Fès (or Fèz, another spelling), is an endlessly fascinating, ancient city in northern Morocco, a blend of old and new. Walking through the high, arched gate into the medina of Fés el-Bali is a step into the Islamic Middle Ages. Yes, there are bicycles and satellite dishes and endless cell phones, but they don’t detract from the sense of another era, exotic at every turn. Here we learned the art of bargaining while shopping the souks of Fes.
Before entering the old, walled section, the larger of two medinas, we looked down at it from a distance. We saw a warren of tightly crammed clay and stone buildings and occasional green-tiled roofs, which always indicate a Muslim school or mosque. A quarter of a million people live and work in this section of the city, which has been here for some 1200 years. It’s said to be the world’s largest car-free urban area. No four-wheeled vehicle could squeeze through these crowded streets.
Our red-robed guide, Mohammed, who told us to call him “Mou-Mou” because half the men in Fés are named Mohammed, led us into the maze. The souks that line the stone passageways sell every item imaginable: spices, herbs, olives, fine silks, filigreed metal lamps, goat meat, carpets, figs, snails, leather belts, wooden carvings. The eye-dazzling jumble is underscored by the scents of mint and cumin and the sounds of squawking chickens, craftsmen pounding brasswork, and men shouting “balak, balak!” – “get out of the way”—as they push past with their laden donkeys.
Haggling is expected. “It is part of our culture,” a seller said, trying to coax a tourist to offer a price. Bargaining over a carpet can take hours, often over many cups of mint tea, and is itself an engrossing experience. Gorgeous carpets sell for about one-half or one-third of the cost they’d be in the U.S. Prices range from $150 to many thousands of dollars, and merchants are skilled at arranging for shipping and delivery.
Dried roots and herbs with mysterious names fill the bins of some souks. I decided against the gnarled twig guaranteed to heal any ailment (it could be true, but I wasn’t going to test it), or the leaves labeled “natural Viagra.” The Moroccan curry blend and inexpensive saffron held more interest.
Food and Lodging in the Medina
At lunch time, we wove through the twisted streets, following Mou-Mou, to a marvelous hideaway, Restaurant dar Hatim. Here in the tiled courtyard of a private home we enjoyed a superb multi-course Moroccan meal. The owner’s mother does the cooking in her small kitchen upstairs. This place is exceptional.
There are many fine hotels in or near the medina. Riads, former mansions turned into boutique hotels, offer genuine Moroccan service and atmosphere. Riad le Calife, on the edge of the medina, is noted for its lovely, comfortable rooms, good food, and excellent service. The riad has a shaded patio, two terraces, and broad views over the medina. Somewhat less expensive is Riad Laayoun, in the heart of the medina. Beautifully restored, it has tiled walls, arched doorways, and terraces. There are three suites by the balcony and two rooms around the small patio.
Souk Shopping Tips:
– Carry cash ($1 = about 8 dirham). Some merchants accept credit cards for large purchases, but it’s mostly cash.
– Exchange money in banks or hotels, not on the street.
– Bargain in a friendly manner. Offer one-third of the asking price and go back and forth from there.
– A trustworthy guide can be helpful. Hotels will recommend good guides.
– Carry small coins for tipping.
– Keep your wallet in a safe place. Don’t be an easy target to a pickpocket, but at the same time enjoy yourself and don’t be fearful.
– Expect the experience to be very different from shopping at home; be patient and have a good time.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com