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Meandering through the Medina

Added 16 Aug 2012
Meandering through the Medina

Explore’s Louisa Richardson travelled to Morocco on our Imperial Cities and Desert tour. Here she recounts her experiences of shopping in Fes’ sprawling medina. 

“There are over 9,000 streets in the medina, over 5,000 of which are dead ends. They contain approximately 84,000 shops.” The words of our local guide (whom we’d nicknamed Aziz the Second owing to the fact that our tour leader was also called Aziz), brought home to us the importance of not losing sight of him as he led us into Fes’ labyrinthine medina (old town). We’d viewed the immensity of the medina from a high point above the city earlier that morning and now we were going in. If you got lost, you could be in here for days. Hardly knowing what to expect, I prepared myself. Camera at the ready: check. Water handy: check. Local guide in sight: check. 

The streets and buildings in Fes were built long before the car was invented. With space at a premium, and perhaps to create some welcome shade, the streets are narrow. In places, buildings are so close together that they are barely wide enough to walk through without turning sideways. The only means of transporting goods today is exactly as it has been for hundreds of years – by hand cart, mule, donkey or on the back of a man. Setting foot in the medina is literally like stepping back in time.

The streets don’t appear to have any names and all look scarily similar to the novice. Luckily Aziz the Second knows the streets well; he adopted a slow, steady pace and regularly checked that his small group of charges were still safely behind. To make sure that none of the group ended up going shopping for days, the original Aziz brought up the rear to herd any stragglers.

Soon we were delightfully weaving our way through the twisting passageways, completely losing track of all the lefts and rights we took within moments. Every corner revealed a new set of shops, each specialising in a particular type of merchandise, all beautifully presented to entice shoppers. Many of the goods are made in and around the medina by skilled craftsmen who, like the area they live in, are listed with UNESCO World Heritage status. Fruit, meat, vegetables, bread, silver tea pots, head scarves, slippers, herbs and spices, jewellery and much more all made colourful and interesting displays. Goods adorned every nook and cranny of every shop and spilled out on to the street as well. 

Under the expert guidance of Aziz the Second, who never once showed any sign of being unsure of his whereabouts, we were taken to a selection of shops for that all-important Moroccan shopping experience. A very ordinary looking doorway which you might not have looked at twice, actually led to a wonderland of colourful leather goods. Climbing the steep, twisting staircase, we emerged one by one into a room bursting with high quality leather goods. At one end was a balcony which over-looks Fes’ famous tanneries. As we gazed down at the large vats of dye, Aziz the Second explained how some of the colours are made using traditional methods. There was then, of course, an opportunity to buy. To my slight surprise the friendly shopkeepers in no way made us feel obliged to purchase anything and were happy for us to take as many photos as we wished. Not being a natural shopper, the experience was an unexpected highlight; it was literally like stepping into an Aladdin’s cave. 

Our walking tour continued with various stops to look at some of the area’s richly decorated buildings, including the mosque. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter mosques, but this one had its doors wide open so we were able to see its beautifully decorated interior and witness the people at their prayers. With worshippers coming and going all the time, prayers seemed to be a fairly relaxed affair and even as tourists, we didn’t feel unwelcome.

Wandering through the medina with a guide was an amazing way of seeing genuine Moroccan life going on as it has done for countless generations. This was no show put on for tourists; this was real life. Eventually it was time to go. We might have only seen a fraction of the 9,000 streets, but left feeling that we had seen something truly unique and remarkable.

Our Direct Marketing Manager Louisa Richardson went on the Imperial Cities and Desert tour

By Louisa Richardson