Morocco. Contributed

Step back centuries in Morocco.

SITTING on a train somewhere between Marakech and Fez, the air-conditioning struggling to cope with the 40C-plus heat, I began writing what I foolishly thought was an accurate summary of our visit to Morocco.

It didn't matter we had only been in the north African country a few days.

I had been seduced by the markets, winding alleyways and sheer chaos of the medina – or old city – of Marakech and wanted to get my thoughts down on paper while the romance was still fresh in my mind.

“Ah, the medina,” I wrote as we passed through arid countryside inhabited by herds of goats and farming families which knew little of the outside world.

“The medina – literally thousands of narrow alleyways – most of them with no visible signposting.

“The first time you venture outside the front door of your riad is terrifying. The second, merely frightening.

“Every excursion from the luxury of your 700-year-old accommodation is like stepping into another world and you need very little to remind you that you are a long way from home.

“Maybe that's part of the medina's charm. Every time you venture out, there is an element of fear that you may disappear into the mass of humanity and never be seen again.

“By the time terror and fear have been replaced by a cautious acceptance that your worst fears are unlikely to be realised, you discover you have become part of the surroundings.

“As you wind your carefree way through the now-familiar labyrinth, you smile encouragingly at new arrivals as they scurry past with a look of sheer terror on their faces.

“You want to assure them it will be all right; that they will learn to love the medina if they relax and go with its flow.

“But you say nothing because learning to love the medina is all part of the Moroccan experience.”

OK, I thought I had Morocco figured out after just four lousy days. A few hours later, as our taxi driver dumped us unceremonially at the gate of the medina in ancient Fez, I realised that I had no idea what I was talking about.

We were standing in an area which looked like it had recently been bombed and the thousands of people coming and going through the giant gates of the walled city didn't much care if they walked around us or through us.

Their heavily laden donkeys – the only means of transportation within the Fez medina – cared even less.

They clearly had their own problems as they lugged huge loads through the narrow alleyways while their owners maintained a steady rhythm of beating them with sticks and yelling warnings for pedestrians to clear the way or risk being trampled.

Throw in the oppressive heat, the smell (a mix of incense, human waste and rotting garbage), the noise and the sheer mayhem of everyday life and I can honestly say the medina of Fez is completely different to anything you will ever experience.

And yet, in its own way, it is a magical place which has barely changed in 2000 years.

The butchers in their tiny stalls – complete with the head of a dead camel hanging above them to show customers what's on the slab today – have been serving hunks of meat without refrigeration for centuries.

The craftsmen have been turning raw timber, metal and clay into stunning pieces of art with little more than their bare hands for generations and the leatherworks, buried deep within the medina, have been producing handbags (as stunning as the smell from the factory is revolting) for just as long.

When film-makers want to go “on location” in old Israel or Baghdad, they apparently go to the riad of Fez because it is the only place which is still unchanged after centuries.

And the magic of Fez is not confined to its alleyways.

If you are lucky, you will be standing on the roof of a 700-year-old riad as the sun sets and the Muslim call to prayer sweeps from one end of the medina to the other, washing through the labyrinth before receding into the distance.

That's when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and you realise the medina of Fez will always have a special place in your memories.

Some of them will be good, others bad, but all of them indelible.

Fez – and Morocco, in general – are not for everyone but if you have a real sense of adventure and are willing to take a deep breath and take a giant leap of faith into another world, it might just be the holiday you've been searching for.

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