Fez, Morocco – A Look Inside The Medina
Fez was our first stop of our week long trip to Morocco. It is the second largest city with a population of 1.4 million people. Fez is the home of the Moroccan Royal Palace where the king of Morocco stays even today. But the thing that makes Fez the most unique in my mind is its medina. It has the largest medina out of all the cities in Morocco. This maze of a place is so fun to wander through and get lost in. Even with a GPS, you’re bound to get lost – the roads are just too complicated and confusing. Plan to spend a couple of days exploring the medina if you want to see all of it fully. Relax, wander, and embrace the unique aspects of the Moroccan culture within the medina of Fez.
The Entrance to the Medina
You know you have found an entrance to the medina when you see the large decorative blue archway. They are massive, very hard to miss, and are officially called, “The Blue Gates of Fez.” Every entrance and exit has one, making them easy to spot. I actually love this aspect of the medina. The grand arches stand proudly as if they are welcoming you into this amazing adventure that you are about to embark on. Their size and grandeur foreshadow the size and grandeur of the largest medina in all of Morocco. The funny thing is that, “The Blue Gates of Fez,” are only blue from the outside of the medina looking in. When you’re inside the medina and looking out, “The Blue Gates of Fez,” are actually green.
What is Inside of the Fez Medina?
Walking though the Fez medina is like walking through a large complicated maze. It is full of twisty turning little narrow roads that seem to go on forever in different directions. There are absolutly no street signs. If you end up so lost and are needing to leave, don’t fret. The locals know their way around. They grew up in this medina, many have never left Fez at all, so they know it like the back of their hand. They are usually always happy to help you find your way out, especially for a small tip.
This maze of a place is lined on both sides with endless shops. Shop after shop after shop, all selling something a bit different than the next. Some shops sell junk that you quickly move on from, while others sell high quality goods. There is an area of the medina that sells mostly produce. Another area sells meats and eggs. Another might focus on bread or Moroccan pastries. Other parts will sell things besides food like hand carved wooden decorations, handwoven rugs, leather products, and hand painted ceramics. Part of the excitement of wandering through the medina is that you never know what you are going to see or find. Be prepared for anything. It is definitely an adventure. We always say that Morocco is the perfect amount of exotic while still feeling safe. That is why we think Morocco is such a fun travel destination.
So. Much. Produce. And for so cheap! Morocco has great high quality produce in Fez as well as other cities. Jimmy was hungry while we were wandering through the medina, so we found an avocado and some tomatoes, two of his favorite foods. Of course there were no prices listed, so we had to haggle for them. I think we ended up paying about .50 for all of it, or something crazy cheap like that. And that was the expensive “tourist” price, not the local price.
It always makes me laugh how in Morocco the oranges still have the leaves on them, and that is considered the norm. In America, when the oranges at Whole Foods still have the leaves on them, they are usually more expensive and are considered better. In Morocco, you never see oranges without the leaves!
The Mint Leaves
If you’ve read my post about Moroccan food, you know that when you’re in Morocco, you drink a lot of Moroccan mint tea. This drink is a huge part of their culture and a safe way to stay hydrated without getting sick from the water. And besides all of that, it is absolutely delicious and something that I find myself wanting. So when I found these two men hauling around this huge load of fresh mint leaves, I found it very fascinating. So much mint all in one place! It makes sense when you think about how much mint tea Moroccans drink, therefore, how many mint leaves that would require. That much tea would need a lot of fresh mint leaves! I still remember the fresh scent of mint that visited my nose as I walked by and snapped this picture. What a great smell that will always remind me of my time in Morocco.
When I buy dates, they are always Medjool dates. I never really knew that there were so many different types of dates in the world until I visited Morocco. The Moroccan people love dates. They eat them plain for breakfast and for dessert. They are considered a treat. I love this picture that I shot of this man selling dates. You can see in the picture all of the different colors and different sizes of the dates. Such a beautiful fruit!
The Orange Juice
If you like orange juice, you can’t find better orange juice than in Morocco. (Well, maybe in Seville, Spain too.) The orange juice in Morocco is ALWAYS freshly squeezed, and often from oranges that have been recently picked. They don’t know any other way. It isn’t a luxury to have freshly squeezed orange juice but just the norm. It cracks me up how in America, ordering freshly squeezed orange juice is seen as fancy and is so expensive, often at $8 or more dollars a glass! In Morocco, it is so cheap. Think more like .50 a glass. I kid you not. They make it right there in front of you. It couldn’t be more fresh. When Nate and I go to Morocco, we drink an embarrassing amount of orange juice. We definitely fulfill our vitamin C quota each day! We will likely get sick if we drink the water, so we choose to drink orange juice instead. It is so good. It is something that I miss enjoying on a daily basis. And Jimmy is a huge fan too! He gulped down each glass that we gave him in record speed.
You can find bread everywhere in Morocco. They eat it with every meal. It is a staple in their diet. I talked all about the communal ovens in a previous post, where the local Moroccans bring their raw bread dough to be baked in a giant oven by someone in the community. Even most of the rich families don’t have their own ovens within their homes. As you’re walking through the Medina, enjoy the smell of freshly baked bread and grab yourself a hot loaf. And make sure to ask around for directions to that city’s communal oven. It is worth a look!
(WARNING! SOME OF THE PHOTOS BELOW MIGHT NOT BE APPROPRIATE FOR YOUNGER EYES. OR FOR ANIMAL LOVERS OR VEGETARIANS…)
On the first day of walking through the medina, we found ourselves wandering through the food market section, including the meat. As a welcome to Fez, we were greeted by a giant camel head literally hanging on a hook right in the middle of the open air. It totally took me off guard and made me jump when I saw it. It was so unexpected and random to see. Flies were buzzing all around it, and an unpleasant stench filled the air. Then just a few steps further, we saw two whole goat heads just sitting on a small table next to each other. You really never know what you might see when you’re in Morocco. Be prepared for anything!
What was so interesting to me was how different the local Moroccans reacted to these animal heads than I did. As you can see in this picture, there is a man standing right by the camel head, practically under it, just hanging out, as if nothing around him is abnormal. Locals passed by and didn’t even flinch, like seeing a camel head or a pair of goat heads was an everyday occurrence. For me, my reaction was much different. On the outside I tried to play it cool and stay respectful to their culture, but on the inside, I was kind of freaking out. I grabbed my camera and started quickly snatching some pictures of this bizarre sighting. You could tell by the faces of the locals that they thought I was the weird one for taking pictures of the sale items in their meat department. It is always fascinating to me how one person’s “normal” might be totally different than another person’s “normal.” What’s normal to one might be totally abnormal to another. This camel and goat head encounter I felt was the perfect example of exactly this.
If you’re making dinner in Morocco and you need some chicken for your recipe, you head to the medina. You won’t find it much fresher. Just pick out which live chicken looks the most appetizing to you. The guy will grab that one, weigh it, and then kill it right there in front of you (and everyone else) for you to take home to use in your recipe. He will even de-feather it and cut it up for you if you’d like. It’s that simple. Fresh, quick, and to the point.
After every visit to Morocco, I feel more and more of a pull towards vegetarianism.
Crates and crates full of different types of fish – this is one thing that you will definitely see when walking through the medina in Fez. The rotten fishy smell isn’t my favorite, but seeing the Moroccan people buy and sell bags of these little fish throughout the day was fun to watch and see for myself. The medina has the BEST people watching.
The Homeless Cats
The pictures below actually make me really sad. Not everything in the medina is fun and games. Morocco has a huge problem with homeless cats and not spraying or neutering to keep the cat population down. It breaks my heart so much to see the cats and kittens so skinny and not being properly cared for, that most of the time I can’t even look at them, but just quickly walk on. I am a huge animal lover, always have been, always will be. I grew up visiting and volunteering at my local humane society, and you know that if I ever found a hungry or lost cat or dog, I would stop everything to help them, even when I don’t have the time.
The animals in Morocco are not treated very well in my opinion. They treat them more like rats than like pets. The cats are so malnourished and even struggle finding water, especially in the hot summer heat. I saw many dead dried out cats along the paths. The most heartbreaking sight of my time in Morocco is when I saw a kitten with both of its back legs broken and dragging behind him as he struggled to move around. It killed my heart, especially knowing that there was absolutely nothing that I could do.
The Handmade Goods
Ok, now back to the exciting and fun parts about the medina!
Morocco has the best shopping! There is so much to buy. Most everything is made locally in Fez. When you buy something from a shop in the medina, the man selling it to you is most likely the man that made it as well. The Moroccan people are so talented with their hands and making gorgeous goods is their specialty. I was told when I was there that the Moroccan men choose at a very young age which trade they are going to master and do for their life to support themselves. Such a big decision at such a young age. They pick it, practice it, and more times than not, continue to do that one skill for life.
Everything in Morocco is very affordable compared to American standards. Nothing has prices on it because there aren’t any set prices. You have to haggle for everything. This can get exhausting after a while, but it is also kind of fun and part of the whole experience when visiting Morocco. If you have mastered the art of haggling, then you are guaranteed to come home with some great treasures for some fantastic prices!
What should you buy when in Morocco? Check out my post here about all of the things that are must buys when visiting and also some tips about how to haggle for them and get the best prices.
Real Life Surprises
When wandering through the medina, you really never know what you will find. How about a dentist office? I don’t love going to the dentist in the first place, but if the dentist looked like this, I might never go.
I remember back in Marrakesh when we visited in 2012, seeing a man with a table full of single real loose teeth. The gig was to pick out all of your favorite teeth from the table, and he would help you piece them together and glue them on to some fake gums to make your very own individualized dentures. Now my next question is…where did he get all of those teeth from?
The Moroccan Children
A lot of kids in Morocco are taught to beg and plead with the tourists to try and get some money out of them for their families. A lot of Moroccan kids will offer to help you in some way whether with directions, or anything else, in hopes that you will give them a small tip in return. Not only am I a huge animal lover, but I’m also a huge child lover, and this also broke my heart in Morocco. Maybe they could tell I was weak and loved them and that’s why they always seemed to follow us.
This little boy pictured below won us over. I’ll never forget him with his worn out Spiderman sweatshirt and his flattened green soccer ball that desperately needed air. He started following us around in the medina and didn’t leave our sight for a few hours. He started by pulling on our clothes, following us very closely, and looking at us with those pleading brown eyes. We tried to ignore him at first, (that always seems like the fastest solution to get rid of beggars) but this little guy was persistent. He didn’t seem to be bothered that we were ignoring him and just kept at it. He didn’t speak much English at all, only a few words here and there. Once he realized that we weren’t just going to flat out give him money just for being cute, he started helping us with directions around the medina. We would ask him where certain things were and he would shake his head yes, like he could help, and started leading us through the windy pathways. The medina is the Moroccan kids’ playground and second home, so they know it well and are very familiar with how to get around.
My cousin teases me that wherever I live, I always have a young boy with me that I care for. She is right. In the last few places that we have lived, I have babysat and turtored young boys around this little boy’s age, and they spend a lot of time with me and with my family. So here I am in Morocco, and this little boy won’t stop following me around. It is like he knows! Funny that even when in Morocco, my cousin is right!
We were all starting to get a little thirsty and peckish, so we stopped for a quick snack of freshly squeezed orange juice and bananas. Nate was ordering for us, and I was standing back with Jimmy and our new friend. We bought this little boy his own orange juice and banana to join us in our snack. He was super happy about that and ate and drank it all pretty quickly. Then without any warning, he started walking away from us. He turned back around, waved goodbye, and was gone. We never saw him again. I guess he was waiting for some kind of payment from us and figured it was in the snack. After he got it, his work was done, and he probably moved on to another family of tourists.
Enjoy your time in Fez exploring through the medina. It is an adventure and a travel experience that you will never forget. Feel free to leave me any comments or questions that you might have below!