Fez Morocco… earns its mystical, Arabian Nights reputation in no small part from its imperious and grandly historical cities. Casablanca conjures up the late-night beauty of the movie of the same name, and Marrakech enthralls its many visitors with the renowned Djemma El Fna square. But it is Fez, perhaps best known to most as the place where the funny red hats sported by magicians come from, that felt the most authentically Arabic of all the Moroccan imperial cities I visited.
All Moroccan cities have a Medina, or ‘old town’ that are surrounded by a ‘new town’. The latter, with their wide, tree-flanked, Parisian-esque boulevards are decidedly European in feel and at first, it can be tempting to spend time in them away from the suffocating crowds in the Medina. But you absolutely should not miss out on the Medina of Fez.
Here you can genuinely feel as though you are in another century. Donkeys are the exclusive mode of transport, and the narrow, twisting streets are presided over by unevenly stacked Arabic houses casting jagged shadows over the pedestrians below. The presence of shadows might explain how I managed to step straight in to some donkey dung…
The intoxicating sights, sounds and smells of the Medina are potent indeed, perhaps best exemplified by the pungent aroma that emanates from the notorious tannery pits (which can mask even more powerful aromas such as donkey droppings!). It’s here that the leather products peddled by the enthusiastic – some might say harassing – salesmen who man the stalls of Fez’s Medina originate from. An ancient practice that dates back almost 1000 years, it’s as good an example of any of how this place clings to historical traditions with a ferocity that few can match.
It is undeniably a wonderfully evocative experience to walk through such a place, and getting lost was actually one of the unexpected pleasures, so long as you’re careful who you allow to ‘extricate’ you, small children included. One young boy, clothed in scruffy rags and with teary eyes as big as saucers, led me on a wild goose chase that got me precisely nowhere. But this was nothing compared to the ‘faux guides’ who prey on the unwary; and then there are the aforementioned salesmen.
But they’re not all bad, especially when I wandered into an outdoor market that was certifiably locals-only. It’s there I had my first proper haggling experience – the bananas looked damned tasty – and learned that, with humor, patience, and an understanding that a lot of us who visit are much better off than the person on the other side of the counter, it can be fun. Being of Oriental heritage, the guy initially thought I was Japanese; when I told him where I actually was from, he got a kick out of saying ‘easy peasy lemon squeezy’ over and over again while slapping his thigh and roaring with laughter. Trust me, it was more endearing than annoying!
It’s the rough around the edges charm of Fez’s Medina that makes it a place worth exploring. The friendly locals comfortably outweigh the con-artists, and the architecture that surrounds you is magnificently evocative. Love it, hate it, or somewhere in between, there’s no denying that Fez is a place that lives and breathes its historical and cultural heritage, effortlessly assimilating ancient practices into the realities of living in the modern world.