A medina is a walled city filled with a maze of narrow streets and alleys and jammed pack with people, noise, and activity. Stepping through the gates of the medina in Fez is like passing through a portal into another world. The medina at the ancient Imperial City of Fez, Morocco is a UNESCO heritage site, home to the oldest university in the world, and to most westerners a riot of colors, sounds, smells, and feelings. Kongo has scuttled through back alleys in Hong Kong, visited the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and gone on liberty with fellow sailors in Olongapo, Philippines but none of these experiences prepares you for the medina.
Founded in the 9th Century and the capital of Morocco from the 13th century until 1912 when it the political seat of power shifted to Rabat, Fez retains the position as the cultural spiritual center of the country. Inside the gates Kongo visited madrassas, palaces, tanneries, mosques, and a lot more. The narrow streets are filled with hustle and bustle preparing for Ramadan. Donkeys and push carts force their way through the crowded pathways with a shout of “Balik! Balik” which roughly translates to “get the hell out of the way” and if you don’t step aside quickly you will find yourself up close and personal with a pack animal.
Kongo is pretty sure he had some of this meat for dinner. Small butcher shops abound in the medina and if you like fresh chickens, not to worry.
Over 200,000 people live in the medina and the monkey is pretty sure he ran into most of them during his walks through the warren of streets and back alleys. From the outside the residences are just a doorway and an adobe wall but once you pass inside a residence you will find yourself in a beautiful garden courtyard. Mysterious alley-ways take you into different worlds.
Fez is also famous for its tanneries. Don’t worry about finding them in the maze of streets. Just follow your nose. Cow urine and pigeon poop are key ingredients in preparing the hides. The best (and most survivable) vantage point is from the rooftops and Kongo eagerly climbed up to get a view. He’d read about the tanneries before coming to Morocco and was keen to see them in action. As you prepare to climb the stairs, workers pass out sprigs of mint for visitors to hold to their noses to tolerate the stench.
In the vats, some of them have been there for a thousand years, workers use blue indigo, saffron, paprika, pomegranate, and other natural sources for the dyes.
Camel, cow, and lamb skins are tanned here and you can have just about anything you want made to order in a few hours and they will deliver it straight to your hotel. In our case, one woman had her customs made lamb skin jacket delivered while we were eating dinner. Be prepared for some serious, like really serious, haggling.
Kongo also popped into a small kindergarten class off one of the streets and found these two little cuties. The children were learning to read and write Arabic, French, and English.
In a bakery, Kongo chatted with this guy who was taking a short break to accommodate the American tourists who barged in on his work. Individual families and restaurants in the area bring their dough to the bakery to have it cooked.
There were several trips to various rooftops in the medina. The best way to get a vantage point is up high.
Mrs. Kongo was a trooper and climber. Here she is going down and wondering where in the world the monkey has gone to this time.
Kongo always likes to watch artisans at work and everywhere in the medina you can spot people carrying out their trade pretty much the way their families have been doing it for hundreds of years.
Inside a madrassa, or religious school, we studied the intricate tile mosaics and learned how the students memorize the Koran under the strict tutelage of their teacher.
This woman is sizing up some chickens for dinner.
Group photo with a donkey. Like why not. It’s a medina thing.
Kongo like the photo of the old man better than the one he took with his fellow travelers.
The medina is a wonderful place to visit but Kongo suggests you take a guide. It’s easy to get lost but then again that could be part of the fun. Your guide helps put things in perspective and opens doors you might not otherwise pass through.
Travel safe. Have fun!