Wharton wrote that Marrakesh “is the great market of the south, and the south means not only the Atlas with its feudal chiefs and their wild clansmen, but all that lies beyond of heat and savagery.”
We didn’t see camel caravans or wild men, but after dark the Jemaa el-Fna is lively with acrobats, musicians and pop-up restaurants serving tagine, a stewlike dish traditionally cooked in a special earthenware pot. At a long communal table, we ate an inexpensive, if not delectable, dish of overcooked vegetables on a bed of couscous. After dinner we were urged by other restaurateurs to sample their cooking. “You’re so skinny, you could eat two more meals,” was a standard line.
We were fascinated by the Gnawa musicians playing African Islamic spirituals. Their instruments were large metal castanets, three-string long-necked lutes and double-headed drums. If we strayed close, a member of the entourage would jump up and demand a donation.
Mazed and confused
After three delightful days, we made our way to Fes by train. The medina of Fes is huge, because it was once two cities, facing each other across a valley. They were founded in the 9th century and only united two centuries later. The combination is called Fes el-Bali, “old Fes,” because another medina — el-Jedid, “the new” — was built nearby in the 13th century.
Fes el-Bali is said to be the best preserved medieval town in the Arab world and another UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of its large, densely built-up area is free of cars.
Fes el-Bali is even more chaotic than Marrakesh, though in a different way. The souk’s steep, narrow, sunless passages are not for the claustrophobic, and you must be prepared to duck and weave if you want to break the logjam of people and donkey carts. The labyrinth of derbs and cul-de-sacs was fascinating and frustrating, and we spent our time drifting confusedly and getting lost.
We could have hired a guide, but that wouldn’t have been very adventurous, would it? If you ask people for directions, they’ll latch onto you and then expect money. Some use the ploy of taking you the long way around, thus justifying a larger tip. And if you do pay, they may brazenly tell you it’s not enough. “Ten dirhams is nothing!” one snapped at me. “Nothing!”