Five days in Fes
Be prepared for an adventure . A 40 minute skim across the straits, but this is no Dover - Calais affair. This is Tarifa - Tanger, a short crossing between 2 continents and yet a giant leap between 2 worlds wide apart. Then the train journey to Fez, where chance encounters with fellow passengers, both Moroccan and International are so engaging that there’s little time to gaze out of the window at the picturesque scenery speeding by. Yes my 5 day sojourn from southernmost Spain to Fez, the world’s largest living mediaeval city, was an adventure from start to finish.
Friends had invited me to meet them in Fes for Xmas. This is the peak time for travel with Moroccans returning home from work in Europe, and to add to the chaos, EID one of Islam’s most important annual festivals (celebrating Abraham’s devotion to God by agreeing to slaughter his son Isaac) fell this year on New Years Eve. So this particular journey to and from Fes was most eventful, full of delays and complications, highs and lows, and lots of sheep. All Moroccan families try to observe Eid by purchasing and slaughtering a sheep. If they can’t afford it, they buy one on credit or they even sell their television. Prior to Eid, all of Morocco is overrun with ill-fated sheep.tethered and carted, here and there and everywhere.
My experience of the Fes medina was dominated by its people and their existence, so untouched by modern life. The excitement of Eid just added to the never ending stimuli of strange smells, sounds and sights. The 8th century city is a living museum, throbbing with the myriad activities taking place within its shaded, confusing mass of 9000 narrow streets and alleyways. There is plenty to see in the medina with its mosques and medersas (no entry to non Muslims, but a peak through the door doesn’t seem to cause offense), fondouks, palaces and the endless wonderful souks, but orientation can be a problem. A good marker and main entry into the medina is the green and blue tiled Bab Boujeloud, one of the four massive city gates. From here, dive in and enjoy. Just negotiating the tangle of skinny streets, trying to avoid overloaded donkeys and carts, is a rewarding escapade ; you’re bound to stumble on some treasure . Remember to look up as well as around to get the full benefit of the architectural landscape ! However hiring an official guide on the first day of your visit will assist you in getting your bearings and give you a better insight into the city’s history
Fez was founded at the end of the 8th century by Moulay Idriss1 (great -grandson of the Prophet Mohammed), making it Morocco’s oldest imperial cities. But his son is considered the real father of the new capital. Idriss11 welcomed in refugees (from Andalus Cordoba and Kairoan in Tunisia), whose superior craftsmanship and mercantile experience helped establish Fes’s commercial and industrial future. He also set up The Karaouine University, making it the oldest university in the world. Fes has experienced a long history of transitions between dynasties and protectorates but it remained Morocco’s major city right up to the 20th century. Under the French protectorate of 1912, Fes was declared a historical monument, and all economic and political authority was then transferred to Rabat. This, together with the building of the Ville Nouvelle has ensured the sustained preservation of the Fez medinas.
Today, the old city functions as its always done, with production and consumption intimate accomplices.. No supermarkets and few fridges, just fresh market produce to make those delicious tajines. And of course Fes remains most famous for its handicrafts. 53,000 artisans live and work in the medina with each craft claiming its own quarter.The craftsmen carve, weave. sew, spin, pot or hammer away in their tiny stalls, where we can witness the authenticity of our handmade souvenirs. Copper and ironwork are turned into beautiful lamps and table bases. Silk and wool are spun and woven into stunning bedspreads and covers. The whiff of wood shavings pervades as you inspect the large intricately carved doors for sale at the carpenters shop. A trip to the tanneries is a must, if somewhat uneasy experience. We were taken to the Chouwara tanneries at sunset by Ahmed our guide. As we entered the labyrinth of a shop ‘Terrase de la Tannerie’, dripping from ceiling to floor with its brightly coloured leather merchandise of bags, slippers, pouffes and clothing, we were handed sprigs of mint to sooth our olfactory senses and led to the terrace to view the tannery yard. The scene was biblical. All was monochrome with dust and age, save for the intense hue of the vegetable and mineral dye vats that the hides are soaked in. Having finally chosen our purchases we got down to the mandatory job of bargaining whilst sipping traditional mint tea.
Moving outside the walls of Fes al Bali, take a short taxi drive and a tranquillo respite can be spent viewing the exquisite tiled entrance to the royal palace (no entry - the king still occupies on occasion). From here the Mellah - the old Jewish quarter is just around the corner. The architecture differs from the medina where the Islamic faith demands privacy and courtyards are the vernacular. Here wooden balconies face out to the street, hanging on perilously in their advanced state of disrepair. The Idn Danan synagogue is a newly restored 17th century synagogue and well worth a visit. We walked on through Fes El Djedid, the ‘newer’ 13th century medina (more souks) and managed to pick up a ‘faux’ guide who took us a very convoluted way back to Fez al Bali for lunch ; past the length of the peaceful Jardin de Boujeloud with its statuesque wall and giant palm trees, aligned behind like so many soldiers standing to the rear; then down and down, around the old fortifications. Be warned, these ‘faux guides’ always have their own agenda and will eventually lead you to their uncle/cousin’s shop or restaurant, where you will be ‘very welcome’. Still these guides are usually quite informative, and you might find yourself grateful, because finding a restaurant on your own is pretty difficult (except for around Bab Boujeloud with its many cafes). Wherever you end up, there should be no problem asking your way back to a main street to regain your bearings.
Unesco has declared the entire Fez medina a world monument. With its architectural heritage in such serious danger, they have pumped crucial money into the city, the main evidence being the wooden struts supporting the most precarious buildings. As most of the people living in the 9,000 traditional houses don't have the means to restore or maintain them, much of the finance for restoration is private, both Moroccan and foreign and comes from outside Fes. I met Hanane,a young fashion designer whose family house is in a bad state of disrepair and she’s trying to sell it to help finance her own business. About one hundred houses have been restored in the past seven years and the riad we stayed in had been immaculately renovated by an American. But the dilemma of preservation is that it can encourage too much gentrification and a balance has to be maintained so that Fez doesn’t loose its singular identity.To get the real feel for the traditional life, it is best to stay in the medinas and in a riad or guest house, as the better hotels are all in the Ville Nouvelle. No night life, but after a full Fez Al Bali day, all you’ll want is the chance to dine on local fare such as pastilla (a unique sweet/savoury meat dish encased in pastry), couscous or the famous tajines. The best meal of the day for me however was the breakfast of delicious breads and pastries from the local cooperative bakery, served on our roof terrace overlooking the city.
A drive out to the hills gave us an even better vista of the city and included a visit to a tile/pot factory, where the entire site was enveloped in a dust blanket of the grey clay that the products are made of. We were given a fascinating tour of the whole process and once again I was overwhelmed by the exacting technique, pristine detail , sheer hard work and difficult conditions involved in producing these crafts. At times my Western sensibility found it difficult to accept the primitive environment of these archaic technologies, but the people of Fez on the whole were so charming and eager to talk (English surprisingly, as well as French and Spanish) that I just had to accept the cultural differences.
My trip back to Spain was another lesson in travel mindfulness - being patient when train connections didn’t connect, and calm when chaos ensued (as it did on arrival at Tanger, when the whole city seemed to be evacuating for Eid, and onto my train before I got off it). If you’re after relaxation, don’t take a trip to Fez - but do go if you want to be challenged and uplifted and you can spare at least five days. Here in the Costa de La Luz, we should find out as much as possible about our neighbour. Move over Tanger - Fez is waiting.