I found my hostel just on the fringes of the Fez Medina with the help of many kind strangers. Plenty of people offered to help me find the place, which I was grateful for after my long journey from the airport.
Many of the hostels in Morocco are actually repurposed Riads that were considered quite fancy to stay at way back in the day. The Riad, from the Arabic term for ‘garden,’ emphasizes privacy and shelter from the weather. The center of each Riad typically has a garden or fountain in a courtyard under an open-air aperture that provides a natural cooling effect. My hostel was one of these Riads with tiles that resembled the colorful Moorish styles I saw in Seville in the week prior, as well as smoothly polished fossil countertops and a relaxing terrace.
For my first afternoon, another guest who was staying there invited me to hike up the hill outside of the city up to Borj Sud, the old fortress on the southern side of the city overlooking the Medina. The view as the sun descended below the horizon was spectacular. There was an enthusiastic guard who was posted up on the fortress. He looked uncannily like the Belgian singer Stromae dressed in a Moroccan military uniform. He tried through French and hand gestures to explain to us some of the history behind the fortress. He also led us around the fringes of the ramparts and picked various herbs like mint and rosemary growing on the hill for us to sample.
The next afternoon, I ventured out into the city alone with no plan on my way to discover the Medina. Just from the map, one can get a sense of its convoluted layout. The Medina seems to have simply grown out of natural necessity over the centuries. This was the kind of difficulty that a young Younes wanted to help me with.
On my way toward the gated entrance, a young boy of about 16 years came up and greeted me in English. Younes offered to lead me through the Medina. He insisted that it was too confusing for a foreigner and that he was not trying to trick me. On a whim, I decided to let him take the lead.
In a matter of minutes, I found myself climbing with him up to the top of his home and jumping from rooftop to rooftop around this block of the Fes Medina. The moment reminded me of the first Assassin’s Creed, which took place in the Middle East, as we gazed at the views. Beautiful mosques stuck out of the skyline, and the fortress sat watchful on the hill in the distance. It truly felt as if I had been transported back in time.
Afterward, Younes showed me his modest room downstairs. He invited some of his friends over and brewed some excellent mint tea. One of his friends had a guitar, and we exchanged songs with one another. All of us very happy to have met each other.
During the afternoon, Younes took me around the many handicraft cottage-industry style businesses that have made the Fez Medina famous worldwide and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From lamp makers and wood-workers to fragrance makers and camel-skin tanners, Fes’ economy runs on the community’s skills.
Though I suspected that Younes definitely made a buck on the side for bringing potential customers, I also recognized that he serves a role in this community by bringing the eyes of visitors to this showcase of centuries-long skills that this city is so proud of.
On the streets, everyone seemed to know everyone. Younes was stopped often by friends, and I was greeted by everyone in turn with a warm Salam. We went to lunch at a small, hole-in-a-wall type place where it seemed that the working men of Fes would come and grab a starchy bite to eat in 5 minutes and then go on their way. Even for such a dynamic pace, I thought the food was hearty and excellent.
Younes was correct from the beginning — I would certainly have gotten lost if I tried to navigate the labyrinthine paths of the Medina on my own. A map would have only been more confusing. The only way to find your way is through direct experience, something only the locals truly had.
My guide was kind enough to invite me for dinner at his home, and it was nothing short of excellent. With fruits, salad, and olives on the table, we watched as his uncle slowly cooked camel meat on a pan over a gas tank stove.
It was a short stay in Fez but a valuable introduction to Morocco and Moroccan society. A special thanks to Younes, his friends, and his family for the hospitality!
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