The Labyrinth of Fes – How to navigate your way through the medina

A donkey carrying gas bottles on its back, passing through one of the main souk streets of Fes.

Have you been to Fes? If you ever heard the Greek myth about the Labyrinth that held the Minotaur, then maybe you can imagine what Fes medina feels like. It is as if it had been designed by Daedalus himself. Looking at the map, you’d think all the posts about tourists getting lost are an exaggeration. I assure you, they are not. It is not an easy task to explain how someone, actually every first time visitor, can get so lost so quickly in the passageways that look very distinct until you need them. After already spending five days in Morocco, did we fare any better? Not really…

Getting lost in the narrow, little streets of the Fes medina is an experience on its own. You can try to remember reference points that will help you navigate, but eventually you will end up taking a wrong turn into a street that looks exactly like the street you were supposed to take. After a lot of reading on Fes and talking to other travellers, we have decided to book a guide to help us see as much of the souks as possible, but the guide was booked for the second day. On our first afternoon in Fes we were on our own.

Check posts below for more on Fes and Marrakech.

Our first venture outside took us through the Blue Gate, escaping the crowds of the medina. We passed through Jnan sbil, a calming botanical garden situated right by the medina walls. From the garden, we entered a less busy part of the city. We were following the sparse signs towards the Royal Palace but still managed to turn into a random street and lose our bearings.

In Morocco, offline Google maps can be helpful, but many tiny streets will be missing. As we had just arrived in Fes, we were still full of euphoria and wanted to use the day to see a few things on our list. We soldiered on, unfettered by an uncharacteristic, deathly quiet street. In just such a street, we stumbled upon an Artisanal Souk full of good quality items for a really affordable price (more on this in the next post on shopping in Morocco). Getting lot is not always a bad thing.

Once the transaction had been concluded, the owner kindly directed us towards the Royal Palace and told us which parts to avoid with a sincere advice not to get too far away from the medina. We actually had more than a few locals advising against leaving the medina, especially in the evening as some parts are considered rough for tourists even during the day.

The Royal Palace door we wanted to see…

For us the streets all looked the same; grey or light yellow buildings with crumbling façade, wooden doors with metal studs, small windows few and far between. We arrived at the palace, but not where we wanted to go. We wanted to see the main gates that can be photographed (to the right), not the side entrance where the guards dispatched us with a smile and a polite explanation why we weren’t allowed take any photos.

A bit deflated, we went back to the medina and continued our exploration there. As the day was turning into evening, more people were trying to get us to follow them or to guide us to different places and doing so more and more aggressively. Having to tell them off and keep track of our surroundings was not an easy thing to do and after 10 minutes, we realised we we did not recognise the street we were in.

We tried backtracking our steps, looking for the signs for the Blue Gate to help us get back on Talaa Kebira or Talaa Sghira, two main roads in the medina. As it was getting darker and darker, the look of the medina was changing. It did not help that we were passing the same place over and over again and had the locals laugh at seeing us again.

At some point we started feeling the exhaustion that had obviously been cleverly masked until that point. That morning we were up at 4.30 in order to catch the early morning train for a 6 hour trip to Fes. We had witnessed Marrakech completely asleep apart from the stray cats and taxi drivers waiting on random tourists needing a ride.

We’d been walking all day, politely telling children and locals that no, we were not interested in their wares, no we did not need a guide (especially not a random one from the streets that might take us further into the medina and get us even more lost if possible).

Evening had crept up on us and before we knew it, the sun was gone and darkness settled over the city. At a certain point I started panicking. Lights were playing on the walls, leaving the imagination to make shapes out of shadows. The streets looked deserted apart from clusters of men sitting on stairs and smoking. Luckily, the husband managed to keep his cool and somehow we ended up back on Talaa Kebira. We finally knew where we were and which street to look for to get to our hostel, our sanctuary.

After a hot shower and some mint tea and we were once again right as rain and started looking into other things of interest in our area. That first evening put us off Fes a bit, but with our guide (licensed one) the next day, we saw the souks in all their glory and were mercifully left alone by hustlers and “local guides”.

Essentials to keep in mind:

  • Download an offline Google map of the medina. It is not the best, but it is better than nothing. Apparently there is an excellent book called Fes Bab to Bab by Hammad Berrada with a detailed map , but I couldn’t find a copy anywhere.
  • We recommend getting a guide. It was a new thing for us; we usually don’t have guides as we prefer to explore in our own pace. You can get a guide in Fes for a 3 hour tour for about 250MAD and I have to say it helped us actually enjoy the city and its streets. It was also a good way to get our bearings and we now wished we had a guide booked on the first day as it would have made that evening and the next day much easier to navigate.
  • If you are dead set against the guide, make sure you know where you are going, use bigger streets and the most direct way wherever possible to get to your destination, especially in the evening.
  • Ask your host for a phone number you can call in case you get lost. Most of them will give you their phone number to help you out if needed.
A pharmacy we passed through. I was shocked by the amount of animal products they had on sale for “medicinal purposes”. It looked even creepier in the evening.

Do not let this post discourage you from Fes. It is a wonderful city full of things and experiences to offer. Just make sure you have your wits about you and that you are not taking unnecessary risks. This is one of those places were you might have to be flexible in the way you travel and explore new areas.

Do you prefer getting guides at locations you visit or are you more of doing it yourself traveller? Leave your answers in the comment section, I’d really like to know how other people travel 🙂

5 thoughts on “The Labyrinth of Fes – How to navigate your way through the medina

  1. If it’s a place I’m not sure about I would get a guide. In Hyderabad for instance we used a few different guides. In Chiang Mai our taxi driver from the airport offered to drive us around for a day .paid of course. I find guides get you into places quicker and you don’t have to line up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We never really had trouble getting into places or waiting in long queues. The longest queue we’ve seen was in the DDR museum in Berlin, but as I got the tickets online, we just passed through.
      However, this trip did make me think of possibly getting a guide in the future for, as you say, places I am not too sure about. We’ll see how it goes 😀

      Like

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