On my recent visit to Venice (my first) I was struck by its similarities and differences with the old quarters — “medinas” — of the Moroccan cities that I visited in 2012: Marrakesh, Fez, Meknès and Essaouira.
The similarities are obvious:
- Both are medieval in origin, and have complex street patterns resulting from individual settlements rather than a grid or other master plan.
- In both cases most streets are too narrow for cars or trucks, so they are mostly pedestrian.
- It’s easy to get lost in either place, which can be upsetting, or exhilarating, or a mixture of both.
- In both cases there are also some broad streets, and some open squares, but they are more the exception than the rule.
The differences between Venice and the medinas are equally striking.
- The canals of Venice are the most dramatic difference. While to a walker they are as much of a barrier as a wall they relieve the claustrophobia of the narrow alleys, and afford an efficient and connected network of transport for anyone with a boat.
- There are dead ends in Venice, either in a doorway or on a canal, but in most cases an alley will eventually connect back into the network, however circuitously. The opposite is true in the medinas: except for a few main routes most side alleys lead in a tree configuration to a group of residences, in which all but one alley takes you to a dead end. Navigation is tricky in both places, but far more stressful in a medina!
- Another difference intensifies the alienation of navigating in a medina: muslim houses are organized around a private interior courtyard and have few if any windows opening on the alley. I imagine that this may relate to protecting women from view, although there may be other cultural factors at play. Even when you’re totally lost the windows of Venice’s buildings are some comfort, while in the medinas you only see a similar patterns of windows in the former Jewish quarters.
- While you can get lost in either place, navigation differs significantly in detail.
- Google Maps beautifully tracks the alleys and canals of Venice, and gives you suggested routes between locations, including water taxi options. In the narrow alleys signal strength can be iffy, so the location shown on your smartphone can be quite inaccurate, but by correlating street signs with the electronic map you can usually orient yourself fairly easily.
- The medinas are another matter entirely! Google maps (as of 2012) makes no effort to reflect the small alleys; it just tells you’re in the medina and leaves the rest to you.
- Paper maps are available but they differ wildly as to the small alleys, and unless you read Arabic the street signs are mostly useless.
- The medinas instead offer you “Arab GPS,” which is asking a young man to show you the way. For a euro (or two or three) the guy will take you where you’re going … maybe. Sometimes quite directly. Sometimes via his uncle’s rug shop. Sometimes the guy has no better idea than you do and will just ask people along the way! Only near the end of the trip did a hotelkeeper tell us the best strategy: ask a woman. They won’t ask for money; they won’t lead you somewhere weird; they will just tell you which way to go!
- Venice is fully pedestrianized: there are essentially no vehicles on its streets. There are no beasts of burden either, except for men with carts. Boats serve all the roles of wheeled vehicles elsewhere: cars, taxis, buses, trucks … even ambulances. This makes walking in Venice a real pleasure. The narrow alleys of the medinas don’t allow cars or trucks either, but they have no canals. A pedestrian in Marrakesh must constantly be alert to speeding motorbikes. I didn’t notice motorbikes in Fez, but in both cities you must stay alert for donkey carts. Venice definitely gets the edge in pedestrian friendliness!