On The Road: Slippers, saffron, and a game of hide and souk in Marrakech

 

It had all started so well. An early encounter with a babouche salesman resulted in a 50 per cent discount on his original price. These typical Moroccan slippers were made from the finest camel hide, he explained, and had taken his brother-in-law's family weeks to make.

Buoyed by my bargain purchase, and oblivious to the slipper seller's smile of satisfaction, I ploughed on deeper into the souk in search of a camel-skin satchel.

An hour later, hopelessly disorientated and in desperate need of caffeine, I made my fatal mistake. My wife had asked me to bring her back some dyes and, out of the corner of my eye, I glanced them: vivid hues of indigo, cochineal, terracotta, sunflower yellow, it was like a Dulux paint chart redesigned by a group of desensitised toddlers.

I caught the salesman's eye and then realised, too late, that this was only a fraction of what was on offer: there were slippers (inevitably), wooden boxes, mirrors, teapots, T-shirts with various slogans (one of which wasn't "I was ripped off in the souk"), postcards, prints, wooden camels of all sizes, cow hides, leather bags, pouffes, tables and chairs.

The salesman approached, smiling, in the way that an evil villain smiles at a vulnerable child in a Walt Disney movie. He was probably rubbing his hands. "These are finest dyes. Come and have a seat while I prepare them for you. Come and have cup of mint tea." I followed him into the shop, like a member of the audience at a Paul McKenna show.

I finally emerged, blinking in the bright sunlight, confused, laden with stuff I didn't want or need and a lot poorer. "I'll never use that much saffron," I thought, as I peered into one of the many carrier bags at a cricket-ball sized lump of what looked like horse manure stained with red wine. It still lurks at the back of the spice cupboard, mocking me every time I open the door.

Footprint's 'Marrakech & High Atlas' is available now (£13.99). The new 'Morocco Handbook' is available in May (£15.99).

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