In the last weeks of two months in Morocco, I stared at the long list of places I had imagined visiting but hadn’t managed to yet, and crammed them into a frenetic itinerary built of bus and train schedules and fear of missing out.
From Marrakech, I took a daylong train to Fes, a historic city that had loomed in my imagination as an endless wander among plaster and tile buildings in the classic Moroccan style, intricately etched with centuries of history. I rolled my eyes at the warning that I would get lost in the Fes medina, and that I should hire a guide. Medinas, I’ve seen a few, and this wasn’t my first rodeo.
But in my short stay there, I learned first hand that yes, the Fes medina does exert some kind of disruption of the three dimensions that makes it nearly impossible to navigate. The predominant colors of the medina here are white-washed walls with dark wooden trim, and the tops of the two and three-story buildings reached out to each other over the twisting alleys that separate them, creating an ancient urban canopy that obscured my sense of north-south, left-right. I would walk confidently in one direction for 20 minutes, and find myself back where I started.
And the advice on hiring a guide was frustratingly ubiquitous: guides were everywhere, ready to “help” lost or confused tourists wandering the medina. We were easy to spot, roaming aimlessly and unattached to the massive chattering tour groups that swarmed and eddied around historic buildings, filling the alleys, pushing everyone else to the edges. The Fes medina felt suffocating in a way that I hadn’t expected. It wasn't the getting lost that was frustrating, it was the crush of humanity accompanying you along the way.
But take a few steps away from the major sites, and the streets were calmer, cooler. You could actually look up and around and take in the place, without worry of trammeling someone underfoot or being trammeled.
[Fes: March 2018]