Infused with generations of artisan skill, the Fez Medina is a pulsing labyrinth of colour and culture. With more than 9,500 narrow corridors curiously arranged into dedicated souqs, this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the largest living Islamic medieval cities in the world and offers more than enough to occupy a visit to Fez.
Within minutes of passing the ornate ‘Blue Gate’, I saw a percussion parade, a self-guided donkey, and an alley of woven rugs reminiscent of my childhood Aladdin dreams. Then, it was into the produce market, where exotic fruits fermented in the sun and kofta balls smoked and sizzled in little kitchen nooks.
Weaving deeper through stone archways and crumbling alleys brought me to the claustrophobic ting of hammers against copper and brass pots. Underfoot I found the blue-black stream trickling from the cloth-dying souq around the bend. As I ducked through a crowded tunnel, dodging the carts and barrows, I was faced by a hall of golden braid waiting to adorn the edges of kaftans, shoes, bags and cushions.
Three days of medina adventures left me tired but alive with wonder. I found unexpected delights every step of the way and was introduced to a world seemingly frozen in time. Starting early to avoid the mid afternoon swelter, I would duck and weave, barter and browse, chug icy water by the litre and take refuge in cafes to quickly take notes (as if it were an alternate reality that would suddenly disappear in a blink).
While I loved the joyous intensity of the medina, there were some confronting bits as well. It was hard to see chickens bound by ankle cuffs and smell the pungent rot of trotters hanging over putrid barrels of freshly scraped flesh. I admit I squealed when I saw a cat catch a mouse, which continued to screech and writhe amongst teeth. I was confused and moved as I watched a mad lady removed her shirt in an effort to cool down and then cry, bare breasted, through the the medina as women turned their heads and men rushed to her aid. As always, the sight of mothers begging with limp children in their arms broke my heart and stirred angry feelings about the cruel ways of the world, and the nagging presence of determined ‘guides’ tested my patience and calm.
Mixed into the culture shock and heat were moments of elation as I watched men rolling backgammon dice, children skip through the chaos and artisans proudly perfecting a piece of work.
Tips for your own Fez Medina adventures:
To help orientate, start near the ‘blue gate’, where tourist-targeting restaurants line the narrow alleys, and follow either the ‘high road’ Tala’a Kbir or the ‘low road’ Tala’a Sghira, which run a steady length of the Medina.
Stay on the edges of the medina so you can duck in and out. Being close to the action also means being close to a quiet room of your own when your sense are a little overwhelmed. For a more authentic Moroccan experience, book a riad and enjoy the cool internal courtyard, colourfully mosaic bathroom and lavishly decorated rooms that are typical of riads.
For a welcomed reprieve from the heat, clamour and stench of the Medina, seek Cafe Clock. While filled with ex-pats and tourists, this hidden retreat in a traditional riad building and serves fresh, quality Moroccan flavours, meaning you are not entirely copping out on the Moroccan experience. They serve a mean camel burger and wonderful iced coffee to pep you up for an afternoon session in the Medina.
It helps to know values before you start to barter. On the edges of the medina there are stalls announcing fixed prices, which you can use to guide your starting points. At the time we where there, it was easy to equate 10 Dirhams with 1 Euro, which could buy three litres of cold water or three pairs of earrings, a big scarf, or one sixth of a pair of leather flat shoes… or if you’re persistent, one tenth of a beautiful big leather bag.