“Wow! Wait, um…where is…?” I stammered, dazzled and bewildered. The map I clutched bore no relation to the tangle of lanes before me. I had crossed through Bab Bou Jeloud, a fantastic arabesque gateway, and entered Fes el-Bali – the ancient medina of Fez. I came seeking an authentic, exotic world…and boy, had I found it.
Exploring the medina of Fez
Fez’s medina holds no tourism office supplying maps or glossy brochures and few streets are marked. So with daylight and my self-reliance fading, I reluctantly accepted a young man’s offer to guide me to my riad (guesthouse). After a quick left, we plunged into a chaotic bazaar packed with chickens and pigeons for sale, pyramids of bright, fragrant spices, wilting vegetables, counters laden with bleeding meat sprinkled with flies, and decapitated camel heads that hung from hooks. Bulging backpack in tow, I dodged between shoppers clad in burkas, djalabas (long hooded robes), tattered sweaters and T-shirts and jeans. After innumerable twists and turns, we arrived at my sanctuary: Riad fes Baraka. With its cool tile courtyard, reflecting pool, and glowing lanterns, it was an oasis.
The next morning, I set out to take on the labyrinth. Fez was founded at the dawn of the 9th century in the base of an earthen bowl. As the city grew it crept up the sides, its streets twisting like roots in every direction. These narrow, curvaceous lanes are encased in high, bare walls making it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Even the medina’s two main arteries, Tala’a Kebira and Tala’a Seghira, meander and change names several times before they converge. Following them, I descended into the city’s dense, archaic heart.
Fez is a holy city; its epicenter is the ancient Kairaouine Mosque (spiritual heart of Morocco), the adjacent university (purported to be the world’s oldest), and Zawiya Moulay Idriss II (a shire to the city’s founder). While entrance to these hallowed sites is forbidden to non-Muslims, merely peering into their entrances is awe-inspiring. There are two religious sites open to everyone, Medersa el-Attarine and Medersa Bou Inania, a 14th-century seminary and mosque adorned with intricate zellij-tile patterns, plaster filigree, and delicate cedar latticework. Visit early mornings or late afternoons to avoid packs of tourists and peacefully contemplate its splendor.
Huddled around the three holy sites are the souks. These medieval markets are clustered by craft and include the carpets, carpenters, coppersmiths, ceramics, clothing, spice, and leather souks. Wandering amongst the warren of stalls and workshops, many resembling an ample closet with wooden doors, I observed saddles being crafted, thread being spun, cedar doors carved, and metal pounded into vessels.
Noxious fumes confirmed I was approaching the ancient tanneries, which produce the soft, fine leather for which Fez is renowned. Here skins are cured and dyed in clay vats filled with solutions made of putrid ingredients, including pigeon poop and cow urine. Most tourists overlook this spectacle from the balconies of Berber workshops (translation: carpet shop), where the price of admission is very determined sales pitch. But I hired a local guide, who took me knee-deep amongst the vats. Despite the bouquet of fresh mint clutched tightly to my nose, the acrid fumes burned my nostrils and caused me to wretch. Still, it was fascinating to be amongst these craftsmen, working as they have for more than a millennium.
By the end of my first day, I felt culture-shocked and harassed by the legion of faux “guides” who seemed to spring up everywhere. On the second day, the weather was glum and wet, and I was lead into the same carpet shop by two separate “guides” (like the proverbial fly in a web). However, the third day I began to decipher this Gordian’s knot. I recognized subtle landmarks, and became more assured interacting with the “guides” who, for a nominal tip, helped me find my destination or back to familiar ground.
I enjoyed observing Fassi life; old peddlers of dried herbs or live snails, children carry discs of dough to the neighborhood communal oven, the shouts of “Balak!” (Look out!) as a mule laden with propane tanks wended up a narrow lane, and the prayer services that often spilled out of crowded mosques into courtyards.
When it was time to head for Marrakesh, I was sorry to leave this perplexing yet spectacular world. But I vowed to return and unravel more layers of this fascinating mystery.
Getting there: Fez can be reached by bus, train or air (including budget direct European connections via Ryaniar). The airport is 14 km from the medina, and while there is a local bus, it will take you to the Ville Nouvelle and require another bus or taxi to the media. A taxi from the airport to the gates of the medina (vehicles cannot enter) is approx. 150 dhm ($18.80). Make sure to confirm the fare before getting in.
Accommodations: If you hope to stay in the medina, I highly recommend booking a riad online in advance. Check Fez Riads or Trip Advisor for reservations. Per Moroccan custom, most riads have austere facades with little signage. Schlepping luggage through the congested medina, searching for a reasonable vacancy could be a slow torture.
Food: There are plenty of dining options in the medina, from hole-in-the-wall stalls to expensive tourist palaces, serving meals in lavish decor with a side of cultural kitsch. Many restaurants employ barkers bearing menus in English, and there are several small inexpensive places just inside Bab Bou Jeloud that are a good value. Café Clock has a trendy vide, great roof terrace, and juicy Camel burger. Alcohol is only available from some riads and hotels (at their discretion).
Shopping: Remarkable handicrafts are sold throughout Fez, and haggling is customary. In fact, you’ll be considered foolish to accept the first price quoted. However, if you spot something you truly want in the souks, buy it. Chances of finding your way back to that stall are slim.