The best place where to experience this in Morocco is definitely the Medina. In the North African countries and even in Malta, Medina is a quarter famous for the intricate narrow streets, where you can find all sort of goods and food, where the real-life buzzes. Morocco counts 10 Medina: Casablanca, Chefchaouen, Essaouira, Medina of Fez, Medina of Marrakesh, Meknes, Rabat, Tangier, Taza, and Tétouan. I have only visited 3 of them and straight away I have felt in love with the Medina of Fez.
Medina of Fez
Fez el Bali, UNESCO Heritage, was founded in the 9th century and reached its highest glory in the 13th and 14th century under the Marinids. The City, as all the other major city in Morocco, split in Medina and new town, base for new building and new modern style of living such big shopping malls and night bars. I must remember that Medina used to be Morocco’s capital, replacing Marrakesh but then it had to give up the honor to Rabat. Despite this, Fez still keeps its status of cultural capital of Morocco.
The Medina itself is divided in 3 different parts : the Muslim, Jewish and Spanish quarter, although each quarter keeps its own division and its own Mosque and School. This is also the oldest yet biggest Medina in Morocco, counting more than 9000 streets, some also tell that they are 9500.
I have been highly fascinated by Medina of Fez, and I left with a beautiful memory stick in my heart, a memory I would like to share with you all.
How to visit Medina
With more than 9000 tapered streets, you need some information and tips to avoid to get lost in Medina. In the first place, you have to know that Fez is not as dangerous as some people will paint it: I have always felt very safe here, even being a solo travel woman, and actually, I’ve bonded with the majority of people I’ve met. Sure, you should take some precaution like for instance avoid to walk alone at night or to wander too further away without having any knowledge of where are you leading at. But this would apply to safety matter in every big or poor city in the world.
Medina is surrounded by 14 Gates, locally called “Bab“. Each Gate can be the benchmark of your orientation, based on where is placed your Riad or Kasbah. Majority of the people always find easy to reach the Blue Gate, and everybody will be able to lead you there. Another benchmark could also be Av. de la Liberte‘, a sort of main road going down from the Blue gate into the center of Medina.
The more you wander into Medina the more you will be fascinated to enter all these gorgeous colored streets and peep into the many little shops: this might let you lose the orientation of where you were coming from. If this happens and you think you are lost, do not panic at all. Simply and nicely ask locals people where you are and how you can come back to your benchmark. All of them will be happy to give you directions or even take you there. Do not be afraid the worst it can happen is that they might ask you for some change eventually, but it happens rarely (well in Marrakesh instead,it happens very much frequently, but another story). In this way, you will have enjoyed a nice stroll with somebody happy to tell you a story about his/her life or interesting facts about Fez.
Last but not least, you can try to follow a GPS on your phone. Not all the streets in Medina have a name so they won’t be caught by your GPS. I find it helpful to benchmark some interesting points into my app maps.me so to at least I could figure out where about I was at that moment I was feeling lost. Although my favorite way was still kept “bothering” people asking for directions and then ending up to share a nice chat or even a mouth-watering mint tea.
What to see in Medina
I cannot tell you everything you should see in Medina, as there are far too many hidden gems and interesting little streets to find out. I loved a stroll without checking on my maps or not even bothering where I was going: as long as there were still people around and buzzing markets, and of course at daytime. The best spots I’ve encountered were the one I’ve met by chance.
Anyway, I will still give you a little list of must-see-points you cannot miss for no reason, my friends.
Bab Bou Jeloud:
Or Blue Gate for Westerners, it’s one of the things you will see the first visiting Medina as it is the western entrance where everything happens. The arch, covered by a detailed mosaic and blue cobalt pottery design in the side (Blue as the color of the city), is the perfect spot for a picture at sunset. Mind that being one of the main symbols of Fez is also the base of the main touristic restaurants and shops, where everything will cost you more than everywhere else, or almost.
University Al-Qarawiyyin or Al-Karaouine Mosque:
The oldest University in the world has its house in Fez: the Al-Qarawiyyn founded by the woman Fatima al-Fihri in 859. The University was first founded as Madrasa, then it become a major spiritual center for the Muslim World and in 1963 was finally incorporated into Morocco’s modern university system.
For its fame, students come here to attend their studies from Morocco, the Islamic West Africa, and even the Muslim Asian countries. In order to be admitted to the school, pupils are required to memorize the Quran and other medieval Islamic texts. In fact, it is vital to have a very good command of Classical Arabic.
The University is also a notorious Mosque, so be aware that over the Ramadan, it would be almost impossible for a no Muslim to enter it.
Bou Inania Madrasa:
This Madrasa (Arabic word to indicate a place where to study, a sort of college-school) was founded in AD 1351–56 by Abu Inan Faris. The Madrasa in full represents an example of the Marinid architecture. Contrary to many other Madrasa this one hosts a full Mosque with a fantastic ceiling and onyx marble columns. The Bou Inania Madrasa was restored with colorful geometric mosaic tile-work.
You can find this Madrasa just a few meters away from the University. Built by the Marinid Sultan Uthman in 1323/723, this Madrasa is also located at the entrance of the spice and perfume market: for this the name al-Attarine, the madrasa of the perfumers.
The Madrasa itself is perhaps the most beautiful of Fez, at least to me, with its detailed wooden walls and the first “Madrasa stone” incorporated on the wall of the prayer’s hall. Really worth a visit.
In the very heart of Medina, you can find this vibrant market. Here you can find a good variety of food, fresh fruit, and vegetables. A good place where to buy some local grocery for instance if you are that kind of “Travel-like-a-local” traveler. I loved it here, it might have sometimes a strong smell, because of the close by river of Pearls, the Oued al Jawahir, but this won’t kill you.
Placed on the south side of Medina, the Andalusian quarter takes its name from the many Arab families who fled from the Andalusia region of Spain and settled here in the 9th century. Here you can find the Andalusian Mosque, which I could not visit as It was under construction, but perhaps you will be luckier in the future. This is not the most attractive part of Medina if you are looking for touristic shops or perfection, but the yellow house’s walls, the local vendors and kids playing around will give you a proper taste of local daily life. Also from here, you can have a great view of the whole Medina.
Chaouara or also Chaouwara Tanneries is the most iconic site where you can experience the leather workshop in Fez. Deep into Medina, heading east or northeast from Place As Seffarine you will start to get closer to the leather district. Also, you can easily understand that you are getting there from the strong smell you will start to feel from the streets already. Regardless you will feel the eager of getting down there and see more closely the men at work, you will have to climb the terrace of one of the few leather shops around the tanneries, with the big pleasure of the sellers. In fact, some of them or even local people will try to take you to these shops, with the hope that you will eventually buy something. The leather handcrafted in Morocco is definitely one of the most famous in the world. In fact, many leather goods manufacturers come here from all over the world, to learn old and traditional techniques.
The enchanting colors and the fine art of working on the leather, will distract you from the tangy smell. Unfortunately, I must remember that this is a very hard job. These people wake up early in the morning working long hours, to keep alive their traditions.
You can also find some smaller tanneries a bit further away, where perhaps you can avoid touts around trying to bring you to their shops.
Hand-crafts shopping in the souk:
People from Saudia Arabia and all over North Africa come to Medina of Fez to shop goods and resell them in their countries. Not to mention the thousands of tourist that each year flood the souk of Fez (souk is literally a market) in search of beautiful handcraft souvenir and bronze tools. Being the biggest Medina in Morocco and one of the biggest in North Africa, Medina of Fez offers a huge variety of goods. From utensils and instruments brass to handmade jewelry and accessories, ceramic Tajines of all sizes, leather bags and most of all spices and fragrances of all kind until the iconic Argan oil. Important: the cheapest you go the more you won’t find a pure Argan oil.
The more you venture into Medina the more you will find new shops and little kiosk, selling all this sort of goods and foods, lots of local delicacies. You won’t resist entering almost every shop. You definitely need more than 1 day to properly experience the shopping in Medina. It is not simply going into a shopping mall and look for new clothes, it is really an experience. Sellers will stop you, showing their merchandise or asking to have a taste of their tasty dates and other Moroccan sweets. Impossible to resist to try everything and not to buy at least something to bring with you at home.
Do not be afraid to discover new streets, you will find shops new to you and more incredible handcraft that will catch your attention. A real and unique experience. Don’t forget the bargain-rule: you have to negotiate almost everything in Medina.
Be careful, as Medina is very crowded in the morning and in the early afternoon. You might end up to be squeezed on the wall of these narrow streets to let a man with its donkey-carriage pass through. This is fun after all.
Try Henna tattoo:
Come on, you cannot leave Morocco not doing a Henna tattoo. For the few of you who do not know yet what is a Henna, is a designed tattoo done with a traditional powder generally melted with tea, onto the woman’s body. It is a moment to celebrate something special like a wedding, but it is also very beautiful to see. Moroccan women are very skilled when it comes to design the Henna, most of all my friend Rita! I loved her henna tattoo, on top of the fact that we spent hours together enjoying a nice chat about her life and her dreams. If you want to reach Rita, you might want to go to “Zaouia Sidi Ahmed Tijani Mosque” and ask for Rita when you are close by.
Right outside the King’s palace, you can find the entrance of the Jewish cemetery, in the Jewish quarter of Medina. Here you can see white tombs, indicating the one of the Rabbis. This quarter is also quite preserved and you can also find synagogues and trace of the Jewish rich history.
Have a stroll without demands and stop tasting the local tea:
Yes, you have heard me right. Walk through Medina without having a specific plan on where to go or what to see. Medina of Fez at daytime is very safe, as surrounded by lots of other travelers and tourists, local people and police. This can give you the right safety to walk around with no fear of being robbed or such, and actually, to discover corners of Medina you would not see if you would only follow the maps or the main attractions. Find out the smells coming from a housewife window, whilst she is cooking lunch for her family, using the dozens of gorgeous Moroccan spices, and do not forget: have a taste of delicious Moroccan Mint tea!
Tips: many shops and restaurant accept credit cards, but it is nice to purchase also from the vendors with less fancy shops, you will help them. In this second case, make sure to have enough cash, same if you want to purchase street food.
If you feel more adventurous and you want to know more about a wild Morocco, you can check out Federica’s Sahara desert tour here: