A donkey clomps past the cooking-meat smoke of a food stall, a television set tied to its back. Teenage boys on motor scooters zoom and honk, as veiled women fill water jugs at an exquisitely tiled fountain alcove. The sound of the adhan booms through loudspeakers, echoing off crumbling buildings and down narrow, cat-slinking alleyways.
And you are hopelessly lost amid it all.
As quintessential as couscous, medinas are the walled, crowded, mazing aortas of any Moroccan travel experience. While modern development and orderly urban planning have sprung up around them, medinas are the ancient heart of any city in Morocco, where East meet West, past meets modernity, tourist meets local. Some are reconstructed, some are touristy, some are pure snake-charming insanity. But none are alike.
Here are my rankings for the most memorable medinas visited on my recent Moroccan adventure:
American expats Paul Bowles and William Burroughs may no longer be on the prowl, but the narrow alleys of the Tangier medina feel just as gloriously grimy and hopelessly hash-laced. Glue-sniffing kids lurk past pushy medina touts, while fresh-off-the-ferry tourists sip mint tea at the old cruising spots of literary giants. Tangier's proximity to Europe has long left it open to all sorts of Western influence””much of it nefarious. I didn't feel unsafe anywhere in Morocco””except the dark backalleys of the Tangier medina.
Most Like an Outdoor Mall/Disneyland: Casablanca
From the wide, evenly paved lanes to the lackadaisical shopkeepers, Casablanca's medina feels more like a recreated theme park””or worse, an outdoor mall””than a relic of ancient urbanity. Even the stray cats are missing.
The medina itself is only a little over 100 years old, which accounts for the fresh facades and lack of historical ambiance. Swap the trinkets at the kiosks for cell phones and add some piped-in music, and it'd be an American mall. But if you've been battling hustlers for a couple of weeks, the peace is a welcome break””even if it feels Disney-ized.
Most Downright Insane: Marrakesh
The Marrakesh medina is cracked up to be a steaming, honking, pulsing mess of humanity””and it doesn't disappoint. The famed open square Djemaa el-Fna is ground zero for witch doctors, meat stalls, buzzing gas lamps and elbowing crowds. Spontaneous street theater erupts, motorbikes nearly run tourists over, and multilingual boys offer guide you through it all. Hassles, pushy shopkeepers and plenty of tourists come along with territory, adding to the chaotic energy that's become legendary.
Least Likely to See Another Traveler: Tiznit
The Tiznit medina has nothing to draw tourists; it's a functional urban area with no glitz or particular allure. Which is why you won't see another foreign face””or pay hotel rates or get baited into any carpet shops. Folks go about their daily business, meaning you get to explore a little deeper, let your guard down a little more, and spy on unself-conscious, daily Moroccan life. Most likely, Tiznit will be a stop-off on your way either down the Atlantic Coast or into the Ameln Valley, its low-keyness your first clue that you're headed off the beaten path.
Best Local Vibe, and Most Like a Flea Market: Meknes
Due to its proximity to Fez, imperial city Meknes doesn't get as many visitors as it should. Which means you don't get as much hassle as you should. You won't be the only foreigner around, but you will be immersed in a sea of locals. Inside the medina, there's plenty of jewelry and textile souqs (squares), but the thoroughfares that wrap around the medina like a boa constrictor are the real draw. Shoulder-to-shoulder throngs push past haphazard stalls selling cheap clothes, toiletries, bootleg DVDs and other non-exotic, everyday goods. Hawkers shout, buyers dig through piles, and you get a pretty killer authentic experience.
Mazingest, Crumblingest and All-Around-Coolest: Fez
The largest car-free urban zone in the world, the Fez medina is 9,000 tangling alleyways of Fassi history and Moroccan modernity. Continually inhabited for 1200 years, falling-down buildings are studded with satellite dishes. Narrow lanes veer, turn and dead-end; people step into doorways to make room for passing donkeys; and little boys offer to led your lost self back into daylight (for a couple dirhams), Home to the oldest mosque in Africa and one of the oldest universities on earth, Fez's appeal lies both in its rootedness and in its embrace of the present. And in its food. Nothing like a little lamb tangine to fuel you through a day of medina meandering.
Lauren Quinn is a travel-addicted freelance writer based in Oakland, California. She's traveled independently (and once illegally) to over twenty countries across four continents. Her work has appeared on Matador, BootsnAll, Girl's Getaway and lonelyplanet.com.
Catch up with her at lonelygirltravels.com.