Navigating the Mazy Medina in Fez, Morocco
After running into some trouble from a taxi driver, we arrived on the outskirts of the medina in Fez, Morocco, armed with all of our bags and our IPhone’s GPS. Our mission: to navigate our way to the other side of the medina to our hotel. It wouldn’t be the only time we’d have to manoeuvre through the tight lanes and crowded streets, but getting lost in the medina in Fez was one of the highlights of our trip to Morocco.
By the way, a medina typically means the “old part” of a North African city – they are usually walled and are full of narrow streets. The one in Fez is considered one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world! Check out some other exotic medinas in Morocco by reading my articles about Chefchaouen, Essaouira and Aït Benhaddou.
Walking the streets of the medina in Fez
Dodging guides, donkeys and touts of all kinds, we weaved our way through the tiny lanes of the medina, past historic towers, mosques and markets. It was an assault on all of our senses – but it was the perfect introduction to mysterious Morocco. We passed shops full of sweets, men in hooded cloaks and the occasional western tourist. It wasn’t until we spent some time in Marrakech a couple of weeks later that we realised how under-touristed Fez really is. The medina in Fez is far more interesting and has a more local feel (but only a fraction of the tourists) – if you’re tossing up whether to visit Fez or Marrakech, I’d definitely go for Fez!
We eventually found our hotel, which was located about a hundred meters from the south gate of the Medina. The mass of blue tiles lent it an opulent feel, and the heater (which barely worked) gave us some warmth during the surprisingly cold winter days in Morocco.
During the next few days we explored what felt like every inch of the medina, but we later found out there are over 9000 streets – we definitely didn’t walk down them all! Here are some of the highlights.
A visit to a tannery
Fez is famous for its leather and almost every street hustler (AKA guide) will offer to take you to visit one. We didn’t take them up on it, which occasionally led to some verbal abuse, but we weren’t in the mood for being ripped off (after our annoying taxi ride!). A guy that worked at our hotel showed us to a tannery for a small tip, and after getting some mint (to help block out the awful smell) we climbed up some stairs to get an ariel view. It looked like a huge block of chocolate, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t taste as good. The smell wasn’t as bad as everyone says, and the view over the tannery, surrounded by buildings from the past is something I’ll never forget. I’ll also never forget the walk back down to ground level – we were taken through a few floors full of all things leather, but the shop owners weren’t too pushy and we soon escaped the leathery lair of the tannery men.
A peaceful medersa
We had no idea what this was until we were inside, but the small fee (around $1 each) turned out to be a great bargain. It was really just a small courtyard with a fountain in the middle, but the detail on the walls and doors was amazing, and we were the only ones in there – it felt like our own palace We also tried to visit the University of al-Qarawiyyin, the oldest continuously running university in the world, but only managed to see it from the outside. We couldn’t find the entrance, but it turns out non-Muslims aren’t even allowed in.
A view from above
It’s hard to grasp the scale of the medina when you’re winding your way through it, so we departed through a historic gate and up a small hill to get a better view. There are some old ruined buildings (the Marinid Tombs) up there, but the view of the medina (and the surrounding city/countryside) is definitely the main attraction. It looks huge from up there, and it was at that point (on our last proper day in Fez) we realised that we had barely scratched the surface of the ancient medina. We also took an old guy (who was jut hanging out on a street corner) up on his offer to take us up onto a rooftop in the medina. We got a pretty good view from up there and our “guide” was way friendlier than most of the young touts – don’t let the annoying ones put you off hiring a guide for a while, there are actually people who will show you around without trying to rip you off!
Eating in Fez
It was in Fez that I discovered Tajine; basically chicken (usually), cooked in a small pot with sauce/chips/olives/pretty much anything else. We ate Tajine a lot in Fez (and in the rest of Morocco), my favourite flavour being the lemon/olive variety. I also tried these small pastry/cake things (I can’t remember their names) which are cheap and delicious. There are restaurants aimed at tourists which are kind of expensive, but it’s easy to find small local restaurants where you can get sandwiches etc for only a dollar or 2. Oranges (or maybe mandarins, they were pretty small) are everywhere in Morocco – we bought some off an old street vendor in Fez and they were really nice. I’m not a huge orange fan, but the ones in Morocco might have just converted me.
Fez was the first place I visited in Morocco and it’s probably the perfect place to start a trip, mainly because it was one of the most “local” of all the medinas we visited (I don’t think we saw any other tourists in Tetuoun, so that probably beats it). The streets are lined with castle-like buildings and the people are actually pretty friendly (apart from the annoying touts). It’s one of the more exotic places I’ve been in the world, so if you’re planning a trip to Morocco you need to visit Fez!
Further reading: Find out why the medina in Fez is a Unesco World Heritage Site!
Have you been to the medina in Fez, or any others in Morocco? Let me know!