Fès/Fez, the great Moroccan imperial city.
People will warn you about Fès and its labyrinthine medina, a maze so complicated and so deep, surrounded by high walls. Secret alleyways, echoes of children’s laughter, hurried djellaba-clad silhouettes are the images that pop into mind when hearing about the imperial city’s famous medina, Fès el-Bali, the best preserved old city in the Arab world, founded in 789.
”Here’s the hotel’s number. Call me if you get lost”, said Mohammed, our host. My ego inflated. ”Thanks, we’ll be fine”, I replied.
We stepped out of the guesthouse, into a small alley next to a beautiful, full-grown orange tree. Our hotel was located near Bab Ziat, one of the many Babs of the medina: doors to the outside world. It would be easy to come back with this point of reference on our map. For now, our challenge was to walk to Talaa Kbira, where the souks were. We had plenty to see, and not a lot of time, so we set off into the alleys.
We were instantly assailed by children. A good dozen of them, little to not-so little, with big smiles and huge eyes. They were tugging at our shirts, clinging to our arms. The noise was extreme, as they were all talking at the same time in high-pitched voices, asking us where we were going, did we need a guide, they could get us safely to where we were headed, we must not trust the fake guides, they are thieves and will try to rip us off and steal from us and get us lost. ”I’m not a liar, come with me instead I’ll bring you to the souk”.
Holding on tight to my satchel, I declined with smiles and shakes of the head, then as the insistance grew, with a more forced smile and a ”Non merci, la chokran, we can manage, we’re just walking”. They wouldn’t let us leave, so we walked slowly with them in tow, still grabbing onto our arms and bags, and the crew wouldn’t stop growing because other children would be attracted to our potential business. It was claustrophobic, but then somehow the crew dispersed, probably towards more gullible tourists, and we were suddenly alone, completely alone in this tiny alley. The silence was uncanny, but we could finally breathe and gather our senses. A nice man having witnessed the scene answered me with a smile when I asked which way we should go, and pointed towards one of three alleys that looked exactly the same. We marched with confidence, spotting points of reference to remember on our way back.
It was all so pretty, yet impossible to photograph. The feeling you have in these alleys, it is quite something. Not a feeling of danger, nor awe. Just a mixed sense of deep, deep isolation and slight claustrophobia. The walls are so high, you feel enclosed yet very free, wandering such an old city.
We wandered for hours, exploring the souks, meeting locals, observing life go by in the narrow alleys.
By nightfall we were exhausted, our feet swollen and sore from walking on cobblestones. We arrived in front of a small restaurant, where surely they would have couscous, and hopefully a huge amount of it. We were dead tired, and asked if we could take the couscous to go, as we knew how to get back to our hotel, having passed this restaurant on our way from there. We just couldn’t bear to sit in the cold, eating our dish half-asleep, wishing we were in our very comfortable room of our very comfortable riad.
The restaurant owner was a darling, and even though he did not have anything to put the couscous into for us to bring home, he rummaged through a pile of plates and found an adorned blue one, with moroccan designs, and put the copious amount of couscous on it, wrapping it all in plastic. It was so kind of him and so appreciated by us. We set off towards our hotel, retracing our steps, recognizing some of the landmarks we had seen earlier. The couscous was still warm, we were eager to kick off our shoes and enjoy extra-sweet mint tea… But then none of our surroundings seemed familiar anymore, and we began to realize that we had lost our bearings. We must had taken a wrong turn, those tricky turns that one must constantly take while maneuvering inside the medina, for no alley is a straight line, and there are no signs or plaques.
We walked back a few steps, taking the alley opposite to the we had just tried. Furtive shadows kept appearing on the high walls, but looking back, there never was anyone in sight. Where were all the touts who desperately wanted to give us directions earlier in the day? We were completely disoriented. The alleys were very dark, with little to no light coming from windows or streetlamps. We had to admit that we were completely lost, having failed to retrace our steps, and instead having dived deeper into the maze.
It must have taken us a good quarter of an hour to finally stumble upon someone who could show us where Bab Ziat was. After a few more detours, we finally made it back to the clementine tree, safe and sound.
The couscous was still warm, and our gratitude a lot greater for the kindness and generosity of that restaurant owner.
You’ll have grasped it by now, Fès el-Bali is incredibly complex to navigate.
Whichever entrance you use to come into the city, you will get hassled by ”real” guides that, very persistantly, will want to convince you not to hire any of the guides inside the medina, for ”they are all crooks and thieves”. They’ll tell you that you will get lost and that you must hire one that is professional and works in the tourism industry, like they do (they will even flash a tourism card at you). Yes, getting into Fès is a glimpse of what you’ll have to go through once inside the medina, but the hassle is worth it. Decline with a smile, say that you’ve already booked a tour through your hotel, thank you very much.
You will get lost, anyway. It’s part of the experience, it’s part of the fun, and mostly, it’s one of the main reasons to explore the city, and it will be a wonderful experience.
Once in the medina, look for landmarks, try to navigate the medina during daylight, as nothing looks the same at night, take your time, refuse offers with a smile, and don’t panic.
There should be a path marked by signs (an 8-pointed star) on walls, but we never located any. Then again, we weren’t really looking for them. You could also head downhill and exit the medina through the first bab you see. From the road, you’ll be able to catch a petit taxi to your hotel’s nearest bab.
If you’re not sure about wandering the maze yourself, do hire a guide through your riad or hotel, or the real tourism office. These guides are licensed (for real!). Try finding the very informative and useful book Fez from Bab to Bab by Hammad Berrada. It has a complete map of the medina and several well-described walking tours.