Getting Lost in the Old Medina of Fes

After getting ripped off by the taxi coming from the CTM bus station, we got dropped off at an entrance of the old Medina of Fes, in front of an obscure alley. “Straight ahead, then right” scrambled the driver, directing us to our riad. A fainting light hardly lit the entrance arch. We paid the atrocious amount of 70dh to our driver, to later finding out it was really supposed to be 20dh. We headed up the alley. The ”straight ahead” became a panoply of zigzags going uphill through dark pathways. Soon enough, our confident look turned into complete confusion. A little boy on his bicycle pointed a direction. It couldn’t seem more like the beginning of the end, lost in a maze of confusion in alleys of wandering kids and young men gatherings. However, the way indicated was more attractive than the basic directions our driver told us.

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A lot of children wander the alleys, day and night, cruising on bicycles or playing futbol. There will be more happy to show you the way or pose for a picture… in exchange for a dirham or two.

At the end of the passage, a group of young men greeted us by a stand of candies. “Are you lost?”. We tried to hide the truth but our dazed look confirmed his thoughts. “I’ll guide you to your place” he continued, anticipating the answer. At this point, we didn’t have better choice. Either to follow him, or be followed.

After a left, and a sharp right through a gloomy tunnel, another left and a final right, we ended up at the end of the darkest alley where he opened a wooden door. I was reassured as soon as I recognized the living area with the vaulted ceiling pictured on the website. Therefore, the place was unlit and deserted.Suddenly, three giggling heads popped out from an indoor balcony. Pretending to be the only guests in the large riad, the three stooges invited us to join them upstairs. Lisa and I burst into an uncontrollable laugh. When assured we were safe, our guide wished us goodnight and goodstay without asking for any charge. He ended up being a real gentleman. We finally got shown a room: spacious with high ceilings, hand-carved walls, ceramic windows and three balconies facing the ceramic chandelier and overlooking the communal living area. The bed had golden sheets and the detailed lanterns added magic to the room. The bathroom was beautiful and cozy with stone work on the floor and walls. We had our palace. One guy finally admitted to work at the riad and gave us the key to the room. We were still laughing from the moment we got out of the cab and got lost in the dingy alleys. We even dropped of laughter on the floor when I found a pair of old man underwear on our royal couch. Good times. Medina of Fes Founded in 793 AD, Fes is found in the foothills of the North Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. With nearly 10,000 streets, the medina inhabits about 150,000 Fassis. Probably the largest and oldest in Morocco, the medina is made of about 300 neighbourhoods, each housing five important features: a school, a mosque, a fountain, a bread oven and a hammam. Hundreds of merchants and craftsmen selling products such as dates, spices, carpets, copper urns and musical instruments are found in the narrow alleys, as well as the local people and tourist brave enough to venture the busy maze.

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Breakfast on the roof terrace overlooking the Medina of Fes

After an attempt to explore on our own, we soon got lost, as it is a certainty in Fes. We ended up following an other young man to the main square. Five hours later, he was still guiding us. We visited a traditional leather tannery where we got given a bunch of mint at the entrance to diminish the pungent smell. We observed the process overlooking the tanning pits awash with coloured dye. Lisa got a bag made out of camel leather and rug, and a beautiful pair of boots the same style. I got an Indigo wallet made out of camel stomach.

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Leather Souq, the oldest leather tannery in the world. Tanning pits are like honeycombs where workers treat and work the leather. First, the leather is soaked in diluted acid pigeon excrement to soften hide, then it is soaked in vegetable dye such as henna, saffron and mint,  and finally hung to dry.

We continued with a visit to an argan oil and natural remedy pharmacy. Then the carpet and blanket factory where we had mint tea. Lisa ended up purchasing a beautiful carpet and a cozy blanket.

For lunch, we skipped the traditional tourist restaurant and opted for an authentic family eatery instead. A woman brought us in the kitchen making us sample three different dishes with a communal spoon. I chose the lamb, Lisa chose the beef. It was served as tagines, with side plates of lentils, caramelized onions, white beans, and cooked salad. Our presence was very noticeable as we were the only women patrons in the room. Food was authentic, delicious and a cheaper option.

Walking in the streets of the old medina was definitely a tumultuous experience. Venturing through slippery and tight alleys amongst donkeys, Fassis, tourists and sheeps being purchased for the Eid Al-Adha was inevitable and a constant effort. But these are nothing less than the joy of travelling!

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Sheeps marked for the Eid Al-Adha

Since we were off volunteer duty for the weekend, we decided it would be a good time to treat ourselves. Morocco doesn’t tolerate alcohol openly however, liquor stores can be found in some of the largest cities. We ventured outside the busy medina and took a cab to Burj Fes (shopping mall) where we stacked up on some goodies. Our plan was to be back on time for sunset, however all cabs were fully occupied due to rush hour. After waiting a good 20 minutes beside a stall selling sheep, we finally got a cab to pull over. Unfortunately, language barrier got in the way and we got dropped off at the wrong entrance of the medina. With the night approaching and a group of locals circling us offering to walk us through the dark maze, I found myself at the edge of losing it. I took a deep breath and stepped back. They were only trying to help us, yet their approach was overwhelming. They put us back in the cab and told the driver the correct way. We made it safe back to our riad. And so on, finishing the day on the roof top terrace munching on goat cheese, sweet dates and chocolate, sipping on Moroccan wine. I admired the old Medina of Fes illuminated by thousands of lights while the prayer chanting of a thousand Fassis soothed the chaos of the day. We shared travel stories with our local host and a German guest while the scent of Moroccan hash floated in the cool air of the African night.

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3 responses to “Getting Lost in the Old Medina of Fes

  1. Pingback: Fes | footloose diary·

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