Sensory Delights at the Berber Market in Morocco

Oh the Distances We’ll Travel For A Good Market!

A Berber market in Morocco is a magical thing. 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.

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Berber Market (2)

Marrakesh has its great medina, of course, and there are plenty of sensory delights to be found there; but it has so many tourists that, parts of it at least, have a vague put on feel. Is this the real Morocco, or just a show for visitors? The only way to find out is to get out of the city and explore the less traveled parts. So, on our last day in that beautiful city, we were checking the map and all of our resources for the best route north. We knew we wanted to spend some time in the northern part of the country as well as getting out to the coast. We always like to choose a circular route for our road trips, trying to never backtrack.

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 a one line entry in 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 Fes describing the town as a Berber market center and indicating (in parenthesis) that the weekly souk was held on Tuesdays.

azrou berber market

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 Riad, check out the town, and find a nice dinner.

azrou berber market

About half way there I noticed it was getting harder and harder to shift gears in our little rental car. As I was struggling with the gears around a sweeping turn in some small town, I looked out just in time to see a police car up ahead on the side of the road. A quick check of the speedometer put a large pit in my stomach. We were doing 70 in a 60 zone. I had been driving particularly careful as I had seen many such traffic stops along the road but the distraction of the clutch and grinding gears had gotten the better of me. Sure enough, we were flagged over. I got out of the car with passports, car papers, driver’s license and a friendly smile. We chatted for a little bit, the young uniformed man speaking French and I in English. Not really communicating but getting the point across that we were tourists and Morocco was a beautiful country. But, sadly, we would have to pay a fine. Luckily I had the cash in hand and he wrote a receipt and put us back on our way. I made it to the car and got it into gear before I realized he did not give me back all of the papers. There was one card that came in the car papers that I was sure was pretty important. When I went back to try and explain that he made a mistake (of course not quite in those terms) he smiled and nodded but didn’t seem to understand. It took a little effort but he soon got the idea and found the card tucked up under another piece of paper on his clipboard. Disaster averted, we were now truly back on the road, grinding gears all the way.

azrou berber market

After the lengthy traffic fine stop and several earlier pullouts for sweeping vistas, donkey carts, and picturesque villagers we were behind schedule–by more than a few hours. And to make matters worse, the transmission 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.

azrou berber market

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).

azrou berber market

Our riad 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 wast of time. But the rest of the pedestrian traffic was still walking down the road so we followed along, though not as excitedly as before.

azrou berber market

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 for.

azrou berber market

 

azrou berber market

 

azrou berber market

 

azrou berber market

 

azrou berber market

 

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azrou berber market

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?

Practical Information:

Getting to Azrou is easy by car, bus, or grand taxi; it is a crossroads town and can be reached from any direction. Fes 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. There are a few riads 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.

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

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29 Comments

  1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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. 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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