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Travel: Maneuvering Morocco’s mountain market

Travel columnist Chris McBeath shares his experiences maneuving Morocco's mountain landscapes.

We were high in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, surrounded by Berbers and beautiful, but inhospitable country.

“Take off your jewelry, leave your wallet with the driver, and don’t leave my side.”

His instructions were more like orders and for one uneasy moment, I wondered if this was how neophytes were seconded into white slavery.

But I really wanted to explore this extraordinary market and if this was the price, so be it.

After all, my escorts were “official guides” and with that status, my safety as a tourist was more than their own lives were worth.

A two-hour drive from Marrakech, the tiny market village of Asni is barely visible on the map yet come Saturday, it is one of the busiest Berber souks (markets) you will find.

While these markets are generally safe, foreigners still represent easy pickings to many stall-keepers and traders.

At one time, the hassling of tourists had become such a problem that by royal command, undercover “tourist police” were installed to mingle with the crowds and haul away overly zealous hawkers.  

Consequently, souvenir shopping today is fairly hassle free, save for the odd bartering session, and tourism is relatively safe.

Here in the mountains, however, such royal edicts are less easily enforced so it was with common-sense wisdom that I secured an escort.
The market was a mass of humanity jostling for space to set up make-shift stalls, box displays, and ground covers.

Merchants showcased everything from turnips to false teeth, and as I looked at the rather unappetizing selection of dentures atop a wooden crate, those in need seemed happy to slip a pair into their mouth, trying them out rather like you do with a new pair of shoes.

As with many traditional markets, fresh meat and produce are the order of the day and soon, we were walking down a path lined with the just-skinned heads of sheep as if on some kind of satanic trail.

It led to the open-air abattoir where Berbers were feverishly haggling over the plumpness of chickens, entrails and very fresh lamb. This market is not for the squeamish.

In another area lay baskets of dried fruits, nuts and spices, their aromas suddenly sweetening the air in stark contrast from where we had just been.

A series of fold-away barber salons were doing a brisk trade, herbalists administered their doctrines to various parts of a patient’s anatomy, and the baker, tucked in a cavernous ditch nearby, was busy piling loaves of unleavened bread into an earth-oven.

Each unbaked loaf had been carried to him from mountain homesteads wrapped in a colourful cloth into which he returned the baked bread.

This cloth identified which of the one thousand loaves belonged to whom.

For many mountain folk, getting their goods to market is almost a day’s hike, clambering beside lush valleys and through the crumbly terra cotta mountains that resemble mille-feuilles of loose strata.

With them come hundreds of mules, each piled high with loads so heavy, they leave a legacy of sway backs, sores and split hooves.

Once at market, these forlorn-looking creatures are herded into a corral where they were fed, watered and shod.

On-the-spot blacksmiths tend the line while first aid “mechanics” wrap grubby cloths around bleeding hooves so the animal can make the return trek home.

As the procession of marketers started to leave, it was time for the drive back to Marrakech.

Of all my travels in Morocco, this had been among the most authentic.

As a working market, Asni offers an insight into a way of life that seems frozen in time; only today the merchandise includes old Nike running shoes alongside kitchen utensils carved out
of bone.

Although take-home souvenirs were virtually nonexistent here, Asni offers something more — a travel experience that stirs curiosity and captures the imagination for years to come.

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