Our arrival in Fez was heralded by the appearance of a tourist hustler on his motorbike sidling alongside the campervan. Where were we from? Ah, Scotland. Welcome. Where were we going? The campsite? He would direct us.
“No thank you. We’re just passing though.” smiled Neil sweetly, having already been caught out by a hustler in Marrakech. “Bye.”
20 minutes of driving round in circles looking for the campsite, we arrived back at the same junction. “Ah, you changed mind?” Could he direct us to the campsite now?
“No thank you.” We set off again.
The orange seller at the side of the road knew exactly how to get to the campsite, which was just round the corner. We bought 5kg of oranges to celebrate and waved goodbye.
Once we’d parked up onsite, we headed down to the reception to find out about hiring a guide to see the medina. We’re not really big into guides, preferring to get lost all by ourselves, but it had been recommended for Fez by lots of people we had met. If we were to have any hope of resurfacing from the oldest labyrinth medina in the world, we thought it prudent to take their advice.
Fez medina was built more than 1000 years ago in 900AD and it’s been a UNESCO heritage site since 1981. It’s well worth starting with an aerial view from the newish bastion on the hill opposite (built only 500 years ago). From above you can see just how tightly packed the 9400 streets are, and it becomes all too apparent what a good idea hiring a guide is/was as you look down on 280 hectares of rooftops circled by a wall 21km long.
Organising a guide
I’m not sure if all official guides are as good as Mohammed, our one. He turned what would have been an interesting day trip into a totally fascinating one for all 5 of us. We navigated Marrakech and Agadir ourselves; Fez is an altogether different kettle of fish.
There are official guides and there are hustlers. Be careful to check the government badge which all official guides carry. Our campsite phoned the tourist office for us and the guide came out to meet us. It was good to be able to leave the campervan safely onsite on the outskirts of town and head into the centre with Mohammed.
Mohammed was a history/geography teacher at a secondary school in the Medina until he retired. He now works part time as a guide half of the year and visits his family in a France the other half. He speaks English and French (and Arabic and Berber). He knew almost everyone we passed.
That was a BIG plus. It’s quite daunting in a souk or medina on your own. You are bombarded by vendors from all angles desperate to sell their wares. With Mohammed at the helm, all we got were hellos and handshakes. That’s not to say we weren’t taken to spice and oil shops, leather shops and carpet vendors, but we felt quite in control, able to say no thanks and still get a friendly handshake on leaving.
So what’s the medina like?
Each mini neighbourhood within the medina has a minaret (about 300 in total in the medina Mohammed said), a hammam public bath, a bakery and a grocery shop. Today about 300000 people live within the medina walls.
There are also schools and the oldest continuously-operating degree-granting university – in the world. Al-Karaouine University was founded by a woman, Fatima Al-Fihri, in 859. Cambridge University was founded in 1190 (or thereabouts), St Andrews in 1413, and Aberdeen, which celebrated 500 years in 1995, is but a baby at less than half the age of the University in Fez.
This 800 year old alleyway is one of the narrowest in the medina. Even huge old houses with impressive central courtyards have tiny entrances so as not to highlight the grandeur within. The streets are close together to protect the medina from the heat of summer. When temperatures soar to 45 degrees, Mohammed told us the alleyways between the houses are noticeably cooler.
This central courtyard, covered in ornate mosaic, used to be a family home and is now a carpet shop. The family would have used this private fountain. In its day, the courtyard was open to the air, and all rooms within the house looked into it.
Many of the door handles are in the shape of Fatima’s hand, to protect the household from bad luck and the evil eye.
Some of the grander house have double doors and handles. The higher knocker would be used if the visitor or returning owner was on horseback, and the lower one if on foot. They each make a different sound so that the doorman inside would know whether to open the tall or small door.
Because the alleyways are narrow, the rubbish collection is still done every morning by donkey. Goods are also transported around by horse or donkey, and there are “donkey parking bays” lining the street. You’ve got to jump out of the way quickly into doorways to avoid passing laden donkeys.
The median is crammed full of traditional artisans, hand-working silk, leather and copper products in the streets and alleyways. There are shops selling dates and olives and spices and pancakes. You can hear children chanting lessons from their classrooms, and the metal tapping of coppersmiths shaping their bowls.
The sounds, sights and smells are a heady mix. Mum, dad, teenagers and 10-year old were all blown away by the 1000 year journey back in time. Mohammed was brilliant at showing us life in the medina, and he got us back out safely – bonus points.
Despite all of the antiquity, the medina still shows signs of modern life. There’s a grocery shop called Playstation 3, or cast an eye up at the rooftops. Some street, which Mohammed called “China town” as we passed though them sell imported , mass manufactured good. We were very lucky to have had someone with us who proudly showed us the medina’s real heart.