Morocco’s Imperial Cities – Marrakesh And Fes
“Serendipity was my tour guide, assisted by caprice.”
– Pico Iyer
Dancers and Drummers at Djemaa el Fnaa
The Faux-Guides of Marrakesh and Fes
In Marrakesh, we choose a hotel overlooking the Place Djemaa el-Fnaa. A few would-be guides approach us near the souq (market), but aren’t very forceful in their sales pitch. Inside the market, nobody bothers us. The spices, potpourri, fruits, vegetables, olives, ceramics and textiles burst into a rainbow of colors, and their aromas mix with those of the nearby tannery.
Marrakesh has it all. The cosmopolitan “ville-nouvelle” offers all the modern amenities one might need after an extended period on the road.
The old city is a centuries-old medina with numerous mosques and medresas (schools) adorned by the most beautiful and ornate wooden and tiled geometric patterns.
Depictions of creatures with a mortal soul are frowned upon by Islam, so religious artists create beautiful and detailed mosaics to express their devotion. Elaborate and intricate carvings and tile work are set amidst peaceful gardens and shady courtyards.
Diane in a Medresa
The Circus Is In Town
Marrakesh has been an stop for centuries, and Place Djemaa el Fnaa has hosted and entertained the caravans that have passed through. During the day, the square is patrolled by colorful water-sellers, tassel-spinners, drummers and dancers. At dusk, the Place Djemaa el-Fna is transformed from an open square to a huge open-air food court. About a hundred stalls are erected that all serve salads, grilled meats and fried fish.
Roll over the image of Place Djemaa El Fnaa during the day to see it at night
The square also comes alive with a kind of carnival or circus. Fire-breathers, fortune tellers, musicians, acrobats, jugglers, back-flipping monkeys on chains, storytellers and snake-charmers take their places, and charge a few dirham for a photo.
We didn’t run into much hassle in Marrakesh and Fes can’t be much worse, right? The relatively low-key and tranquil scene in Marrakesh’s souq lulls us into a sense of calm, leaving us unprepared for the assault we encounter in Fes. Like Marrakesh, it too has a modern ville-nouvelle to contrast with its ancient medina. Fes’s medina, however, is the most confusing labyrinth of twisty streets and turny alleys we have ever seen.
We prefer to explore cities unaided. For us, part of the fun and charm of such cities is to get lost, and find ourselves (unspiritually speaking). Before we are anywhere near the medina, the onslaught begins “Hello, friend. Guide?”
The faux-guides of Fes have been well-educated in English, German, Russian, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, etc by millions of tourists over the years. So, it helps to speak an obscure second or third language. Playing dumb helps ward off the bulk of them, but there are a handful that won’t give up. “You must have a guide by law. You think we’re bad? The guides in the medina are worse”. Great, can’t wait.
Before reaching Fes’s medina, we come across the old Jewish quarter/ghetto or mellah. To us newbies, this chaotic market is mistaken for the actual medina. We realize our error and emerge from the mellah. A particularly persistent fellow insists upon being our guide, but leaves in a huff, and a shopkeeper points us in the right direction.
Basket and Hat Vendor in Fes
Fool Me Twice
Beside the medina is the kasbah. Again, we mistake one for the other and unwittingly go the wrong way. Sure enough, and soon enough, we are approached by two young men intent on guiding us. They follow us into the kasbah and when they realize we aren’t getting lost, it’s all buddy-buddy – as if we’re being let in on some kind of joke. “OK, you win. The medina is this way.”
I never could read no road map
Again, thinking they had truly given up, we go “this way”, only to be followed again. It becomes clear what they are up to when one of them says, “OK, we’ll see how long it takes you to get lost, then we’ll see how much you’ll pay us to lead you back out.” A coercive tactic we had yet to encounter. Again, we retrace out steps back to the entrance of the kasbah.
Textiles hang to dry near the Tannery in Fes
We re-orientate ourselves and finally make our way to the medina, where the first guide we encounter replies to our refusal of his services with, “All day, I meet angry tourists.” I wonder why. Like Marrakesh, once inside the medina, apart from the odd boy wanting to guide us to the tannery, we are left alone.
Centuries of use have worn the cobblestones smooth, and many alleys have become slippery slopes. So, the mules in Fes’s medina are shod with old tires. An interesting and effective practice.
One of these laden beasts of burden has blocked a narrow alleyway causing a human (and animal) logjam. During the standstill, Diane gets her behind pinched.
Medina Alleyway in Fes
It wasn’t me and it wasn’t too difficult to figure out who did it, as there was only one person behind her. Push comes to shove, and shove would have come to biff had a group of locals not interfered and restrained the pervert. Between the heat and hindrances, we are in no mood for puerile antics. Sharif don’t like it. Despite both being Imperial Cities, Marrakesh and Fes are very different from each other. We prefer Marrakesh.
We spend the day looking for the tannery, getting lost and finding ourselves. And, just when we think we know where we were, we don’t. Once we pass the same shop for the fifth time, we turn left instead of right. For us, this is entertaining. The next day, I am determined to return, just to prove to myself I can find my way around, and had conquered Fes’s medina and its faux-guides. But Diane, forever the voice of reason, talks some sense into me and coaxes me onto a train for Tangier.