The idea of a trip to Morocco to escape the harsh British winter might sound dreamy in theory; but unless you’re psyched up for the assault on the senses, get ready for an emotional roller coaster ride.
Unlike many who visit Morocco and head straight for the shining jewel that is Marrakech, my traveling buddy and I decided to be different. Price had a lot to do with our decision. The city of Fez offers 5-star accommodation at ridiculously cheap prices. The fact that it’s the spiritual and cultural capital (and used by U2 used for the filming of the video Mysterious Ways) made it seem a perfect place to start our holiday.
Arriving at 3.30pm on a Friday afternoon was one hell of a shock. Dust-filled air stung our eyes; the inescapable fumes of the busy roads and highways blocked our nostrils; the smell of donkey doo dahs and the stench of the near-by tanneries permeated the air. The reality of the sights, sounds and smells of the ancient Medina were truly overwhelming.
As for getting a late lunch – forget it. Along the main drag all the restaurants were closed for siesta. We found a “tourist” restaurant open – its outdoor dining area charmingly positioned out towards the main road. Other than that, choices were slim. Welcome to a world where there are virtually no women: not out drinking tea, not in the shops, not in the streets, just nowhere. It’s odd.
Once you get over the shock of it all and take in your surroundings – it starts to hit you. Fez is the home of the oldest largest medieval city in the world; almost unchanged through the modern ages and still most definitely alive with its olde worlde ways.
Plunging headfirst into this sensory overload is rewarded with an unforgettable experience as you travel back in time about 1,000 years. You will find romance on your trip to Fez – once you get over your initial impressions – especially if you’ve ever been intrigued with the romantic notion of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights.
The biggest shock is that the modern world has barely intruded into the complicated labyrinthine maze that makes up the medieval medina (Old City) of this ancient city. Worn-out looking donkeys slump as they carry merchandise to and from the souks; kids play in crammed alleyways overshadowed by mosques.
This city is nowhere as touristy as Marrakech, but it’s touristy enough that the locals are desperate for your business as they jump out at you, follow you and insist they take you to see the sights.
Once we got our bearings, we met up with an official tour guide, who we had hired through the tourist office and made a plan for a day trip the next day (advice: never, ever go with someone who cannot display their official tour license).
The tour itself was incredible as only the Moroccan ancient ruins can be, but the condition of the car (seemingly falling to bits), and the driver (on a mission to get the tour over with in record time) was hair-raising to say the least.
Craving some bargain-hunting time, we booked a half day tour around the medina with our market place guide, Sada, and sought out the local handcrafts and exotic goods. Even if you prefer to explore cities independently, in a place like Fez you can forget about it. The mysterious magical medina has over 10,000 small streets and alleys; it’s maddening trying to get around without the guide. The food on offer at the various souks (bazaars) was like nothing we’d ever seen before and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Right now I’m saying a little prayer for all those chicken and pigs whose lives came to a sudden and shocking end in that place.
The visit to the medina proved both incredible and incredibly expensive with the experience being somewhat marred by the constant emotional bribery of our guide (charming but not letting up on the oft repeated mantra: “my family will eat if you buy”). The shop sellers lured with charm, and dismissed with firm politeness once a sale looked unlikely. The pressure to buy is far from subtle.
By the end of our five day stay, I was convinced that Fez is a both an unforgettable and friendly city; my friend was less won over, but we both agreed it was a fascinating place to visit.