A lot of first-time visitors to Morocco wonder about the meaning of the words souk and medina. So, to shed a little light on this, I put together this article.
What is a medina?
The medina is the old core of a city in Morocco, usually from the middle ages. It is surrounded by a wall and you can only enter through the old city gates, called Bab. The houses are pretty much all traditional style without windows and either whitewashed or painted in a colour specific to that city. For example, the medina in Marrakech is orange-red, in Chefchaouen blue and in Essaouira white.
There are seldomly proper roads, mostly it’s more or less narrow streets that you share with motorbikes, donkeys, juice sellers and of course lots of people walking. Just like in old European cities, the alleys don’t follow any pattern. Sometimes it feels like walking through an elaborate maze.
In some cities, motor traffic is not allowed in the medina, Fes is a good example for this. Because the medina of Fes, also called Fes al bali, is pretty big, this makes it the biggest car free urban space in the world.
A lot of the nice Riads are located in the medinas. But be aware, this might mean that you will have to carry your luggage from the nearest Bab, as this is the closest the taxies can get.
Also, most of the palaces, madrasas and the oldest mosques are within the medina walls. This makes for easy, walkable sightseeing. But, at the same time, some parts of the medinas might not be very accessible with wheelchairs.
What is a souk?
In other countries the souk might be called bazar, meaning the same thing.
Basically, the souk is the market. In some places this is an outdoor space where the souk is held once a week. The vendors come from near and far in their vans and lay out their ware on improvised tables. In the bigger cities, it is a permanent structure open every day.
In the country side, but also in the newer parts of the bigger cities, there is usually a weekly souk. Here you can find fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, live animals, and sometimes also things like ceramics, kitchen equipment, etc. Here in Merzouga, the Friday souk is the only place where you see the women of the town out and about.
These days in the bigger, touristy cities, the word is also used for the parts of the medina that these days are mostly used for souvenir shopping. In Marrakech for example, there are different parts of the souks for the different goods. Carpet souk, spice souk, metal works souk, leather souk.
Sometimes these areas are covered, to offer protection from sun and rain. Since the alleys in the souk are usually narrow, covered and very crowded, it is easy to get lost. But for me it’s part of the fun, to walk around aimlessly and see where I land.
In the smaller cities like Essaouira or Tetouan, the souk and medina are really good places to shop for souvenirs. Prices are better than in Marrakech or Fes, and you won’t get bothered as much, if at all, by the vendors.
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