By Nat Smith
The experience most emblematic of my time in Morocco is walking down a crowded alley: weaving through a bustling throng, vendors vying for my attention, the drifting scent of olives and roasting meat, the call to prayer echoing out from mosque minarets towering above everything else. From Fez to Marrakech, most large cities in Morocco have an extensive history and a section of town built long before cars were a concern. These old areas at the heart of every major urban area are called medinas (from the Arabic word for city). Each medina has its own character, but they all share the quality of being a narrow, winding maze both daunting and exciting for a tourist. There are always overly friendly guides who can help you find your way (for a fee of course), reaching out in French, Arabic, and English. The streets of the medinas were built with one primary rule in mind: to be wide enough for two donkey carts to pass in opposite directions. The result is a pedestrian’s paradise and a respite from the roar of traffic that dominates US metropolitan areas.
Fez has the largest and most overwhelming medina, over 180 miles of alleys snaking around in patterns only recognizable to a local. Bring a map or someone who knows where they’re going. A must-see landmark is the Chouara Tannery that has been in operation since the 11th century. You can climb up to the rooftops and look down at the process of dying leather, which has changed little in the last thousand years. If a leather jacket doesn’t quite fit your style, the city’s numerous shops filled to the brim with beautiful rugs may be better places to shop. The cuisine is another reason to visit. You could try a traditional tajine—meat and vegetables smothered in spices and slow cooked in one of Morocco’s iconic conical ceramic dishes—or couscous, traditionally eaten on Fridays to celebrate Islam’s holy day, but always delicious. The more adventurous could try a camel burger (a bit greasy for my tastes) or a bowl of snails. Food carts offering delectable baked goods or fresh prickly-pear cactus fruit are never far away. Fez’s cramped alleys can hardly contain the variety of shops and vibrant energy you feel walking around the ancient city.
Since I’m one to usually avoid big crowds, my favorite medina was Chefchaouen. The tourist attraction of a city is tucked high up in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco. What makes the city so unforgettable and eye-catching is the blue paint that covers nearly every wall in the medina. Come for the scenery and stay for the lifestyle. Given its proximity to where Morocco’s marijuana is grown, Chefchaouen has gotten the reputation as the country’s hub for illicit activity (and thus attracted plenty of western tourists). Everyone in the city was friendly, whether because they were smoking hash or trying to sell me some I could never tell. Regardless, the blue city is something everyone visiting Morocco should try to experience. I can say without exaggeration that a labyrinth of blue alleys nested among a panorama of grey-green peaks is a city unlike any other.
The diversity of scenery in Morocco is incredible. You can go from snow-capped mountains to rolling hills of olive trees spotted with grazing goats inside of an hour’s drive. From the sand seas of the Sahara to the waves of the Atlantic, Morocco always provides a captivating vista. Still, of all the beautiful places I visited there, when I think of Morocco I miss the medinas.