“Hello madam,” the young boy said, approaching with a large grin on his face that also lit up his almond-shaped eyes.
“Hello,” I said warily and braced myself for his attempt to wrangle some money from me.
“What hostel are you going to? Dar El Yasmine? It is close by, I can show you.”
I attempted a knowing smile and told him I would be fine on my own.
“That’s OK,” he said. “It’s not for money, I don’t like money. It is for practising my English.”
And he proceeded to bounce ahead of me, wending his way expertly through the dense crowds of women, children and men, checking behind him occasionally to make sure I was still there, but otherwise not uttering a word.
Hostels in Morocco’s medinas – labyrinthine warrens crammed with people, wares, donkeys, cats, chickens, carts, and the occasional brave motorcyclist – are renowned for being difficult to find, even in the smallest of towns such as beautiful Chefchaouen. Emailed instructions included the most elaborate details:
Enter through the main gate, turn left immediately, then right after the tea house with the red sign. Continue 80 metres, then take the first left, go through the limestone arch, turn right after the blue fountain and the hostel is on your left opposite the carpet shop.
… Or something in that vein. They all insinuate: Good Luck.
Fez’s medina is said to be the world’s largest urban area of pedestrianised streets with almost 10,000 passageways, big and small, tunnelled and open-air. It’s also Morocco’s oldest, making it an organic maze of dead ends and tight squeezes. Throw in the chaotic jumble of pedestrians – human, animal and vehicular – and it’s an overwhelming stroll. Add on top of that a heavy backpack and sensation overload and you can imagine the kid guide makes a lot of money off confused tourists.
I had a downloaded Google map of my location and, with the GPS on, was able to track my progress easily to the hostel. But the boy wouldn’t take no for an answer. He darted up an inconspicuous alleyway with me close on his heels, and halted in front of a wooden door. He seized the brass knocker, gave it a hearty thump, wished me a good day and disappeared.
“Welcome to Fez!” the hostel owner cried as he opened the door to my bewildered look.
Braving Fez’s medina
Fez’s medina – officially called Fes El Bali – didn’t look all that welcoming from the outside. Fes El Bali is the oldest part of Fez (built between 789 and 808 AD) and is surrounded by an imposing mud brick wall with a few medieval-looking gateways into the medina, like this one:
And when you go down the rabbit hole, you can feel every century of the medina’s existence. Its cracked and crumbling mud brick walls exude antiquity. But so do the simple street vendors selling cactus fruit and grubby vegetables from tattered tarpauline stalls. Or the older gentlemen in their kaftans and skull caps, and sporting nobbly canes, staggering through the streets as if they had all the time in the world – and they probably do.
But this is still a city – in fact, Fez was Morocco’s capital until just 1925 – and the pace is fast.
Men steering metal carts barrel through the streets, taking little heed of what’s ahead. They shout in Arabic to clear the way ahead for them. Heavily-laden donkeys or donkey trains take equal precedence, forcing you to squeeze against the dusty walls to enable their passage.
The medina offers a cacophony of sounds amplified by the narrow spaces. There are the haunting calls to prayer, the hammering of metal on metal, the clanging of carvers etching Islamic verse into marble stones, the clip-clop of donkey hooves, the pathetic mewing of the city’s multitude of stray cats, the brumming of motorbike engines. There are the calls of multilingual vendors: “Hello madam! Hola! Bonjour! I can help you? Solo para ver? Just looking? Salaam!”
Then there are the fumes: the pungent stench from the famous tanneries where leather hides are softened with pidgeon poo and the animalistic stink of the butcher’s stalls where freshly-skinned carcasses hang from hooks. But there’s also the aromatic Argun oil stalls with their displays of perfumes and soaps, and every so often the enticing scents of Moroccan food in preparation, the hearty flavours of a good tajine or cous cous.
Yet still these sounds and smells cannot distract from the medina’s chaotic jumble of stalls. They line every street and every corner of the main thoroughfares, displaying metalwork, pottery, lanterns, thick and richy woven carpets, leather bags, jackets and sandals, kaftans, and a variety of cheap typical souvenir knick-knacks.
If you buy something from a store, you make an instant friend. Handshakes and name swapping ensue. But if you walk away, no harm is done. You receive a smile and a thank you regardless. It didn’t at all follow my expectations.
And of course, there are the marvels of Fes El Bali’s main sites. Fez is home to the world’s oldest university and several renowed mosques, all of which are sadly off limits to non-Muslims.
But though you can’t wander into their aesthetically beautiful midst, you can admire a hint of what’s inside by peering through the doorways – or even at the doorways themselves. Though they didn’t compare to Granada’s mesmerising Alhambra, the intricate work around the entrances – the intense Arabic inscriptions and carvings – were enough to satisfy my artistic cravings.
It is for a good reason that UNESCO labelled Fes El Bali a World Heritage Site. It is otherworldly, and the only way it can be appreciated is by letting go and allowing yourself to get lost and get taken along for the ride.