Medinas are the old usually fortified parts of many Arabic cities, especially in North Africa; this is a tale of just three.
There is something special about entering a medina; they are often hectic, filled with various forms of transportation with travellers attempting to negotiate the narrow streets and merchants. They are a labyrinth of tiny alleyways which adds to the appeal, it is great exploring them, getting lost and finding a hidden secret around the next corner.
The best craftsmen and stalls can usually be found deep within the maze of back streets. Those that are willing and determined enough to risk getting lost for a while and the constant attention of street vendors can often find a great bargain far away from the main souks.
Every medina seems to have its own character and although they may initially seem to look similar, they are different, each with a unique appeal.
Marrakech – Medina of the many
Marrakech is Morocco’s most popular destination filled with tourists seeking an introduction to the Berber culture.
The medina surrounds the famous UNESCO recognised Djemaa el Fna and the souks which attract tourist and local alike. The square offers genuine outdoor theatre and holds enormous appeal to travellers. It is so vibrant and full of life, bustling with traders, storytellers and performers and whilst it may seem one huge show just for the tourists, storytelling has been common here for centuries.
In fact they are such an important part of the Berber culture that a great deal is being done to retain them. The Moroccan government now provides an income, and the tellers are encouraged to share their stories with their children so they are not lost.
The medina is large, and typically a warren of narrow streets, which in themselves are very attractive, but often offer a surprise for the explorer. This may simply be a great street vendor selling cheap and tasty tagines, an artisan making high quality goods or the famous tanneries, which are usually smelled long before seen.
There is also a great deal of colour with spices and fabrics, bright reds, yellows, blues and greens adding to the bustling, vibrant maze. It is a tactile experience as most senses are ‘touched’ during a walk around the streets. Apart from the tanneries and spices the aromas of coffee and tagines mingle with a few others probably better not to recognise!
Marrakech has obtained a slightly unfair reputation as a place where travellers are constantly harassed by hawkers or offers of help. The Moroccans have regulations that protect the visitor from over aggressive merchants however give them the slightest encouragement and they usually persistent. Little is offered freely, so it is unlikely the services of an impromptu guide through the medina will entirely be good will.
However a firm but polite refusal will usually suffice when discouraging both merchants and ‘good Samaritans’.
Marrakech is a vibrant destination, there always seems something of interest happening but don’t be too surprised if there appears almost as many travellers as locals.
Fes – Ancient Medina
Where Marrakech has a square that is a UNESCO recognised site, Fes or Fez goes one better, the medina itself is one!
The old town is known as Fes el-Bali and is one of two medinas, with over 9,000 streets. The oldest of the ‘imperial’ cities, it was once the capital and is the cultural hub of Morocco. The medina is possibly the largest pedestrian precinct in the World
It feels much more authentic than Marrakech but is equally vibrant, with hordes of people rushing through its narrow and sometimes steep streets.
It is especially busy during market time, when the souks literally come to the streets. Many of the stalls line the narrow alleyways which make up the labyrinthine medina, vegetables and fruit is sold from barrows almost directly off the floor. Live chickens cluck and squawk from within wooden framed, chicken wire cages leaving little doubt to their eventual fate.
It is a full on experience and some may get overwhelmed. The hawkers, merchants and good Samaritans are still present and offers for guides to the tannery will be plenty. It is possibly the oldest in the World, softening hides for producing quality leather goods for centuries, the smell is no less pungent, but is not be missed. Don’t refuse the mint branch offered though, it goes under the nose!
The medina in Fes is just as vibrant and possibly even busier than Marrakech but it feels more authentic and full-on, which I preferred.
Essaouira – Medina of Winds
Essaouira is also known as the ‘Windy City’ or the ‘City of Trade Winds’ and was formerly known by its Portuguese name of Mogador. It is also a fishing port and guess what; the medina has also been granted UNESCO Heritage status.
The port consists of ramparts protecting the harbour from the full fury of the Atlantic, a fish market which spreads well beyond the stalls and along the quayside.
Exploring beyond the chic restaurants and bars found outside the fortified walls of the medina transports the visitor to another authentic old town. The streets are still narrow; another maze of rundown alleyways many which by western standards are in urgent need of repair.
It is possible to stumble upon a gnawa merchant, selling the instruments of the traditional music from the region and if lucky they may even ‘jam’ while the visitors browse.
Whilst the city is not famous for a tannery, the fish market is just as fascinating and almost as pungent. There are also plenty of small handicraft shops selling pottery, paintings, leatherwork and other locally produced artefacts.
Finding the Jewish quarter hidden deep within the medina is a one of the main attractions, the population once composed of 40% Jew and there is a large cemetery and several synagogues.
Like most medinas it’s officially motor vehicle free; however there is a constant flow of mopeds down the narrow alleys. This means that it is often necessary to keep stepping aside and can become tiresome.
It is hard not to like Essaouira, it seems genuine and is relatively hassle free and when it does become a little too much, there is always the beach!
Each of these medinas offer a slightly different experience, though they all resemble each other in the most important ways. They are all vibrant and teeming with life, their authenticity may vary but the experience is still very different and most travellers should find it enjoyable and interesting. Experiencing an alien culture is after all a prime reason for travelling.