Image: This place has been in my dreams for years

Culture

An unforgettable first day at the Medina

You know how it is when you get something in your head and it just sticks there? That’s how it was with me and the Medina of Fez.

I was probably around nine or ten when I first saw it, probably on a travel programme. I was instantly captivated by the sheer otherness of this ancient place.

The crowds of people in exotic clothing talking nineteen to the dozen in some elaborate conversational dance where seemingly no-one listened to the other but meaning was clear. The colourful stalls, spilling over with brightly coloured carpets and spices and shiny pots and a hundred other things.

It was a world away from the Sunday morning car boot sale in my British town. I wanted to be talked at by five different people at once in a language I didn’t understand. I wanted to be the one haggling fiercely over the price of a leather purse. I wanted to lose myself in the twists and turns of the ancient Medina streets while eating a pastilla bought from a local food vendor.

I wanted to be there.

It was a dream that I carried with me for over a dozen years until one day in my twenty-fourth year I finally stood, fresh off the bus from the airport, outside the triple arched Bab Boujloud Gate, the gateway to the Medina of Fez.

As I’d devoured everything I could find on the subject of the Medina, I was confident that I’d be immune to the culture shock that seemed to strike everyone on their first visit. But stepping through that gate and into the large square beyond was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

At first there was little sign of the crowds that the Medina of Fez is so famous for, but once I’d chosen a street to head down I soon found myself submerged in a stream of people, with stalls of every description forming the banks. The noise in those narrow alleys was incredible – a hundred voices chattering at once in Arabic and French, the cries of chickens and other livestock for sale, the clatter of machinery, the hiss of cooking fires, and every now and then the wail from multiple minarets as the call to prayer went out. I went from stall to stall, alleyway to alleyway, absolutely enthralled. One moment I was looking at brass cookpans, the next I was standing in front of a wall of slippers in every colour of the rainbow, the next I was stepping aside as a small caravan of donkeys plodded past, laden down with their wares.

I must have walked for miles that day, just following my nose, through fancy archways and past crumbling walls, discovering new things at every turn – an ornate mosaic behind an ancient palm tree, a secret garden bordered by rose bushes, a stall selling iphones and chicken legs – it was everything I’d hoped the Medina would be and more.

Finally, as the skies started to darken, I found a riad to stay in, and after a delicious meal of lamb tagine (what else would I have?), it was with a weary tread, but deep sense of contentment that I climbed into my soft bed. Tomorrow I would hire a guide to take me to the places of the Medina that I hadn’t managed to stumble upon, including the tannery, but for now I, and my nine year old self, were content.

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