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3 Days in Fez: Getting lost in the Medina

Visiting Northern Africa is far different from anything you will see on the rest of the continent. We arrived in the Ville Nouveau area of town where the train station was located and were instantly reminded of being in LA, with giant palm trees lining the main thoroughfare. Cars were modern, people were dressed in Westerner styles and life seemed very different from the city we left behind in the most Northern city of Morocco.

Day 1: 

  • The Medina
  • Eating a camel burger

We decide to arrive by train from Tangier (a 4 hour ride), but you can of course arrive directly by plane. The ride was uneventful apart from a local sitting down next to us feigning fascination in the book I was reading in order to offer up the services of good tour guides that he knew if we just visit him in the tannery.

It took some convincing to get him to leave us be, this is a theme that you will find throughout Morocco. Very pushy locals trying to get you to buy from them, use them as a guide, take their taxi. You have to be very firm in order to go on your way without interference.

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The new old part…

As we continued on we began to see the landscape change incremental the closer to the Medina that we approached. The “new-old” section of town featured some of the beautiful architecture that we expected and also became much more unkempt. But, we still had yet to reach the “old-old” part of town where armed with just an address and a map of only the main street of the Medina we would hope to stumble upon our hotel. We decide to take the long walk to our hotel in order to explore some sights along the way. Little did we know how long our walk would actually be.

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Our hotel room

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Our hotel room key

When we entered the Medina it was both picturesque and overwhelming. There were as many vendors and streets as you can possibly imagine but none as pushy like those found in Turkey.

Through a series of signs posted above the street, that lead you on different touristic paths through the medina, we made our way into this deep maze of over 9,500 street.  (There are no maps available to guide you).

The locals use this to their advantage trying to persuade you to take them as your tour guide and going as far as walking in front of you and leading the way even when you have already said no several time.

Walking around with our bags was probably the worst part. With Andy in the lead I felt safe, as long as he didn’t walk too quickly, and confident that we would find out way. Alone I would have been terrified by this labyrinth.

After an hour of searching, giving in and asking a few locals, we finally arrived at Riad La Maison Verte. The hotel was immaculate, a recently restored “manor-type” house of hand carved woodwork, with all of the modern comforts foreigners expect, like free wi-fi, which we were promptly given the code for upon arrival.

We were ecstatic to have finally arrived and get a chance to relax for a bit before entering the Medina again. We soon learned that we could have gotten a driver to pick us up from the train station, but everyone has to get lost in the Medina at least once. Right?

Later that night our friend was due to arrive from Barcelona and join us for the next few days in Fez before heading of for his fabulous summer internship with Amazon in Seattle.

While waiting for him to arrive we ventured again into the Medina, returning to our starting point to find an interesting restaurant, Cafe Clock. When arrived there was live music and dancing, it was very popular we could tell.

We mounted several flights of stairs to arrive at the top terrace and settled down into a cozy bench for a good hearty meal. Andy tried the Camel Burger (the reason we came) and I must say after a taste it was great. Better than any beef burger in Barcelona by volumes!

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View down to the first floor with live music and dancing

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Ornate Arabic writing adorns the wall to the top terrace

When we left the restaurant we could tell that the Medina was likely to be closing down soon. Shops were emptying and closing their wooden shutters and the crowd was dwindling. We made our way back, without getting too lost, just in time for our friends arrival. Our first day in Fez was hectic, but exhilarating.

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Blue steps leading from the University to the Library

Day 2:

  • Tour the Medina
  • Oldest University in the World
  • University Library
  • Mosque Visit
  • Visit weaving shop
  • Visit tannery

The next day of the trip was my 28th birthday so I was really excited to do something interesting. A tour of the Medina fit in perfectly with that goal. For a pretty small fee we were able to have a half a day with a knowledgeable English-speaking local. It was well worth it. We visited the self-proclaimed oldest university in the world. Where these blue steps lead to the library that despite the din of the Medina was completely silent for the local students.

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Somewhere in this writing it says Allah

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The inner courtyard of the mosque/religious school

On our own we would not have know which mosque would allow us to enter as tourist. This was a great opportunity to see the mosque (more of a religious school than a mosque) from the inside and experience some of the life outside of the market place. We learned how to recognize the writing of the name Allah in the tiles that lined the walls. And learned about the hours of the 5 daily prayers. A question that had been lingering in my mind for months. It was a great lesson in history and religion for us all.

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Weaving scarves

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Being dressed up by the weaver (Photo credit: AG)

As we walked down the street, every once in a while making way to let a donkey carry a load of leather pass by, we felt more at ease having someone who knew exactly where he was going. Our next stop was at a weaver who made a wide variety of colorful silk scarves with a hand-operated loom. There was a smaller one for only 2 colors and a much large more complicated one for multi-colored scarves (pictured above). It seemed like very tedious work.

In an attempt to get us to buy something the show owner insisted on dressing us up, starting first with putting a scarf on me like this. I think you can tell my level of amusement from the picture. There’s an even more horrifying one of me in sort of princess Jasmine outfit over my current clothes, but I’ll have to save that one for the grandkids.

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Another Mosque, more ornate, that we could not enter

This other very decorated mosque was on our way to the Tannery. Unfortunately it was not one that we were allowed to enter as non-muslims. It was under construction, as was this whole portion of the Medina, so we peered inside from the narrow doorway and snapped as many pictures as we could without getting in the way. The guide made sure to point out what American’s were financing the restoration of this area.

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A circumcision costume…ouch!

Our tour guide pointed out this circumcision costume for boys of about 7 years old. I don’t know why anyone would want to wait that long to remember that pain! Our tour guide said he got his done even later in life! That reminds me of a scene in Robin Hood Men in Tights…but I digress.

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The women’s section of the Mosque

Yes another mosque we past during our journey, but this time we were able to catch a glimpse of the women’s section. They are of course separated from the men, always, and given the most remote and unsightly portion of the mosque to worship in. It’s quite depressing to note. I could never be devout like some of these women who believe so strongly in something that excludes me and treats me as less than another person.

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Tanning the hides yellow requires a special process

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The tannery

Our next stop was the tannery. Man! What a rough life it must be to have to spend days in a cold barrel of colored liquid dying hide after hide by hand. I can imagine that it would stain the skin and cause all kinds of health problems. These guys are miraculous. What’s even more are the ones tanning the yellow leather, which required special care, in the upper portion spending all day bent over so that fashion will no go without its variety!

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Camel for sale

As we meandered more through the market we came across this camel head for sale in the market, that both amused and disgusted me.

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Just the appetizers

The end our tour, our lovely guide took us to a great local restaurant. I am very certain he is getting some sort of commission by bringing us there. And interesting system in Fez. The meal was great and quite large. The picture above showed just the appetizers.

Even three of us could not finish all of this and then have two more course. Unfortunately this was the last of good food for us as everything was quite repetitive and a less desirable version of this meal. I expected consistently great food, but I must say I was disappointed. I’ll gave to get better suggestion the next time I travel to Morocco. Still, it was quite a birthday to remember!

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Beautiful Garden in Fez

Day 3:

  • Nejjarine Museum of Wood and Art
  • Jewish Quarter
  • Jnan Sbil Gardens

On our third and last full day in Fez we had planned to have an exciting cooking class where we walked through the Medina selecting fresh ingredients with our guide. Unfortunately he had other plans and blew us off because he was having trouble finding the hotel and didn’t bother to inform us. After waiting an hour and finally calling him, it was clear our plans for the day had been thwarted. Instead we took ourselves on another tour of the Medina.

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Nejjarine Museum of Wood and Art

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Guitar-like instrument

Close to where we originally thought our hotel was located we encountered the Nejjarine Museum of Wood and Art. More impressive that the artwork was the structure of the museum itself. The beautiful carved geometric shapes in the stained wood were a bit different from what we saw around town and added to the visual interest. The museum was filled with three stories of wooden objects ranging from tools, to make up implements to chests.

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Beautiful gardens on the border of the old and new section of the Medina

After the museum we headed out of the old Medina to check out the old Jewish quarter. We made a quick stop in this gorgeous park we had seen on our walk in the first day of our time in Fez and it was well worth it. There were carefully manicured hedges and formations of flowers. A stark contrast to the filth of the inside of the Medina. It was spacious and well cared for, a nice place for a few moments of relaxation and tension release after the stresses of the market place.

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Bamboo stalks

Shoots of bamboo were found in one spot by a bench we decide to sun on. There were many initials carved into the sticks by lovers, errant teenagers, and tourists like us. I decided to make my mark as well with a 5 euro cent coin. I wasn’t able to get too deep into the strong stems without something sharper, but maybe it will last. If I even journey to Fez again I will look for it.

Our walk to the Jewish part of town was not without stress. A local began to lead us or rather follow us to the place we were already going continually talking and not getting the hint that we did not want or need a tour guide. My friend and I remained silent and tried to ignore him away while Andy, the gentler soul of us three, humored him and answered his questions.

After we had enough of it and simple refusal wasn’t working it was tough love and we told him flat-out that we did not want a tour guide and have a good day. At which point, of course, he was angry. But he lead himself down this path. And he kept finding us again and again to try to guilt us into giving him something. I was so stress inducing that we just viewed the cemetery and hurried our way back to the medina, hoping to never see him again.

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Jewish cemetery

After a similar incident later in the day with a more irate individual, who was threatening us after we told him we didn’t need any help and to stop pestering us. We were done with Fez. Mentally exhausted from the continual barrage of locals trying to get something from us, shouting out “India” to me hoping to guess my nationality (they were wrong), and expecting since we are foreigners we must succumb to their requests. Directions are not something you can get for free.

I found myself once again longing for the kind natured Turkish folk who helped you out of the goodness in their hearts and their fondness for foreigners. I enjoy the experience of being in Fez, but it was one of the most stressful vacations, so if you’re planning your trip, be aware and prepare yourself mentally for this vastly different culture.

3 thoughts on “3 Days in Fez: Getting lost in the Medina

  1. Pingback: What to do in Tangier, Morrocco | Repeat One, Repeat All

  2. Pingback: What to do in Tangier, Morrocco - Repeat One, Repeat All

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