From the moment we got off the train in Fez, we found out what it meant to be a tourist in Morocco. Back in Berrechid, where there wasn’t much foreign tourism, the locals didn’t pay attention to us. But in Fez, we were immediately accosted, first by a swarm of taxi drivers that waited at the entrance to the train station, and then by beggars and vendors that lined the streets around the train station. We had a vague sense of where we were heading on foot, so we firmly marched past everyone and made our way to quieter streets. (I knew better than to stand around looking blatantly lost with my phone map out, as that would be a cue for pushy tour guides or taxi drivers to hassle us; I always did my best to figure out my route ahead of time.) Neither I or Joe had eaten that day, so the hot 30 minute walk from the train station to the school felt endless. We finally found relief in the cool lobby of the building where the school occupied part of the 3rd floor.
This branch of the school was small, with only 2 classrooms and 2 bedrooms for volunteers, plus a kitchen, bathroom, and reception area. There was also only one other volunteer when we arrived and two classes to practice with each day, all of which made for a much cozier experience than Berrechid. Our new roommate, Elwin, had been in Fez for a few days already, and had plenty of helpful tips to offer about the city. We spent the day settling into our new home, then set off the next morning to explore the city before class.
Taxis were our primary means of transportation in Fez; most of them used a meter, unlike the taxis in other parts of Morocco, which made rides generally straightforward and pleasant. We never paid more than $2 for a taxi in Fez, and always managed to communicate directions with the drivers, most of whom spoke at least some English. So on our second day in Fez, we took a taxi out of the newer French Quarter to Fez el Bali, the ancient walled-in part of the city.
Walking around in Fez el Bali was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is a medieval city, and to this day no cars can maneuver the narrow, twisting alleys, making it one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world. Tourists flock to the city for the medina, a sprawling market which occupies large swaths of the city, but Fez el Bali is also home to 150,000 permanent residents, the world’s oldest university, numerous schools, and several mosques, all of which created a unique blend of people and activities occurring within the city’s tall walls.
Joe and I entered the city through the Blue Gate, a beautiful portal that served as the main entrance to the medina area. We grabbed breakfast on on the top balcony of a nearby restaurant, where we had a view of the Blue Gate, which I sketched as we ate. (One perk of being in a bigger city was that most restaurants were open for regular hours during Ramadan to accommodate foreign tourists.) We arrived to the medina early on a weekday, so the streets weren’t yet too busy. We enjoyed wandering through the shops, though we didn’t make too many turns as we didn’t want to get lost and end up being late to class. We had been warned that friendly ‘tour guides’ abounded in the medina, happy to lead you somewhere for a fee, although there was no guarantee these guides would actually take you where you wanted to go. At one point, we wandered down a quieter street, and were confronted by a man who warned us of the dangerous ‘mafia’ that ran this neighborhood. We were bewildered by this, but assumed it was a ploy of some kind, so we headed back the way we came. (Later, I learned that this kind of story is often used to scare tourists into staying within the medina and not wandering too far into the residential parts of the city. On later visits, I found that the easiest way to enjoy the city undisturbed was to pop in headphones, which effectively deterred unwanted interruptions and allowed me to wander anywhere in peace.)
Although I didn’t buy anything in the medina, I enjoyed looking at the myriad of wares that were available there. Many of the shops featured locally made goods, as there were craftspeople scattered throughout the city making everything from beaten copper bowls to leather bags (you could even watch the craftspeople at their work, for a fee). My favorite shops were those selling ornate light fixtures; lace-like metal cages and colorful stained glass orbs would mingled haphazardly, all illuminated, hanging from ceiling to floor with just enough room to walk down the middle of the shop. There was something different and interesting around every corner, and I went to Fez el Bali on several more occasions just to wander around and see what was hiding in the maze of alleys.
In Fez, we finally had access to some of the city amenities we had been waiting for. There was a small gym nearby, a public pool that we enjoyed on one especially hot day, and even a large, air-conditioned mall where we did our grocery shopping. There were also several parks nearby and shady streets to walk along, as Fez was much greener than Berrechid had been. Although the old city was certainly the highlight of my time in Fez, access to these other amenities made our stay more enjoyable. We learned how to deal with the tourist treatment, whether it was haggling for fairer prices or fending off pushy guides and cabbies. We spent a pleasant 10 days in Fez, splitting our time between exploring, teaching, and hanging out with our fellow volunteers. When it came time to make our way to Casablanca, I was sad to leave Fez behind, but excited to finally get to the city we waited two extra weeks to see.