How can you even begin to understand the Fez medina, a walled city that has 9000 streets, 10,000 shops, a million people and is nearly a millennium old?
Confusion sets in with an early-morning walk through the twisted streets of Fes el Bali, the largest of the city’s two medinas.
The sweetness of sandalwood and cinnamon dissipates too quickly, replaced by the stench of sardines and donkey droppings, donkeys being the only delivery vehicles that fit through the old quarter’s narrow alleys.
Around a corner, my nostrils flare again with delight as they approach mounds of dates and nuts and apricots. I then almost choke as the dates fade and I enter the chemical mist hanging over the city’s ancient tanneries, an eye-watering mixture of pigeon excrement, dyes and cow urine, smells which probably haven’t changed since the first apprentice tanner began gathering bird poop some 11 centuries ago, preparing for a short life of long hours and back-bending labor.
Only the din of the medina might be more powerful than its smells.
Everywhere, craftsmen bang and pummel and pull at metal and stone. They beat and they carve, posted at the entrance to their stalls, where Fassis – the people of Fez – bargain and buy, remaining outside, the shops too tiny to enter.
The hammering bounces off walls, somersaulting down each minuscule street like a fireball seeking escape.
It seems to keep time with the chant of the muezzin, because here, at this moment, it is prayer time and the men, these artisans are always men, are grateful for their jobs, their homes, their lives.
Occasionally the camaraderie shatters as an argument breaks out, about price, perhaps. Tempers flare until the limit of civility is reached. The men back down, each convinced of his victory, and peace returns.
The colors and shapes of the Fez medina are almost as violent as its sounds, deep green olives fighting with crimson chillies, tiled mosaic fountains battling twisted earthen roads, bright white houses agains blue skies.
Everything fights for space: here, a few scavenging cats, there, a dead rat.
Overhead the uneven rush matting allows through dusty rays of sunlight, illuminating a few dates, a pile of apricots. Suddenly the space between the rushes widens, letting in a brilliance so piercing I stumble around for my sunglasses. The fetid air of the souk, the market, is replaced by a dry, cracking freshness that chases away the stuffiness.
Fez is as ancient as it is new, its food delivered by donkey and ordered by cellphone, its entertainment an old man’s vaguely remembered story, beamed across the medina and the world by satellite.
Faced with a city which has survived longer than any other like it, I wonder whether I have made any sense of Fez, which I love and despise in equal measure, whose overburdened donkeys haunt me, whose smells offend me, and whose beauty turns me into a giddy girl.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- I can recommend two lovely riads, or traditional houses: In Fez I stayed at (and loved) Riad Laayoun whose friendly manager, Simo, will make you feel at home and taken care of. I also stayed at the more luxurious Riad R’Cif. Both are almost next to one another in the medina.
- The medina is protected by UNESCO and listed on its World Heritage List.
- If you’d like a hammam without the ‘group’ experience head for Mernissi (you can follow them on Facebook)
- After your hammam eat at Thami’s. Come out of the hammam and there’s a tiny counter on your right. There are a couple of cafes nearby with Thami’s menus (they’ll try to tell you they are Thami) but just head for the counter. You’ll get the same food at the other cafes but Thami will have to pay a 30% commission to the restaurant’s owner.
- Bring good walking shoes for Fez. It’s slippery with food and water, has plenty of steps and uneven stones, and remember – donkey poop.
- It’s safe and I wandered around the medina after dark on my own without any issues at all. Some women have reported the occasional come on by men but it’s light compared to other cities or to Southern Europe.