Fes (or Fez)
Spelt Fes or Fez, the city was originally actually called Fas and formed part of a split settlement across the Jawhar river. Hailed as the cultural and Islamic capital of Morocco as well as being one of the largest Medina’s in the world, I really did not know what to expect.
The good weather was in full force as we boarded the coach that would take us south and into the large city, a dramatic change from the previous few days.
Weaving out of the valley, Chefchaouen glinted in a flash over a lush green hill. And as the signs of civilisation died, the horns of the twin peak dominating the skyline remained in view, a reminder of how small these towns were in an expanse of wilderness.
The bus journey was long but not as uncomfortable as some of those old school bus rides in Central America. The air conditioning on the bus made for a stark contrast to the dusty hot road as we blazed towards Fes, stopping only once for a quick toilet stop and cooling yoghurt drink/lunch.
The bus pulled into the station, closed in by an iron gate, reminiscent of the same security gates that protected the bus station in Guatemala city, it was a day full of Latin American similarities.
After collecting our luggage from the hold we were affronted by the usual throng of taxi touts and drivers, shouting over inflated prices for rides in to town above the low drumming of the bus’ engine, adding to the heat and fatigue of a 5 hour ride.
We finally agreed on a driver and a price. Around what we expected to spend, a guaranteed ride from the new city into old, to Bab Ziat, the nearest gate into the Medina to our Riad. As always theres a catch. We ended up sharing the cab with a few other tourists, making small talk for the short ride around the grand yellow stained walls of the Medina, the first stop, our stop.
After paying our dues we walked down to the elaborate ancient wooden door of our Riad, Dar Fes Medina. It is a tucked away place East of the main bustling centre of the Medinas and the perfect place for respite from the droves of activity and heat found only 10 minutes walk away.
It was late afternoon and Rif’s stomach groaned with hunger pains as we sat in the beautifully decorated courtyard of this quiet and peaceful Riad. The smell of mint tea fed our quickly forming addiction to the drink but we couldn’t deny the need for solid sustenance. Dropping our bags off in the large and well set out room we walked out into the warm evenings air and made our way west towards the blue gate and the promise o a good meal.
I use compass directions to describe our movements because in Fes it is physically impossible to actually know completely where you are going without keeping a good bearing. The streets thin and writhe in a bundled mass of confusion. Straight paths lead you back to where you began and wide streets become tiny dark alley ways at the brief turn of a corner.
But before we knew it, we had commandeered our way through a spagetti like maze of empty passageway like streets to make it to the hub of life in the Fes El-Bali Medina, the Bab Bou Jelloud also known as the Blue Gate. And as we walked into view of it, it made the perfect introduction to the what was quickly becoming one of my favourite cities.
We faced the gate head on, studying it’s intricacies and as we focused from the foreground to the background, the beauty of the inner Medina shone through the gate like a warning to anyone approaching. You were entering another world.
We found a place by the gate, which interestingly was actually green on the inside, to have dinner and enjoyed a tagine once more whilst watching local life drift by like ripples in a stream.
As the haze of the evenings sun washed over the city, it took on a sleepy persona. Migrating swallows fluttered above our heads as we explored around the gate.
We spent a while by the gate admiring the display of swallows, swarming around the minaret of a nearby mosque but soon it became dark and we trailed back to the Riad to enjoy some mint tea on the roof along with a view of the city at night. A perfect end to our introduction to Fes.
The next day was our last full day in Morocco and we planned to use it well. With the abundant history surrounding us and the maze like streets that chartered it, we thought it best to get a guide organised by the Riad. After a wholesome breakfast in the courtyard we met Mohammed, our guide for the day, well versed in the background of this amazing City.
Our day began with the blue gate and further exploration into the Medina and the source of the minaret we saw through the gate on the previous night. The Bou Inania Madrasa, a school of islam build in the 13th Century by the last of the Marinid dynasty. The architecture was intricate to say the least and well preserved considering a lot of the work had been done into wooden pillars that still held carving from its original craftsmen.
After exploring the side rooms and mosque in the building we were thrust back into the throng of the market. The smells of the city combined with the noise and clamour of the traders became intoxicating. Mohammed knew of a shortcut to our next stop on the tour and it took us down dark alley ways and tight streets that wove around the market and past other points of interest such as where ‘The Cat Man’, a sanctuary for the markets furry urchins.
The next brief stop was in a museum that used to house the droves of traders and their pack mules for the nights during market days. Now it had been scrubbed up and displayed old instruments of measuring along with a large display of swords carried by residents of the Medina. The best part of the museum was in fact the roof terrace where we enjoyed a quick mint tea and the view of the city.
A hop skip and a jump through some more writhing markets and we were less our shoes and standing bare foot on the marble of the oldest university in the world. University Al-Karaouine was founded in 859 A.D. It was spring break so it wasn’t full of students as it would normally be found which meant we could enjoy the layout and explore the courtyard which was a brilliant white, set against jade roofing and the ocean blue sky.
We were back out in the city and enduring the midday heat as we walked down passageways, sun drenched apart from the shade created by over hanging sheets. As we delved deeper into the Medina it felt as if we were being washed back in time. The people looked old and weathered, the traders wore traditional garb and the call for prayer resonated from the walls as the heat backed our necks.
Mohammed called us to a halt and darted to his right into what looked like the doorway to someones house. We wound up some stairs that ascended in a steep spiralling fashion up to a room of leather jackets. The smell hit us as we ascended another flight of stairs that became a terrace, overlooking the famous tanneries of Fes.
Set in the close network of buildings deep in the Medina, the tanneries splayed out below us, almost cut out the rooftops that we perceived as ground level from the height we were viewing it all from. The white bowls contained lime and bird droppings which suppled the leather and opened it pores ready for the various dyes. Browns, reds, whites and even greens, each bowl of colour impregnated the leather before it would be stretched onto a rooftop to dry.
We were then directed downstairs to the shop. This did not surprise us, we were in Morocco after all. Fortunately for us, we were with an accredited guide who wasn’t in cahoots with the shop to hard sell us leather products, which set us at ease and allowed us to try on some jackets….
The final stop on our whistle stop tour was a local weavers guild tucked away down another alley way through a very low door which opened into a sunlit courtyard. They wove by hand using the same shuttle system I had seen as a kid on a school trip to the Bankroft Mill in Yorkshire. Although the weather was a whole lot better. We were shown how to tie head scarfs in traditional Berber and Touareg style and eventually bought some so we could relive the experience back at home.
By the time we had stopped laughing at our disguised it was time to say goodbye to Mohammed and enjoy our last afternoon in Fes. We had lunch by the Blue Gate with an absolutely beautiful view and thought about what to do with the rest of the day.
After more tagine and people watching from our perch above the market we decided to spend the afternoon up by some ruins we had seen from the top of the museum. First stopping off at the Riad for a refreshing mint tea and to book dinner for our last night in a traditional house organised by Mohammed the owner.
As we were booking we met a very friendly american family who were also going for dinner that night and decided to go together. But before that we had an afternoon to burn.
After 15 minutes in the baking sun outside of Bab Ziat we finally hailed down a taxi and made our way out of the Medina and up to the hill.
The view was stunning and we spent the last hours of light up on the hill, our perch over the Medina. A brilliantly relaxing way to spend our last day in Morocco.
After wandering around at the top of the hill for a while looking for a cab, we finally found someone in a lazy little park area and made our way back to the Riad for our ride over to the family home for dinner.
The Rabbins were ready and the father of the family home was awaiting in his 6 seater ride. We spent the drive discovering each others trip and exchanging stories about Morocco and Spain which is where they had just travelled from.
We stopped at the back end of town in what looked like a dodgy neighbourhood and took a stroll through what used to be a Jewish quarter, which interested the Rabbins due to their heritage. They invited us to join them for dinner and we obliged, taking in the course by course affront of good homemade Moroccan food.
Conversation flew from food to American politics and we thoroughly enjoyed our company for our last night in Morocco.
It was back to the Riad and we said our goodbyes. Sleep didn’t come as easy even though I was tired from a full day of exploring, I was again being torn away from a trip that I had thoroughly enjoyed and a country that I had fallen in love with.
We spent an overcast morning already missing the place, sitting on the steps to what seemed like a random open expanse at the edge of town. Lunch was a quiet affair in the market, watching our final moments of street life before returning to the Riad and taking a cab to the airport.
It was all over. And what a trip it had been.
One last glance through the glass doors of Fes airport and it was gone. A flash. 8 days was not enough but it had left an impression.
Thanks goes to the Kingdom of Morocco for keeping me enthralled and my heart racing at every step.