Max Williams: Expect to be amazed at Fes medina

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The camel’s head is hanging from a shop awning and is swaying slightly in the breeze created by the passers-by. Its open eyes are blankly staring out. Its body, dissected by the butcher, is proudly displayed on an open bench top behind the head – with a zillion flies hovering above and crawling over the raw flesh.

We are at the Fes medina, the oldest in Morocco and a World Heritage site. It dates to 808AD. There are 250,000 inhabitants in the medina with 15km of surrounding walls and 14 gates. Our Insight Vacations guide takes us on a three-hour tour around this maze of 12,000 narrow, winding and often switch-back cobblestone alleyways.

fes medina walled city

It would be easy to get lost here – our internal GPS is well and truly tested.

We enter the medina about 8.30am and not far in we hear the clip clop of donkeys behind us. They have bags draped over them like panniers on a push bike, and are escorted by men in green overalls.

These are the morning garbage collectors and this type of transport is the only practical mode for these narrow pathways.

The donkeys leave their steamy deposits along the way and one’s nostrils are offended by this fresh odour. I am careful not to step in the yellowish spherical blobs or hit my head on some hanging artefact or low shop sign as I wander through this maze.

A combo of sounds fills the air. The spruikers loudly tout their wares, their voices many decibels above the mesmerising Arabic music wafting throughout the medina. Around every corner there is something new and exciting – the camel’s head certainly one item that got my attention.

I hold on to my backpack and frequently feel my pockets in search of my wallet, because we have been warned about pickpockets.

My senses are in overload as I continue this adventure. The various smells identify their origin – pastries, bread, meats, fruits and vegetables, fabrics and wool scouring, leather goods, spices, perfumes and carpets.

My camera is in meltdown at this plethora of activity.

A word of warning though. Not everyone is happy about getting their photo taken. You might have to pay something for the shot.

As part of the tour, we are directed by our guide to several outlets, aka tourist traps – embroidery, leather and carpet shops.

The latter is real hard sell, where a one-on-one sales technique is used. Salesmen come by and engage the unsuspecting with “where do you come from” and “what colours do you like”, then take you to a private room to do the hard sell. No is not an answer they understand.

The boss of the place struts around and yells abuse in Arabic at his sales staff in front of us. He is dressed in a rather colourful Paul and Shark shirt with gold buckle shoes and a watch dripping with diamonds.

People who are led out to their respective rooms are about to be subtly intimidated and will end up buying, having been-there-done-that in Turkey a few years back. 

As we leave the carpet outlet, I turn around and see our tour director surreptitiously receiving cash from Mr Paul and Shark. This is an accepted practice, and tour guides can get up to 10 per cent of whatever is purchased. A very handy way to supplement one’s salary, particularly when some of those silk carpets cost thousands of dollars.

My one big disappointment with Morocco has been constantly dealing with people with their hand out. I always got the feeling that someone was trying to take advantage of me or to rip me off in some way. There are very few places where fixed prices are displayed. Most of the time you must barter, which I don’t mind one bit because I enjoy the ritual.

I feel for the uninitiated tourist who may pay far too much for an item – the starting price sometimes five times what a local would pay for the same article. However, the bottom line is, if you are happy with your purchase then the price is right.

The Fez medina is one of the best I have been to in all my travels. My advice is to get a guide if you contemplate a visit here, as you will get lost otherwise. Why not give it a go sometime? You might even be able to eyeball a camel’s head.

Have you been to the Fes medina? Is Morocco on your wish list?

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Written by MaxWilliams

2 Comments

Total Comments: 2
  1. 0
    0

    Sounds a bit like Singapore. (Change Alley), in the late sixties & early seventies. Or where the ‘Lady Boys’ hung out.

  2. 0
    0

    Lady Boys were called ‘Shims’, in those days.


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