I admit to being partial to medinas – those cloistered markets and neighborhoods encircled by old city walls in Northern Africa. Some, as in Tunisia and Egypt, have become centered around tourists, but in Morocco, many generations continue to call the medina home and there’s much to explore.
An immediate challenge upon entering through an ancient gate of a medina is orientation. Some roads have been enlarged to accommodate small cars or delivery trucks, but most are walking lanes to allow easy movement from side to side to shop. The main hazards are donkeys laden with goods that can fill a path and motorcycles, which I consider the flies of the market – loud, persistent, and fast. Some forward- thinking medina managers prohibit motorcycles on certain roads but in Marrakech, we were on constant alert for their approaching sounds, occasionally even being grazed by a leather jacket as it passed.
I learned to note landmarks or signs to remember the many turns to return to our hotels. Large squares such as Jeema el Fna in Marrakech with its snake charmers are helpful for orientation. Names of hotels with arrows pointing down a lane are notable. An unusual store or restaurant helps. I had studied a map of the Marrakech Medina before traveling there, mentally marking our hotel location close to a major gate. This preparation was made easier by Google maps. But a map on the screen is different than on the ground when your phone doesn’t work in the middle of a large Medina.
One of my traveling companions to Morocco had discovered the app “map my walk” that marks wherever you walk and then theoretically you can simply return the same way. But in a medina, we were often sidetracked by shops and sights. The resulting map from one day in the Chefchouen Medina looked like a game of Life with intersecting circles, ovals, and an occasional detour.
The world’s largest medina is in Fez, established in 789 CE, also location of the world’s oldest university and where 149,000 still live within the stucco walls. At the gate, the hotel’s porter loaded our luggage on a wooden cart. He led, we followed. It was late at night, and I didn’t have the energy to make necessary mental notes of location. And, even with a good sense of direction, I couldn’t identify north or south or anything in between.
The next morning our guide met us at the Riad hotel, a beautifully repurposed home, and soon we were off through the narrow ways. He explained the large doors to a home were for guests and the small door for family. Slatted windows above the door protected a woman’s face but allowed her to watch the scene below. A small cemetery provided instructions on how Muslims are buried on their sides facing Mecca so that in the next life they will have the Koran in the right hand. The Jewish quarters were moved outside the original medinas and now most of its residents have immigrated to Israel, Europe, or the United States.
The Fez medina is known for its tanneries which we chose to miss but its meat market included heads of goats, donkeys, and cows, clearly marking what was sold at each store. The souks or specialized market areas provided almost overwhelming choices of shoes, leather good, herbs, candies with live bees on them, dried fruits, olives, jewelry, antiques, and copper, silver, and woven goods. Numerous madrasa schools and mosques dotted the inner city. We were reminded that Morocco is a kingdom as one of the king’s 26 palaces is in the Fez Medina.
One of the gates to the royal palace in Fez
A late typical lunch greeted us as we detoured down a non-descript hallway and into a stunning dining room of a hidden restaurant. The three courses began with four to seven small dishes – often potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, cauliflower, and okra. Then a tagine or couscous dish. Fresh fruit rounded out the meal as the dessert. Until we arrived in Marrakesh with its more creative cuisine, this was our meal almost every day.
Our Fez guide made the tour all about history which I loved and wouldn’t allow even a short detour into a booth. But in Marrakech, we had one of very few women guides in Morocco and she understood the need for a balance.
Noura asked about our shopping goals and took us to appropriate locations all over the medina with good quality and prices. We needed her guidance toward authentic Moroccan products rather than Chinese imitations.
Our Airbnb in Marakkesh provided a feel for living in the Medina – quiet home behind thick walls and closed doors. But it was the thriving commerce and humanity in the lanes that I loved – a condensed human buzz that’s impossible to duplicate in American cities.