The Medina of Fes is an inimitable spot–it is home to close to 150,00, and thought to be the largest urban area free of motor traffic. It houses the world’s oldest university, and boasts beautiful architecture. Built in the ninth century, this walled ‘old city’ and its narrow, winding streets would protect the people from invaders who would be as lost as Alice in Wonderland. Today, the gates to the Medina are a grand entrance and a portal to a time gone by, where artisans conduct daily tasks and make goods as they have for many centuries.
The Medina is a rather unique place, so keep these tricks in mind as you enter the labyrinth and you’ll be just fine:
Wear closed-toed shoes: You don’t need hiking boots or fancy running shoes by any means, but there are puddles and uneven ground and lots going on down on the floor, so I would cover up to avoid any unfortunate maladies.
Bring cash in small amounts: You’ll be bargaining here, and it is easier to bargain if you have the amount you say you do without asking for change. Also, once you’re inside, don’t expect to hand over plastic. There is an ATM at the main gate to the touristy part of the Medina, but it could look like this:
Don’t take tours: Well, maybe take the tours if you are particularly directionally challenged or want to get into areas deep in the Medina. In general, you’ll be offered many tours of the Medina, and especially the tannery. It can be tricky getting around, but it is pretty easy if you follow the tourist loop, go early and leave once it is getting dark. You’ll find sections of metal work, woodwork, etc. so just be aware and you’ll get your bearings pretty quickly. I took a tour the first time I went, but not the second, and I felt perfectly at ease.
As far as the tannery-it is famous here in Fes, and really impressive as it is arguably the oldest assembly line process in the world. It’s interesting how they make and use the natural color dyes, but the leather goods sold at the tannery are more expensive and not necessarily better craftsmanship than what you find outside the tannery.
Drink the tea: If you are spending some time and money in one shop you will probably be offered tea. Drink it! It is delicious, and if you are buying anyway, there is no awkward exchange of thanks but no thanks.
Travel light: There is no need to go into the Medina like you’re never coming out again. Sure, bring a backpack for your purchases and a water bottle, maybe a sweater, but there is no need to dive in with high tech gear and looking like more of a tourist than you already do.
If you like it, buy it: If it is something you like, buy it right then and there because there is more than likely only one, and there is no guarantee it will be there if you come back–and if it is there, there is no guarantee it will be the same price. I know from personal experience that it’s better to buy than to miss out completely (I still think of that beautiful lost pendant!) Unless, of course, it’s one of those items that’s in every shop: hands of Fatima, decorative mirrors, purses, shoes and things of this nature.
Be aware: As with anywhere you travel, there is some amount of risk. I always prefer traveling with a friend, and when it comes to Morocco, I’d recommend sight seeing and shopping in the daytime. And remember: get out of the way of the donkeys and mules, as they come through the narrow streets!