More than 12 million tourists visit Morocco annually, many of them seduced by the wartime romance Casablanca. But while searching for the essence of what Humphrey Bogart's character was like living in this north African country, several visitors are likely to stumble into the real culture of the places, as in the medinas found in the older parts of most cities.
That's what seasoned travelers who've checked out the medinas, discover a totally different community nestled within its larger surroundings. Often walled from the rest of the city and accessible by streets far too narrow for cars, these medinas are an instant time warp into how Moroccans lived, played and conducted business for centuries.
It's no accident that these spots seem so self-contained. They were the original urban settings of the municipalities that have since sprawled beyond their walls, the first one dating back to around 500 A.D. when the prophet Mohammed, after arriving in Saudi Arabia founded one he called Medina — modern Arabic for city.
Art of Haggling
The oldest and the largest one in Morocco these days is in Fez el Bali, established in the ninth century. Within its walls and constricted seats are scores of cafes, bars and restaurants where most of the consumption is al fresco. Shoppers have plenty of options from boutiques to craft shops as well as open markets where negotiators — in a setting that's been around for centuries — have haggling down to an art form.
Additional attractions in Fez include bath houses dating back to 1700 and weathered palaces the locals call riads, such as its best-known structure, The Ruined Garden. There's a similar garden that's been renovated called Jardin Jnan Sbil Gardens, donated to the city more than a century ago by Sultan Moulay Hassan, a popular getaway for tourists in the know.
Game of Thrones
Other Moroccan medinas aren't as antiquated, but each of them reflects a unique character reflecting of the city. The one in Marrakesh has probably the most bustling markets in its center, given that the city is the country's cultural and financial hub. Meknes is known for its eclectic blend of European and Arabic culture dating back to the 17th century, while the Medieval setting of Essaouira was used as a location shoot for Game of Thrones, which draws fans of the fantasy series.
Credit pop culture for keeping Morocco on the tourism radar, but if you scrape beyond that veneer, you just might find a more unique world within an already exotic world.