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Fez

March 29, 2007

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Fez, Morocco in the medina gives one the feeling of taking a time capsule back to the middle ages or even biblical times. It is an extraordinary experience for an American to enter the medina which is an amazing maze of 9,000 narrow streets filled with shops, people in traditional dress (djellabahs) and donkeys passing through loaded with supplies. Ones senses are assaulted from every direction with smells, sights, sounds that are utterly foreign.

It was founded in 793AD and UNESCO has designated the Fez medina in its entirety as a World Heritage Site. It is the soul of Morocco, a Holy City and a seat of arab learning  and has not changed in centuries. Fez el Bali (old Fez)  is a labyrinth of endless alley ways with tiny ramshackle shops (many that have been in use un-reconstructed for twelve hundred years) selling dates, spices, copper urns, carpets and many other things.

I had seen plenty of pictures and read about it and yet it still took my breath away and frankly was quite frightening after our long journey and two days with little sleep. Part of the problem is one is warned so much before coming to Morocco  about dangers that one has their guard up high. Morocco and Fez are just not for the feint of heart. The pictures show the beauty which is there, but there is also lots of filth, flies and fumes.

It is also a handicap if one does not speak French or Moroccan. I think some of the surprises are easier to take if one is European, as at least one has had some experience with dark, narrow, ancient streets with crazy driving. I think it is still shocking for Europeans, but just less so and our experiences in Europe and living in an ancient Moorish village certainly helped a little. I think an American with no experience in Europe would be in for even more cultural shock. It is the extreme change that makes an extended trip to Morocco both exciting and exhausting.

We ran into our first glitch of the trip when our petite taxi driver that we got at the train station dropped us off at one of the main gates to the Medina in Fez. We were suppose to call the people at our riad to pick us up and walk us into their location. Either our phone was not working right or we got a wrong number, but the bottom line is we could not reach them and we knew this medina was very easy to get lost in.

One can also not imagine the chaos of this spot which was truly our first experience of what Morocco is really like. It is full of madness with donkeys fully loaded, carts, scary beggars and leering people in hooded native dress and veiled faces, rushing by and talking in foreign tongues unable to understand us. It is filthy and decrepit with either searing sun bearing down on you or dark cave like, dilapidated, narrow passage ways. It feels like you are on another planet or in a bizarre movie.

There was someone who spoke a little English who offered to help us, but we had heard so many warnings that we were cautious and declined, as we tried to call and call. We did not bring much with us with just a backpack each, but they get heavy in the hot sun. I was feeling anxious and exhausted and suddenly began
to doubt if this exotic trip with a young child was such a good idea. Finally, we decided to just trust the first fellow and searched the pandemonium seeing if we could identify him again.

We know many people who have gotten very sick in Morocco due to dysentery or travelers diarrhea and we did not want to be added to their number. There are no required vaccinations for Morocco, but many people get them before going and some recommend them. Others who have traveled and stayed there for many years scoff at the concerns since they have never had problems. After doing some research, we decided that we would all forego any vaccinations, but were also determined to be vigilant and cautious following the cook, peel or don’t eat axiom. We have a skinny kid who does not have any fat cushion to spare.

We think it is not the germ but the terrain and know we are all healthy, but we also know sanitation plays a part, so we loaded up with vitamin C and brought lots of anti bacterial wipes and liquid soap that needs no water. But it also made us look at every surface as a potential for germs and Morocco is filled with endless opportunities for germs to grow.

Entering this insane medina with a stranger from a country where you have had endless warnings about and exhausted after a long days travel and little sleep, added to the tension. At first he wanted to just give us off to another man who had a filthy donkey where he wanted us to put our luggage and even child on. Nope, we wanted no part of that and wanted to stay with him because at least he spoke some English. Even Mozart wanted no part of that sad and dirty donkey.

It was the longest ten minute walk, I have ever taken. I have been to Mexico, Haiti, and Egypt before and endless ancient narrow mazes in Europe, but nothing could have prepared me for this medina in Fez. I know I have used the word indescribable before, but nothing describes the Fez medina better than that. It is an experience that one will never forget. It is definitely one that takes an acquired taste and I did not care for my first experience at all.

We kept going into deeper, darker and deteriorating passage ways until he finally said we were there at
our riad. I have seen pictures of the riad and knew it was very beautiful so this hovel did not seem right
and I was afraid this might be a set up for some theft. We were carrying our laptop with us in one of our backpacks and lots of cash (to keep up with the blog and due to our problems with our bank and everyone needing cash in Morocco).

What a huge relief when finally a pleasant young man answered the door and we were escorted into a beautiful, clean sanctuary. Later we learned that the Moslem way was to not show on the outside, so often beautiful homes and riads are not the least bit obvious on the outside. There are a million people who live in the medina in Fez, some in squalor and some in great luxury and one can not tell from the street which of these two lies behind the wall.

The riad experience is unique to Morocco and we were glad we picked a good one for this first night on our exotic journey. It is usually a discreet entrance to a hollow square with few or no windows to the street and an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms. There was no doubt that we had entered a very different world both in the ancient medina and in this renovated riad from the fourteenth century.

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Ed

This is a wonderful post. I'm going to Marakesh with my father and two brothers later this year and I'm really looking forward to the Moroccan vibe - sounds amazing to me. I can't imagine the hastle you get on the streets being much worse than Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, so I can't wait to get to Morocco. Great food, great surf - all I need to make me happy.

hiroko timberlake

hi
i will be 40 this summer and i want to have experience holiday with kids and my hudy. first i was thinking sri lanka bt bite pricy then move onto france(because we can drive there and travel around there), then more i looked into it is rather boring place after all.
now i am thinking going to morocco. i was searching more information about travel with 2kids is either fun or not.
i am glad i have found you and i am very greatfull you have put alot information.
i really want to go and would like to stay where you stayed.
do you have any more tip for me? or anyother place you would recommand to go and vist in summer season?
wherever i want to go on hoiday from now on i will check up your first and get inf.
thanks

Barbara

HI,
Very nice description of the mazes and the feeling of the Medina. I was there with a tour guide and we had an extra guard in the middle of the group and one at the end of the line. No stopping at all, except for a visit to a carpet company which wasted a lot of time.
We were told that in the narrow lanes of the medina, donkeys and carts have right of way, so stick close to the wall. Very interesting place. I remember trying on a shawl/scarf and the ladies giggled while I wrapped it around my shoulders instead of on my head as they would do. This is the difference, isn't it&!

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