Experiencing the overwhelming medina of Fez

One of the most fascinating thing to explore when going to Morocco are the medinas of each towns. It is also one of the most intimidating experiences I must say. And, of course, because of this, it was one of the experiences I was so much looking forward to live.

“Now”, started our guide, a local woman who was born in the medina of Fez, before stepping into the maze we were about to discover, “keep your belongings very close to you, if you have backpacks put them on your front and if you hear balak! step out of the way. that will be a mule’s driver approaching with a an animal carrying a heavy load”

I took her advice very seriously. It was indeed to be taken seriously and I’m usually the kind of person who gets distracted easily and forgets about the world surrounding me, being a easy target. I was prepared though. My backpack was anti-theft, never took my phone out, my camera was hanging on my neck, and I kept it close to my chest, holding it with both hands. I was about to experience a real moroccan medina and didn’t want to get that experience spoiled by some silly tourist mistake.

So we entered. And boy, I was overwhelmed and claustrophobic. We started to go through these very narrow streets, in between houses. It looked like noone really lived there – often you can’t really find the doors, and it seems there’s no windows. Plus, it all looks the same – there seems to be customary not to exhibit your possessions to the outside. The houses are also opened to the sky – rooftops are a big thing in Morocco.

Before going on this trip, I read about how aggressive are the salesmen in these parts of town, how they’ll compel you to buy, always with higher prices, while at the same time we’d have to be careful so no one would trick us either to pay a lot more for something than what was worth or to not be pickpocketed in the middle of those busy and crowded alleys. While a lot of that is definitely true – do keep your belongings close to you at all times and don’t showcase your valuables around – I didn’t find the shop owners aggressive at all. While I was passing by, no one was calling me to buy things or trying to force me into it – some markets back in Portugal are actually a lot more worse than what I experienced in Morocco in that sense.

And then the real thing started. When we entered in the market. I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even remember taking pictures. It was a true life experience – the smells, the sounds, the people, the colours. My senses were flooded with so much information. At some point, I just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get lost, losing sight of our guide. It’s hard to explain in words – once you step into the medina you’re in a completely different world, I would say even parallel. At some point I started to hear “no photo, no photo” – and I was actually happy I wasn’t taking any photos at that time. I couldn’t if I wanted to have the slightest feeling of what a medina actually is – something so common for the locals, where they find everything to satisfy their basic needs, keeping them from stepping into the modern world.

Our guide told us how the woman go shopping everyday for groceries. Monthly or weekly shopping is a concept that really doesn’t exist there – the women of the house buy whatever they need to cook for the day. It was hard to imagine myself buying the raw meat or fish I could see exposed to all elements, but I assume these people have developed a strong immune system.

It is true that negotiating prices is something not only you must do, but you’re expected to. That is part of the culture – and I had a feeling they truly enjoy it! The locals are the nicest people I have encountered – I never experienced any situation of harassment that would leave me uncomfortable but I also never had anyone being rude to me. Anywhere – not at the hotels, restaurants or shops – I only found friendliness, warmth and always a dad-like sense of humor.

My system wasn’t very strong when we visited the famous tanneries of Fez. The smell was strong – and I was feeling a bit light headed after a while. But it is definitely worth it. Once more, I was amazed. These people work with the same methods since medieval times – the skins of different animals, from cows, sheeps to goats and camels are first soaked in a series of white liquids which can include pigeon feces and cow urine. This is so the skins are cleaned and softened. After that, they move to the colouring station – which makes the view really amazing are the numerous vessels filled with different dyes. Henna for orange, saffron for red, indigo for blue. All natural colourants.

Finally these are sold to the craftsmen who turn them into clothing, bags, backpacks, shoes, furnishings… you name it. This is indeed a luxury good.

Thank goodness, it was time for lunch. So, being in a group, our guides selected a restaurant for us. There we went again, back to the maze-like streets of the medina, until we got to this building which didn’t look like anything special from the outside. But well, don’t get misled with appearances. It was our restaurant – which name I don’t really know – beautiful, like a riad, on the inside, where we had some delicious moroccan starters and I chose the chicken and lemon tagine.

Within the medina there’s also the oldest university I mentioned in this post (founded by a woman) including the second oldest mosque in Morocco. You can’t visit unless you’re a muslim, so I could only have a quick peek from the outside. Yes, it looks pretty. Just not for our eyes.

But if you do really want to see pretty things, you can also visit the Mederssa El Bouanania – a muslim theological college, for advanced study of the Quran. Feast your eyes in the details of the tiles and woodwork.

Ugh this ended up being a much longer post than I expected, which only shows how much there is for you to experience, to see, to live in Fez. Don’t skip this city if you ever have a chance!

Love, Nic

Come fly with me: @nic.in7

3 thoughts on “Experiencing the overwhelming medina of Fez

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