We have been in three medinas in Morocco so far.
Our first day in Morocco, after arriving by ferry in Tangier, we strolled through an open area with shops, restaurants, dars and riads. (Dars are the inward facing Arabic/Andalucian homes with a courtyard in the middle, a road has a garden in the middle.) There were some narrow side alleys, but it was fairly easy to pick our way through the area.
The next day, we traveled to Chefchaouen — known as the blue city. Narrow streets twisted and turned up and down hills, connected by even narrower alleys and stairs. Even with our GPS, we found it a little confusing.
The crowds were small, the shop keepers mellow, inviting you quietly to visit their cool galleries and to “discover” their offerings. To be sure, the motor scooters that navigated the tiny roads parted the shoppers like the Red Sea, but no one was ever touched by the vehicles.
“I know we came past this blue building and turned left,” I joked when we were trying to make our way back to our dar after an afternoon of exploring.
We were certainly glad when our driver/guide Idir offered to take us outside the medina to a spot above the city to watch the sunset and to see the medina from above, as well as the modern new city. If we had tried to pick our way to the spot outside the medina and to weave our way back in the dark, we might still be there.
So, when we headed to the medina in Fes, I was glad to have Abdelaziz “Aziz” Ouafy, who has lived all of his 61 years in the medina leading the way. There is no way that someone who hasn’t spent six decades running those streets and alleys wouldn’t get lost.
Streets and alleys aren’t clearly marked…and if they are, it’s in Arabic. The lighting is dim, except in a few shops.
But it is fascinating. We moved quickly, darting around people, dodging animals. Don’t do well in crowds and public spaces? Find another activity. This is not the place for you.
The sounds of hammers, knives, vendors calling to shoppers and even to one another can be jarring. Traditional and current music mix into an unrecognizable cacophony. You smell the approaching donkey before you hear the clips of his hooves on the cobbles.
Steve, who has never spent much time in crowded environments — he much prefers wide open, natural areas — was feeling claustrophobic as we tramped through the streets behind Aziz.
It’s also not the place for a germaphobe or the weak of stomach. A camel’s head marks the shop where Aziz said you can get the best camel meat. “La shukran!” (No thank you!) Guts, brains, hooves, and some other unidentified parts of various animals hung in other stalls.
The salty smell of the sardines and anchovies trucked in from the Mediterranean coast and piled high on sparkling mountains of ice this morning is a welcoming diversion.
In another stall a woman nonchalantly slaps paper-thin M’smen on a rounded grill. These melt-in-your-breads can be enjoyed alone or with any of the preserved fruits or meats in the stalls around you.
Flies and feral cats (everyone says they keep the medina clean) are everywhere.
Down an alley and up a set of stairs you suddenly find yourself in the garden of a blue-tiled riad. Floor to ceiling on multiple balconies there are hand crafted leather bags, belts, jackets, vests, and even dresses made from the tanned hides of cows, sheep, and goats.
Wonder about the animal-to-accessory process? They assume you want to know and you are whisked up to the roof-top terrace overlooking a millennium old operation where hides are soaked in water and pigeon feces (think about that next time you snuggle into a leather coat) to soften it, where the hides are hung to dry and where they are dyed. That sprig of mint you were handed at the foot of the stairs? You’ll want to hold it under your nose for this overview.
The wool and textiles dyers are a much less smelly operation and the results of their work brighten up their little corner of the world.
Coppersmiths, silversmiths, tailors, carpet makers, weavers, and carpenters all have their own quarters. The craftspeople create all of the handmade items for sale in the medina. In this ancient city, you can buy anything you need from birth to death.
Fresh produce, dried fruits, and spices are rolled into the shops on wagons squeezed into the narrow streets. Sweets, like nougat and cakes, are piled high in stalls.
Centered around the mosque and spiraling in no discernible pattern outward each medina has a personality of its own.