Morocco; A story of three medinas

Medinas are the old usually fortified parts of many Arabic cities, especially in Morocco, North Africa; this is a tale of just three.

There is something special about entering a medina; they are often hectic, filled with various forms of transportation with travellers attempting to negotiate the narrow streets and merchants. They are a labyrinth of tiny alleyways which adds to the appeal, it is great exploring them, getting lost and finding a hidden secret around the next corner.

The UNESCO recognised Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakech, Morocco on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech

The best craftsmen and stalls can usually be found deep within the maze of back streets. Those that are willing and determined enough to risk getting lost for a while and the constant attention of street vendors can often find a great bargain far away from the main souks.

Every medina seems to have its own character and although they may initially seem to look similar, they are different, each with a unique appeal.

Marrakech – Medina of the many

Marrakech is Morocco’s most popular destination filled with tourists seeking an introduction to the Berber culture.

The medina surrounds the famous UNESCO recognised Djemaa el Fna and the souks which attract tourist and local alike. The square offers genuine outdoor theatre and holds enormous appeal to travellers. It is so vibrant and full of life, bustling with traders, storytellers and performers and whilst it may seem one huge show just for the tourists, storytelling has been common here for centuries.

A spice stall in the souks of Marrakech, Morocco on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Bursting with colour in Marrakech

In fact they are such an important part of the Berber culture that a great deal is being done to retain them. The Moroccan government now provides an income, and the tellers are encouraged to share their stories with their children so they are not lost.

The medina is large, and typically a warren of narrow streets, which in themselves are very attractive, but often offer a surprise for the explorer. This may simply be a great street vendor selling cheap and tasty tagines, an artisan making high quality goods or the famous tanneries, which are usually smelled long before seen.

There is also a great deal of colour with spices and fabrics, bright reds, yellows, blues and greens adding to the bustling, vibrant maze. It is a tactile experience as most senses are ‘touched’ during a walk around the streets. Apart from the tanneries and spices the aromas of coffee and tagines mingle with a few others probably better not to recognise!

Marrakech has obtained a slightly unfair reputation as a place where travellers are constantly harassed by hawkers or offers of help. The Moroccans have regulations that protect the visitor from over aggressive merchants however give them the slightest encouragement and they usually persistent. Little is offered freely, so it is unlikely the services of an impromptu guide through the medina will entirely be good will.

However a firm but polite refusal will usually suffice when discouraging both merchants and ‘good Samaritans’.

Marrakech is a vibrant destination, there always seems something of interest happening but don’t be too surprised if there appears almost as many travellers as locals.

The pungent tannery of Marrakech in Morocco on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Pungent tanneries of Morocco

Fes – Ancient Medina

Where Marrakech has a square that is a UNESCO recognised site, Fes or Fez goes one better, the medina itself is one!

The old town is known as Fes el-Bali and is one of two medinas, with over 9,000 streets. The oldest of the ‘imperial’ cities, it was once the capital and is the cultural hub of Morocco. The medina is possibly the largest pedestrian precinct in the World

It feels much more authentic than Marrakech but is equally vibrant, with hordes of people rushing through its narrow and sometimes steep streets.

It is especially busy during market time, when the souks literally come to the streets. Many of the stalls line the narrow alleyways which make up the labyrinthine medina, vegetables and fruit is sold from barrows almost directly off the floor. Live chickens cluck and squawk from within wooden framed, chicken wire cages leaving little doubt to their eventual fate.

Overlooking Fes and Fas el Bali medina in Morocco on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Overlooking ancient Fes

It is a full on experience and some may get overwhelmed. The hawkers, merchants and good Samaritans are still present and offers for guides to the tannery will be plenty. It is possibly the oldest in the World, softening hides for producing quality leather goods for centuries, the smell is no less pungent, but is not be missed. Don’t refuse the mint branch offered though, it goes under the nose!

The medina in Fes is just as vibrant and possibly even busier than Marrakech but it feels more authentic and full-on, which I preferred.

Essaouira – Medina of Winds

Essaouira is also known as the ‘Windy City’ or the ‘City of Trade Winds’ and was formerly known by its Portuguese name of Mogador. It is also a fishing port and guess what; the medina has also been granted UNESCO Heritage status.

The medina of Essaouira in the windy city of Morocco on Mallory on Travel adventure photography Iain_Mallory_071811

Authentic Essaouira

The port consists of ramparts protecting the harbour from the full fury of the Atlantic, a fish market which spreads well beyond the stalls and along the quayside.

Exploring beyond the chic restaurants and bars found outside the fortified walls of the medina transports the visitor to another authentic old town. The streets are still narrow;  another maze of rundown alleyways many which by western standards are in urgent need of repair.

It is possible to stumble upon a gnawa merchant, selling the instruments of the traditional music from the region and if lucky they may even ‘jam’ while the visitors browse.

Whilst the city is not famous for a tannery, the fish market is just as fascinating and almost as pungent. There are also plenty of small handicraft shops selling pottery, paintings, leatherwork and other locally produced artefacts.

Finding the Jewish quarter hidden deep within the medina is a one of the main attractions, the population once composed of 40% Jew and there is a large cemetery and several synagogues.

Like most medinas it’s officially motor vehicle free; however there is a constant flow of mopeds down the narrow alleys. This means that it is often necessary to keep stepping aside and can become tiresome.

It is hard not to like Essaouira, it seems genuine and is relatively hassle free and when it does become a little too much, there is always the beach!

Each of these medinas offer a slightly different experience, though they all resemble each other in the most important ways. They are all vibrant and teeming with life, their authenticity may vary but the experience is still very different and most travellers should find it enjoyable and interesting. Experiencing an alien culture is after all a prime reason for travelling.

The ramparts of the windy city Essaouira on the Atlantic coast of Morocco on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

The port of Essaouira


Comments 17

  1. Laurence

    Really love the colours of that shot of the spice market. Morocco is somewhere I’ve read a great deal about, and posts like this just continue to whet my appetite for a visit soon!

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      I hope you get there soon Laurence it is a fascinating destination, a different culture but such a variety within the country too.

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  2. Bret @ Green Global Travel

    There are no words to describe how badly I want to go to Morocco. Now that we’ve been to the Amazon and Dominica and are visiting the polar bears in Churchill later this year, it’s officially #2 on our list (right behind Kenya, Tanzania). Thanks for sharing!

  3. Edwina Golombek

    Have you actually ever BEEN to Morocco??? Gnawa music isn’t Essaouiraian, it’s black African and the medinas of Fes, Marrakech and Essaouira arem’t vaguely as you describe..Ho dear…

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      Actually Gnawa music is a mix of Berber, sub-Saharan African and Sufi in origin and is mainly found in Morocco and south-western Algeria. As for my descriptions of the medinas they are are as I found them, my apologies if they do not provide the entirely positive view you would wish for.

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  4. Lisa @chickybus

    Great photos–really colorful and excellent composition! Puts me right there with you…

    I have not been to Morocco (yet)… A former student of mine and I keep talking about doing a class trip, with him leading it. Very tempting…looks like my kind of place. 🙂

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  5. Shirley

    Thank you so much for sharing – the dream has been in my mind, the reality is taking shape and reading your wonderful experience gives me more to go on

    I would welcome more – I would like to do a non complicated trip, experience the people and the culture but also wish to travel in some sort of style and lovely surroundings….. not a 5 star hotel, but cosy, intimate, and full of the spirit of the country. Any suggestions most welcome… we probably will need about 10 days maximum in Morocco – Marekesh and Medina plus overnight in the desert…..

    Thank you !

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