V and I recently ran off to Fes for a quick weekend before our visitors start pouring in. Three days in Fes is nowhere near enough time to spend getting to know the city – we only scratched the surface of what the amazingly complex city has to offer. Specifically, Fes is split over three separate parts. The old city – Fes el Bali – contains the medina and much of the historic offerings of the city. The new city – Fes Jdid – has a totally different feeling than the old city, as does Ville Nouvelle, the modern French portion.
Still with me?
Fez, the former capital, is one of the country’s four “imperial cities,” the others being Rabat, Marrakech and Meknes. It comprises three distinct parts, Fes el Bali (the old, walled city), Fes-Jdid (new Fes, home of the Mellah) and the Ville Nouvelle (the French-created, newest section of Fes).
“Fas el Bali” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its medina, the larger of the two medinas of Fes, is believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area. The University of Al-Karaouine, founded in AD 859, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. The city has been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa”.
V and I set off early on a Friday for the train to Fes. V had purchased our outgoing ONCF tickets earlier that week, against all of the advice that we had received from our local counterparts and other expats living here in Morocco. After a decent espresso, we boarded the train and were off.
A note to all visitors to Morocco –
Yes, your first class ticket, which you should have opted for over the second class ticket, has an assigned compartment number. It doesn’t matter if the person who sold the ticket to you stated that you can sit anywhere that you’d like. You’ll be well on the way to Meknes and as comfortable as can be before you are evicted and have to sit on someone’s luggage in the correct compartment.
While riding towards Fes, I sneaked glances at my trusty Fodor’s Morocco and imagined all of the types of adventure that we would find. How mysterious would the medina be? Would the tannery stink as much as we had been warned? Would I be able to get a great photo of it? Would I melt in the stifling inland heat?
After a perfectly decent ride past Meknes and on to Fes, we were scooped up by a driver holding a sign bearing V’s name and we were off to our hotel. We were warned that the drivers in Fes were worse than those in Rabat. I disagree. While the Fes drivers seem to be pushing the rating on their tires at every turn, there seemed to be fewer wild maneuvers than I normally observe in Rabat – i.e., pulling a u-turn into a traffic circle to avoid three seconds of, well, turning left, turning left across four lanes of traffic, etc.
The hotel that we stayed in is located inside of the medina. Did you read the Fes Wikipedia link that I posted earlier? So you remember that you can’t drive a car inside of the medina or to your hotel’s front door?
We were met by a porter who helped with all of our stuff. V travels lighter than me and was pleased to hand off her miniature suitcase. I travel with a ton of photo stuff and fear people touching any of it.
A short walk through the medina lead to us to the hotel doors. The hotel was a beautiful riad and we enjoyed countless nice touches. Would it be cliche to call it an oasis? Maybe.
After settling in, V hit the spa and I was off for recon in the medina. By myself. What kind of trouble would I get into? Note to all intrepid explorers – the medina is a giant maze. You will get lost. Carry a bottle of water and set ample time aside for the adventure.
I set out without the camera, staying light and trying to figure out what this whole medina / labyrinth was all about. Numerous dudes approached me and asked me where I was going and whether I wanted to see the sites of the city with them for a nominal fee. My Brooklyn instincts kicked in and I made no eye contact with anyone until a guide mentioned the secret word of the day – “tannery”. I followed the guide through winding streets and entered a doorway and climbed staircase after staircase before being handed a bunch of mint. I was at the Terrasse des Tanneurs.
I sat overlooking the tannery and attempted to take the whole thing in. I gave up on the mint after a few minutes and asked question after question of my guide. After half of an hour watching the tannery at rest, I walked with the guide back towards where we had first met. He then escorted me into a weaver’s workshop where I met a Berber family and was treated to a demonstration on the loom. The weavers were my guide’s extended family.
I headed back to the hotel and blabbed to V about the adventure that I went on. Soon after we set out to catch Sanam Marvi, a classically trained Pakistani singer who sings Sufi poetry and was performing as part of the Fondation Esprit de Fes music festival. She was fantastic.
The next day I raced back to the tannery early in the morning and made photographs including the one posted above. I saw my guide from the day before and asked him more and more questions. The tannery was in full swing now and I had a chance to see the process as it has existed for hundreds of years. The workers still move the leather through a succession of baths containing saline, pigeon excrement (“pigeon chips!”) and dye made from saffron, poppy, mascara, etc…and do much of the work with their feet!
The tannery also has showroom after showroom of leather goods including jackets, bags and slippers.
V and I booked an official guided tour of the medina and were soon out for the day. We entered the city through the Bab Bou Jeloud – the blue gate.
We were soon introduced to the main part of the medina, which easily dwarfs the one here in Rabat. It wasn’t chaos, but it was pretty overwhelming – constant bustle, wild smells, vendors hustling and hollering, donkeys walking through the tight quarters, etc. Just like Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn.
We then entered the Bou Inania Madrasa,a Grand Mosque now open to non-Muslims and a Unesco restoration site. It was well worth the price of admission. You must see it.
The guided tour was fine – without it, we would have missed many of the sites that we visited and would have missed out on much of the local lore that our guide, Hassan, told us about. We walked for hours in stifling heat and were pleased to return to the hotel. Remember when I said that it was an oasis?
We ended the night with a fantastic dinner at Dar Roumana, a great Moroccan restaurant with a phenomenal French chef and incredible service. Go there.
We started the next day with a trip to the tannery in order to do some shopping for V and then made our way back to the weaver’s workshop for breakfast with the Berber family that I mentioned earlier. The family put out a fantastic spread for us and we enjoyed their company and promised to return with all of our friends and family that are looking for Berber blankets and pillowcases. 🙂
All in all, we had a fantastic trip to Fes and returned to Rabat with fond memories, a new leather jacket for V and new fez for me – a gift from the hotel. I also learned a lesson or two. Specifically, don’t ever bet on buying a first class ticket at the train station for the next departure. We ended up riding second class, which is normally no big deal, though our train had no air conditioning and all of the windows were sealed shut.
And it was 95 degrees out.