Travel: Bothered and bewitched in Morocco

Women can brush off the macho hustlers in the souks by applying a few basic rules, writes Elizabeth Heathcote
WE STEPPED out of our taxi into Marrakesh's Medina ready for war. Our bodies were wrapped from head to foot in linen, our bags were clasped to our sides. I already had a tense nervous headache. For weeks I'd been bombarded with worried looks when people heard where my friend Jane and I had booked our summer holiday. "Two women on your own?" they'd say in knowing voices, and shake their heads. "Morocco?"

We had touched down at the entrance to the souk, the labyrinthine tangle of alleyways lined with tiny market shops where the ancient practice of barter is elevated to an art form. This is prime tourist country: the equivalent of hitting London in Leicester Square.

Within seconds, we found a companion by our side. He sped through languages until he found English and pleasantly asked us questions about where we came from, where we were staying, whether this was our first trip to Morocco. Reassured by his friendliness I happily chattered back.

The alleyways closed in. Stall holders called out to us to come and look at their pottery, carpets, carvings, musical instruments and we smiled and walked past. Our companion was still hovering. He told us that we'd get into trouble, that the men around us were thieves. We asked him to please leave us alone. He scowled and, before disappearing into the crowd, delivered a volley of insults at us in Arabic.

Fake guides are the sharp end of hustling, experts who know every trick in the book. Their friendly questions are designed to weigh you up in financial terms. They will manipulate you cunningly, playing on Western guilt and distaste for offending. The practice is illegal and the tough line the Moroccan authorities have taken has had an effect on their numbers. After this first encounter we weren't troubled again.

We wandered deeper into the souk. Stall holders here are reputed to redefine the hard sell: we received a steady stream of invitations to "just look, just look", but we stuck to the rules - don't linger unless you intend to buy, keep smiling and saying no. I bought one item, a pair of embroidered slippers, and the haggle went like a dream. After five minutes of extravagant hand gestures and you-can't-be-serious expressions we closed the deal with smiles all round and the first of a series of invitations to come home for cous cous.

Emerging at the adjacent huge square, the Djemaa el-Fna - a babble of food stalls, snake charmers and storytellers - we watched the sun go down from one of the roof-top cafes that overlook the square, then ate amid the rumpus.

Exhausting? Yes, but Marrakesh also has another face. The next day we explored the Ville Nouveau, where most of the locals live and work, and it was an entirely different experience. Here we drank sweet tea stacked with mint leaves, cheek by jowl with hip young Moroccans who paid us not the slightest attention. No one tried to sell us anything.

Our next stop was Essaouira, a seaside town and working port that gets on with its business. That first night, as we stared out at the Atlantic, a man's head popped up from a boat. "Where are you from?" he shouted. "London," we called back suspiciously, prepared for some attempted sale. "Nice!" he bellowed, and disappeared. We relaxed.

But salesmen will be salesmen. We might have left the hustlers behind but that didn't mean that our pockets weren't there to be emptied. The next day we explored Essaouira's souk, revelling in being able to browse the workshops of the fantastic local wood craftsmen in peace, when Jane's stomach started to gurgle in a worrying fashion and we found ourselves dashing for the hotel. It quickly became clear that she wasn't going to make it so we headed for a travellers' hotel in a side-street instead. A man ran after us. "It's closed," he shouted. "This is an emergency," I told him, and we were quickly hustled inside.

By the time Jane had sorted herself out, our new saviour and I had spent a happy 10 minutes discussing our experience of hustlers so far. We became friends. He told us he would cure her and took us to his little shop stacked with potions around the corner where he made her a tisane and fed her a handful of healing spices until her colour came back. We chatted for an hour or more, about what it was like to be young in Morocco and Britain, and he put her together a bag full of herbs for her malady. We drank more tea and then said we really had to go, and he said the dried weeds, which would have cost less than a fiver in Tesco, would be pounds 25 please.

We were both so stunned that this man who had befriended us should try so shamelessly to rip us off that we found ourselves settling for pounds 13. Another lesson, and hard-learned.

But then again we were starting to get philosophical. You travel outside Europe because you are looking for a sense of cultural difference and it exists in bucketloads in Morocco: this is the flip side of that appeal. Like all countries in the developing world, behind its exotic facade Morocco is crushingly poor and people here prosper on their wits. Recognise this and not only will you find it easier to fend off hustlers but there will be less of a sour taste if you are ripped off. Hassle in Morocco, with the exception of a few places like Tangier, is on a much more gentle scale than other North African countries and you'll find it a minor irritant rather than a problem.

Sadly, though, the process can stop you from meeting Moroccans who are interested in you, not your money. Hustlers are so adept at pretending to be your friend or harmlessly curious that after encountering a few you learn to cut off any approach early.

The answer, perhaps, is to visit a place like Oualidia, a village between Essaouira and Casablanca on the Atlantic coast, built around a lagoon, and our final stop. It's a charming backwater, popular at weekends with staff from the embassies in the Northern cities and a few tourists from further afield.

The first morning I climbed down the steps from our hotel, the Hippocampe, onto the beach and was accosted within seconds by a young man who wanted to know the usuals - my name, my thoughts about Morocco. I brushed him off with what had become a favourite line (that my husband didn't like me talking to other men) and he, horrified to have offended me, moved 20 yards down the beach. But his place was quickly taken by another, and then another, and gradually it dawned on us that these boys, who fill their mornings with football in front of the sea, were genuinely just being friendly.

I abandoned my mythical husband and spent the morning engrossed in gossip with a succession of handsome youths about their lives, their jobs and their intrigues, before retreating back to the hotel for lunch and a siesta. What more could you possibly want from a holiday?



Getting there

Elizabeth Heathcote's trip was organised by the Best of Morocco (tel: 01380 828533), which arranges tailor-made packages throughout the country, including treks on foot or horseback in the High Atlas, or by camel through the desert. This expedition costs from pounds 664 per person, including return flights, transfers, car hire, three nights' B&B accommodation at Les Deux Tours, two at the Villa Marroc and two nights half-board at the Hippocampe.

Royal Air Maroc (tel: 0171-439 4361) flies daily to Casablanca and onward to Marrakesh. Return flights from London Heathrow to Casablanca from pounds 219 and to Marrakesh from pounds 289 including tax. Essaouira is two hours drive from Marrakesh. Oualidia is three hours from Casablanca.

Where to stay

In Marrakesh, Les Deux Tours is an exquisite, luxurious hotel constructed as separate villas by the architect Charles Boccara, a big name in Morocco. It is traditionally designed with amazing attention to detail. Each villa has three, four or five en-suite bedrooms and a private garden with a pool; they can be hired on a room or whole villa basis. It is situated in a palm grove 15-minutes drive from Marrakesh: taxis into town are easy to arrange and relatively cheap. Highly recommended.

In Essaouira, the legendary Villa Maroc, situated in the medina (old town) just by the port, is a beautiful hotel constructed from two 18th- century houses. The rooms are idiosyncratic and very Elle Deco, full of Moroccan detail - choose one on the roof, up with the gulls. Stay for dinner, which is served in a series of hideaway nooks and crannies next to open fires.

In Oualidia, the Hippocampe is a simple but delightful family-run hotel right on the beach. It has a pool and terrace and is well-known locally for its seafood restaurant. Oualidia is the oyster capital of Morocco and popular with twitchers - if you are lucky you'll spot flamingos on the lagoon.