Saturday, 29 March 2014

Morocco - Going Medinas

Destinations in northern Africa are known for interesting beaches, Sahara desert landscapes, the Atlas mountain range, archaeological sites, Berber villages, and finally, old fortified cities, the Medinas. Medinas can be found in almost every major city, from Dakar in Senegal to Egypt, following the Atlantic and Mediterranean belt in northern Africa. Also, can be found in Sicily and Malta. Virtually, every Arab city with significant history has medina quarter. Prophet Mohammed founded the first Islamic community in Medina, which means city in Arabic. Soon, the city of Medina became a model for the construction of fortified cities of the Arab world, by which they got their name.

Medina in Fez, Morocco

The best country for Medina tour is Morocco. Because of its historically significant Medinas and higher safety in comparison with other countries. However, each medina represents a special world, different from other parts of the city in which they are located. All have narrow winding streets, like a maze, a large number of mosques, madrassas, hammams, squares, souks, handicraft shops, the streets full of people and a special atmosphere, like nowhere else. Medinas represents the core of every major city and shows the character of its locals. It is the great mistery for the tourists. So, before the visit it is recommended to read some advice for enjoyable stay in them.

Medina in  Essaouira, Morocco

However , no matter how much prepared you are, how much guide books you read, these interesting fortified cities will surprise you. Each Medina is beautiful on its own way. Each has their own style of construction and a special rhythm of life in it, totally unknown to the Western world . The normal thing is to get lost, to feel completely helpless, almost go crazy from the hustle and sellers who want to sell their product especially to you. But, just relax. It is precisely the charm of Medina. As soon as you realize that, you`ll begin to enjoy the opulence of the labyrinth filled with thousands of shops where you can find everything.

Souk in Marrakech ( photo: B. Komazec )

In some Medinas the traffic is prohibited, as is the case in Fez, where even the motors can’t be used. Transportation of goods and people is carried out by donkeys, the trademark of the city. In Marrakesh is allowed to use scooters all over the city, and cars in some areas. Scooters are buzzing next to you like wasps. Simply, don’t know from where it will appear.

Donkey taxi in Fez

Passengers usually book accommodation in Medinas, because they want to be in the center of events. Also, to experience magical mornings that have some special charm in these fortified towns with narrow streets.

Morning in Fez

Mainly, there are no classic hotels in Medinas. Usual accommodation is in Riads, a traditional house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard that is as tall as Riad itself. Riads are inward focused, which allows for family privacy and protection from the weather in Morocco. These buildings have no windows in the room, only the glass dome on top, from where the light spreads all over the house. This is ideal solution for maintaining shade in the house.

The interior of a riad in Marrakech ( photo: B. Komazec )

Breakfast will be served on the roof of Riad, with a view of the whole city. There is no better way to start the day in Morocco. You can see almost the entire Medina from the roofs of Riad, and enjoy the special atmosphere.

Breakfast on the roof of riad in Essaouira

Choosing accommodation in some Medinas may lead to certain problems, particularly in large ones, such as the Medina of Fes and Marrakech, where the most problems occur. Riads are often not well marked. GPS devices not working correctly because of the narrow streets. In most cases even maps can`t help you. So, it is inevitable to ask for help from the locals. This is the point where the new problem starts. Everyone really wants to help you, everyone knows where is your accommodation, but asking for money for this service and they are quite persistent. The fact is, that you`ll hardly find your Riad by yourself. Except if it is not one of the best known and most expensive in the city. Then follows bargaining, psychological games. They evaluate you, you do them, and it may take some time. Finally, in most cases, the visitor gives up and pay the locals to take tham to the accommodation.

Help from the local guy

In the beginning, you are not happy  how things works here, you might be even furious, but soon realize that`s the way how it is. Tourists come to Medina to enjoy its beauty, to learn something new from history, to travel through time,  for centuries in the past. On the other hand , cagey locals are there for tourists, because they live of them. Somehow, both are important to fulfill the “big picture” about Medinas. Later, you`ll find all that nice.

Bab Bou Jeloud gate in Fes

Of course, there`s a way to avoid wandering through the Medina. The most important advice for those who book their accommodation in Medina, particularly in Fez and Marrakesh, is to ask the owner of the Riad to met them at one of the many gates. This is especially recommended for tourists in one-day visit, cause there is so much to see in such a short time. In some Medinas, info points and road signs to major attractions can be found.

Road sign to the biggest square in Marrakesh

Some Medinas are almost impossible to visit independently for a day or half a day. The best way is to find a guide through the local tourist agency, its host of Riad or even to engage some locals on the street. People often offer themselves to show you the city, for the money, of course. Sometimes they exaggerate in their intention and follow you for several hundred meters until they finally realize you do not want their " help ". Unfortunately, everything must be paid in the Medina. Even for the minimum service a tip should be given. They will be very friendly with you, always with smiling, but, money of course. My advice is to accept their game. Make a joke with  them, on their own way. Make a stunt, and you ask them to give you some money, with a smile on your face, of course. You'll see that they are friendly. They will probably like it your move. Then, you can even  take a pictures with them.

Outwitting succeded

Someone could come to an idea that Medinas are not worth a visit. The answer is, of course they are. There is no place with such variety of craft shops, markets, cheerful people, incredible buildings of the  preserved historical cities.  Without that specific atmosphere Medina wouldn`t be interesting. It is important to prepare yourself for the upcoming positive chaos - a "madness" that expects you there.

Jemaa El Fna Square, the largest square in Marrakesh

In addition to a large number of mosques, madrassas, palaces and hammam, the biggest attraction for tourists are local markets - Souks. In large Medinas, variety of thematic souks can be found. Such as souks for spices, leather, jewelry, souvenirs, pottery, fruits and vegetables, etc. Literally,  everything can be found in the Medina. From natural remedies for all ills, to a "famous" Moroccan hashish. It often happens during the walks through the souk, local guys whisper to you - hash, hash, or shish, shish ...

Unusual natural products in the stands

Medinas are the best indicators for the area in which they are located. It is possible to estimate the structure of the population by Medinas. Whether is calmer or even dangerous area where are you headed. Besides beautiful things, there are also bad things in these old towns. Marrakech is considered the most dangerous city, although you can see the police at almost every corner. A large number of tourists is tempting prey for pickpockets. Tourists are also advised  not to go alone at night in dark alleys. In recent years, there are undercover police officers in large Medinas which, according to locals, guarantees the safety of visitors.

Medina in Tangier

Most visitors comes to Medina for shopping. This is especially refers to visitors from countries where the markets do not practice bargaining. The most people find it difficult to understand, how it all works, where`s the limit for the sellers, how they can make money, etc. So, this is exactly the charm of Medina.

Bargaining in  Marrakech ( photo: B. Komazec )

Sellers loves to bargain as a way of trade that exists in this region for centuries. Although people from capitalist countries can`t understand that, sellers don`t aim to make more money, than to make closer contact with customer and fun by selling the goods like in old times. However, no matter how much reduce the price, the seller will earn some money.

Plenty of nuts and spices in Marrakesh (photo : B.Komazec )

There are some special rules in bargaining, but perseverance is essential. Depending on what you want to buy, start with decreasing prices from four times lower than the current one. Be indifferent, but  persistent to lower the price as much as possible. Do not show the seller that really want a product that it sells. Evaluate the lower limit for the seller and follow it. Make a joke, get into the spirit of whole story. Thus you`ll enjoy more in shopping.

Genuine seller prefer humor and love to take pictures with tourists

Visit the spice markets where you can find shops with spices, natural products for a healthy life and various preparations for body care.

Shop in Marrakech

Stores are large and resemble the pharmacy. They are mostly owned by families in which the business is transferred from one generation to another. Here you can find spices from all over the world, natural medicines, ointments, aromatic salts, etc. The owner of the store will meet you at the doorstep and take a tour of. You can`t remain indifferent to such offer of products which are hard to find in Europe or America.

Colorful spice shop in Marrakech

Buying spices is must do, cause  you can find the best ones in Morocco. Many famous cooks come to Marrakech just to buy spices. You will be surprised with colorful palette of spices. From totally unknown to you, to well known ones, but in numerous variants.

                                                                            El Jadida

Marrakech, Fes, Meknes and Rabat, in addition to its fairy-tale beauty, are the most interesting Medinas for shopping. Some Medinas, like El Jadida and Chefchaouen are interesting because of its unique architectural style.

Blue Medina, Chefchaouen

The appearance of Medina depends on the external influence of the forces that ruled certain areas.


The best quality products of leather, silk and various natural fabrics can be found in Moroccan Medinas. Especially in  Fes and Marrakech. If you hire a guide to show you the Medina, it is pretty much  possible to take you on a tour of a tanneries and weaving craft shops. The owners will welcome you with interesting stories about the traditional production process. Everything is done the old fashioned way, all products are a genuine works of art.

Tannery in Fes

You'll see the pools used for tanning and coloring leather. The goal of the seller is to soften you with his story to buy something from his wealth of products.

Pools for coloring leather in Fes

When you visit such a craft shop with a tour of the entire production, you should be aware that you will not easily leave the shop  if you don`t buy something. Traders are very superstitious about it. Especially when it's Friday, a very important day for trading in Morocco. They will  require a tip for a tour if you don`t buy anything. Just to ward off bad luck. It is best to buy something if you like, but keep on bargaining and lower the price maximally,  they will accept at the end. Weaving craft shops, besides tanneries are inevitable in large Medinas. Variety of garments, carpets, blankets, pillows, tablecloths and scarves are produced there. Everything is done by a variety of natural materials, many of them are unusual for visitors from western countries. Here you can buy the fabric made of agave. It looks like silk, but has an incredible feature, can not be ignited.

Demonstration of products in weaving craft shop, fabric made of agave (below)

The best time to start the Medina tour  is in the morning, especially if you want to visit madrassas and museums where admission is mostly paid. Working time is until 5 pm.

Madrassa Al Attarine in Fez

It is recommendable to have a guide in large Medinas. Usually,  they will guide you to the most popular places for tourists. If you are adventurous type of traveler, walk through the Medina after check all main attractions. Do it without a guide to feel the spirit of Medina.

The beauty of Marrakech

You will see a multitude of streets, buildings and shops that will attract your attention. When you make a "scratch" under the usual routes of mass tourism, each Medina hides a multitude of beautiful scenes that keeps for itself and its locals.


Be careful and don`t go into the streets that seems unsafe. Stay close to the usual tourist routes, so you can`t lost in maze streets and don`t need to worry for your safety. In the little alleys, better and cheaper shops can be found.

Medina in Casablanca

It often happens when touring an interesting country that you do not have enough time to see everything you have planned, or to discover more interesting places, worthy of your visit. Moroccan  Medinas are such places. With its beauty and crazy atmosphere,  force you to stay longer and explore this mystical historic fortified towns.


It is difficult to give the right advice how much time is needed to visit Medina. It all depends on what you want to see and experience.  Largest Medinas, Fes and Marrakech, requires at least two days. Other Medinas are possible to visit for one day. The best way is to spend some time in each  Medina, but this is very rare in modern tourism.

El Jadida

Moroccan Medina tour will certainly leave a strong impression on every visitor. Especially those who like to dream and yearn for different places from the environment in which they live. Life in the Medina is quite different, even from the very cities where they are located, especially from cities of Europe or America.

The usual image of the Medina , Marrakech

All in all, Medinas are beautiful, sometimes more, sometimes less. They can be like from a fairy tale, but also, like from a nightmare. But, they have that wonderful atmosphere that makes you want to meet them, to move to another dimension, in a parallel world. Everything is unusual there, chaotic, energetic, and mystical. Everything is  "crazy" there. That`s why I can`t wait the day when I`ll visit them again.

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