmly on the brake and the photographers, however, as they weren’t getting more than one pull off for sunset shots.

Arriving in Azrou at Night

The sun was down and it was pitch black by the time we rolled into Azrou. We had a vague idea of the riad’s location in the center but driving through the steep and narrow roads was a balancing act of clutch, brake, and gas pedals. We had to ask directions once or twice but we were soon parked and into hour hotel. As I was getting out of the driver’s seat I reached down out of frustration and yanked on the clutch pedal. To my surprise, it pulled out about 9 inches, back to its original position. I hadn’t noticed but it had been sinking into the floor slowly throughout the day. It must have been missing some spring assembly or some other little mechanical doo-dad (I believe that is the official term).

Our hotel was comfortable enough and we had one of the better tangine dinners of the trip before settling in for a restful sleep. Then, with roosters crowing in the distance, we were up at dawn, excitedly eating our breakfast, and out the door in search of the souk. Our host told us to just go out to the main road and walk a little way straight down the road. It was easy enough to find the road and there was a growing stream of people walking with us so we knew we were heading in the right direction. As we got to the first vendors along the road displaying their wares, we were a little worried.

If we had been looking for electrical cables and plugs, sockets, or switches, we were definitely in the right place. Although, all of the things spread out on the patched and torn blanket looked like they had been pulled or cut out of a demolished building. The next blanket held an array of plumbing supplies, then came painting tools, an assortment of brushes and brooms, and even more junk. All of it, as before, straight from dump sights or demolition zones. We were beginning to think this was going to be a complete waste of time. But the rest of the pedestrian traffic was still walking down the road so we followed along, though not quite as excitedly as before.

To the Berber Market We Go

After about two kilometers of walking along these not so appealing market offerings we finally came across a seething mass of taxis, buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, donkey carts, and every other type of transportation imaginable. Ah ha! The souk! We had made it! The market was set up within the confines of a walled in four or five acre field. Textiles and carpets were tucked up into one corner and livestock (sheep, mules, goats, etc.) were on the opposite end of the sprawling field. The rest of the meadow was jam packed full of fruits, vegetables, grains, baskets, (new) tools, husbandry supplies, saddles, restaurant tents, tea tents, barber tents (Berber barbers!), and everything else you could imagine and several things you couldn’t! The Berber market was much, much more than we could have hoped.

Basically it’s all on a dirt patch of ground, uneven ground at that. The whole time we picked our way over dirt clods, through a few puddles, around vendors and customers, and all the while marveling at the offerings. It wasn’t long after we arrived that this heavenly smell wafted towards us, so of course we followed it. This young man was grilling sausages and they were selling out fast. We asked what they were and found out they were lamb merguez sausages, yum. We ordered only two and paid less then 50 cents for them. We quickly regretted not getting a couple more by the time we were finished wandering. 

After our snack, we meandered over through the produce. It all looked inviting, but all we could really buy were some oranges. We had no intention of cooking anytime soon. Then we made it over to the foul, eggs, and grain area. There were large vendors with full trucks full of chickens, turkeys, even a few geese, but there were also smaller vendors, maybe not even full time vendors, just out to sell off their prized chicken and a couple dozen eggs before doing a little shopping and going home, making money to spend money. In some cultures, this is the way it’s been for centuries, and I guess the good news is, if the chicken doesn’t sell it would be dinner.

All at once, Corinne and I looked at each other and smiled. Carpets. We love buying carpets, kilims, throw rugs. You could tell right away that these carpets were not of the same quality as we were used to in Turkey, but we’re addicted and we knew we’d walk out of there with at least one. We found a bright red, with embroidered patterns that called to us, so we negotiated a really good price, actually it was downright cheap. It cost us about $35 US…and we found out why not long after we returned home. We laid it on our wooden floor, and it leaked red dye. Yuck. 

After our purchase, we just walked around a little more. We were kind of on the outskirts of the market. There were a bunch of white canvas tents set up. We had to take a look. They were all barbers. I guess people don’t like to get their hair cut in public, so the barbers bring along tents to keep them private. We walked through the 30 or so tents, but it was all the same, and we got a feeling we really shouldn’t watch. It was the only thing that was private on the whole field.

The barbers were a surprise, but not as much as our next discovery. We followed the crowd, down a small incline and inside an enclosure. It got dustier and dustier as we went. Before we got to the enclosure we had to walk through a couple lines of trucks, all filled with sheep and cows and other mammals. We’d found the livestock market. The vendors took groups of their animals into the pen, all tied together so they wouldn’t lose track of them. Then a buy would come, inspect the livestock and ask a price. The bargaining would commence, and not long after a sale was made. It was fascinating watching the seller untangle the one or two animals that were sold. 

We walked up to a man selling a donkey. He wanted the equivalent of $80 for it. He said he’s sold lots of donkeys in his lifetime, but that one was sweet, I would like it. I have to admit, it did look sweet. I wondered if I could get it home on the plane in my carry on. But alas, we said goodbye and started to head out. The livestock market was a pretty good ending to this foray into a truly cultural experience.

As we were walking back into town with our parcels of carpets and bags of tangerines, I couldn’t help but spend some time looking through the spread out collection of car parts on one of the more greasy looking blankets along the road. Did this collection of seemingly useless junk hold the missing part from my clutch pedal?

How to Get to Azrou

Getting to Azrou is easy by car, bus, or grand taxi; it is a crossroads town and can be reached from any direction. Fez is the nearest city but Azrou also makes a nice stop over from further away even if you won’t be going to the Tuesday market.

Where to Stay in Azrou

There are a few hotels in town as well as one or two small hotels all clustered around the center of the village. There aren’t many tourists here but the basic needs are more than met. We stayed at the Hotel School Ersat Azrou. It was clean but pretty basic, but it was fine for the night.

Have you been to Morocco?  A Berber market?  Need a haircut?

29 thoughts on “Sensory Delights at the Berber Market in Morocco

  1. rhonda albom says:

    Love your photos. Morocco is one of my favorite places that we have visited. We went to a similar market in a different small town. This photos here are like memories. Thanks.

  2. Shobha says:

    So cool! I love the photos of the Berber market with all the random things spread out on the blankets. It was pretty brave of you to do the drive but so worth it in the end.

    • Jim Vail says:

      Hi Elaine, it did go much better. After finding the clutch pedal pushed all the way in the night we arrived in Azrou, I found that I could easily pull it back out while I was driving by hooking my foot behind the pedal and pulling it out. A little strange, but it worked and we never had any other car problems!

  3. Jacqueline says:

    So, the sheep on the truck? That actually made me do a double take. I’ve seen some very interesting methods of transportation here in Taiwan, but nothing quite like that yet.

    • Jim Vail says:

      Hi Jacqueline, now imagine seeing these trucks coming down the road toward you (taking up most of the road by the way)! The first time we saw one we had no idea what it was until it came right by us. After that we started noticing these “double deckers” all over the country.

  4. Anda says:

    What a colorful place, Corinne! Judging by what I see in these pictures, this place must have changed very little in the last 1000 years. You were brave to drive on those roads. I love that picture with the young mother dressed in a traditional gown and checking her iPhone.

    • Jim Vail says:

      Hi Anda, in many ways you’re right. Much of the country follows traditions and methods that were established long ago and somehow they have managed to keep that even with the modern technology available.

    • Corinne Vail says:

      Anda, I’m fascinated that the old is always clashing with the new! The Berber market was mostly the way it’s been for centuries, but they also sold electronics. We loved every minute of it!

  5. budget jan says:

    Hi Jim and Corinne, These photographs really hit the spot. I feel like I was there, or if I’m honest I WANT to be there. I was on a tour in Morocco, just ourselves and one other American guy in a Prado. As we went through a berber town that obviously had a market on and I asked to stop the driver said no there is no market on and kept on driving. I figured out later, that he didn’t want to stop because he was Arab and not Berber!! I was quite frustrated about it at the time and still am.

    • Jim Vail says:

      Hi Jan, I’m glad the photographs were able to bring you back to your trip. We’ve had similar experiences with guides as well; it’s always interesting how the different subcultures within a country interact and what they want visitors to see is often focused on their own perceptions.

      • budget jan says:

        I am interested that you have experienced it as well. What really annoyed me was that the other Prado 4WD in our group had a Berber driver and they went to the market and were even taken to the driver’s home to meet his family and have a meal, while we were taken to a shop!

  6. Bel says:

    Hi, we have just arrived in Meknes and hoping to go to the Berber market tomorrow, but the owner of the riad we are staying at says he doesn’t know if it is on or not! We also asked another local, but they also said they don’t know. Perhaps because they are not Berber? With Ramadan starting tomorrow we are a bit worried that it won’t be on but people are also saying all souks stay open during Ramadan so…hoping we run into some luck! Thanks for the post 🙂

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