We've gotten soft. Our badass traveler edge has dulled after one too many days sipping wine and smearing soft cheese on fresh baguettes in the French countryside. Needless to say, the transition from tiny Vendome in the Loire Valley to the medina (old city) of Fes, Morocco is a bit shocking.
Located in northern Morocco, about 4 hours south of Tangier and 6 hours north of Marrakech, Fes is the country's second largest city with over 1 million inhabitants. The medina (Fes el Bali), with a population of over 150,000, is considered the most intact and least modernized ancient city in the Arab world.
We arrive late at night, gazing out the taxi windows in silence as we speed through the desert in complete darkness. As we round a corner, the curtain drops on thousands of square white buildings, stacked up on the hillside like Legos. The medina accurately looks like a throwback in time; exactly how we picture a thousand year old city to be. Although it's after 11pm, the streets are chaotic. People rush by in every direction and children play among the crowds. We're met at the corner and escorted into an intensely narrow and incredibly dark alleyway. We turn left at a dead end, revealing a slightly wider street with a handful of stray cats eating from a pile of garbage in a corner of adjacent stone buildings. We enter our Riad (a traditional Moroccan inn) and pass through the small reception desk into a beautiful center courtyard. In an instant, the chaos from outside melts away as we admire the surrounding 30' walls covered with incredible tile mosaic and detailed carvings, leading to the open square above.
The next morning, we venture into the medina for some exploration. On our way out, we decline the offer for a guide, preferring independence and believing that getting lost in a new place is quite possibly the best part of traveling. What we don't realize is that the medina is unlike anywhere we've ever experienced. Web, maze, labyrinth… all are suitable to describe the 9,400 tiny streets that haphazardly criss-cross in every direction. The "main streets" are no more than eight feet wide, with street vendors on either side. There are no cars; only mules to carry goods, squeezing by in tight corners and forcing us to watch our toes.
Not more than 10 minutes into the medina and a nicely dressed, seemingly generous man offers to take us to a "festival." We say thank you, but no, and move on. A few steps further into the narrow and market-filled street, another young man tells us to turn back to see the last few hours of the festival. Thinking we may be missing out, we turn back, only to find the original gentleman apparently still waiting to show us the way to the festival.
We’ve read about these type of “guides” in the old medina. Gregarious, and seemingly helpful young men who generously offer their time to show you around the maze-like old city. They are “students” who want to “practice English.” They ask you where you’re from, whether you like Obama (if you’re American, at least), and if it’s your first time to Morocco. They explain that maps won’t work in the medina and you will inevitably get lost. They offer to show you the way, and then they take off, walking at a brisk pace through the incomprehensibly difficult streets and passageways, turning back every few minutes to make sure you’re following along. When you’ve reached your destination, they request something in exchange. If you tell them no, they shout expletives and call you a terrible person.
And this is exactly how it happens to us. Within our first day, we’re approached three times. First, we’re promised a “festival” before being led to a leather shop that is next to the famous tannery. We walk past huge piles of bloody animal skins, many with hooves or other body parts still intact. The stench is terrible and after we decline to buy anything and turn around, the owner demands compensation for the “tour” of his shop (that we walked in and out of). A few hours later, we’re approached by a “student” who we kindly request to “leave us alone, please.” After dinner, while we’re attempting to navigate in the general direction of our riad, a third man approaches us and tells us that we can’t go through the market because the gates are closed at 8pm (not true, we later learn). We explain many times that we don’t need help and can make it home ourselves, to which the replies, “maps don’t work” and “you will get lost,” as he walks beside us. When we directly tell him that we don’t need help, he tells us “don’t worry,” and that we look "like Japanese," who he tells us are also “paranoid people.” We make it a bit further and again ask him to leave us alone. Finally stopping, he says “something for me?” When we decline, he launches insults at us, following for another ten minutes yelling that we’re stupid and bad people. Let’s just say he’s no longer offering the initial “ahlan wa sahlan” (welcome) to Morocco.
It’s an eye-opening first day and we start to understand why the few tourists in Fes are walking quietly with a small group behind a (legitimate) hired guide. But within a few days, the medina starts to grow on us. Meeting the challenge of navigating the confusing streets is strangely gratifying and we get better at ignoring the constant offers for help. It’s still foreign and chaotic, but with a little time, feels a lot less intimidating. We visit Bab Boujloud (the blue gate), the Kairaouine Mosque (which, as non-Muslims, we cannot enter) and do a little shopping (negotiating/haggling, aka self-inflicted torture). We walk past the butcher, dodging the camel head hanging in the window, drink a boatload of peppermint tea and eat some delicious Moroccan food (skipping the camel meat). We don’t drink alcohol, mainly because it’s nowhere to be found. And we take the time to appreciate the vast differences in nearly everything. There’s absolutely no question that Fes is leaving an indelible mark on us, and on our travels. As we pack our bags to move on, we agree that Fes and the medina are an experience we would never take back... but also one we probably wouldn’t choose to have again.