There can only be one place in the world where, in a tiny 20 metre stretch of alleyway, a shopper can tick the following off his/her list: nougat gift wrapped in ribbons; babouches of all colours of the rainbow; a tailor-made shiny tuxedo; bras with Mickey Mouse on; garish white and silver sedan chairs for all your wedding needs; bed headboards; chillies as big as your forearm; and a camel head.
I’ve finally regained the Moroccan vibe recently lost in Meknes, and find I absolutely love Fes, the ‘real’ centre of the country. The oldest of the imperial cities, it has the heart and soul that the former lacked, or as Hubbie delicately described it, Meknes really needed to “grow a pair”. Not quite how I’d have put it, but it’s at least succinct!
We’re currently writing our journals sitting up on the pleasantly breezy roof terrace of Riad Laayoun in the heart of Fes el-Bali, the old medina. It’s dark, the calls to prayer are buzzing across the city, and there is a spectacular thunderstorm rumbling across the skyline, with lightning flashes momentarily displaying the city ramparts. Perfect!
We’d been picked up from Chefchaouen by our faithful taxi driver, Khamal, slightly relieved he’d turned up since there had been some confusion about the time. Apparently the Moroccan Government don’t decide until the very last minute if the clocks are going to change in keeping with Daylight Saving Time, and we couldn’t for the life of us find out what the correct time was. Even for about a week after the event! No-one seemed to have a clue, even the banks had it wrong, and employees in the guest houses turned up to work late because they weren’t sure either. In the end it was Ryanair of all people who gave us the right answer with our changed flight details. It appeared the Government had decided to not put the clocks back after all, but hadn’t bothered to tell the rest of the country. No-one seemed perturbed by this however, which just shows how reliant we are as westerners on schedules and timings.
Khamal’s car, which had always been a little cranky, by now sounded like it was about to lose its exhaust and we found ourselves bracing as we negotiated each bump in the road. The back seat had also decided to come loose so each time Khamal braked (admittedly this wasn’t often) it flew forwards and threatened to chop off our legs at the knees.
We visited Fes in October, one of the best times of year to travel to Morocco as it’s finally cool enough to go into the desert whilst still being able to enjoy warmth in the rest of the country.
Coming from England, I don’t really do heat that well, and have to admit I well and truly sweated in Fes. Nice.
It wasn’t that it was too hot, rather that there was so little air flow in the medina, and all the buildings are so high that the narrow alleyways are stifling and a little claustrophobic. Even the locals appeared to be somewhat glistening, which made me feel a bit better. Quite different to Marrakech and Meknes, where buildings are lower so at least the sky does get a bit of a look in.
Having said that, it’s a rather special experience to wander around this maze-like medina, not being able to see anything except straight ahead does lead to lots of exciting discoveries around each corner.
Top things to do in Fes
Pick up a free map from your riad or hotel, and explore the medina using the really handy colour coded walks. At strategic (and some not so strategic!) points along the alleyways you’ll come across directional signs with colours corresponding to the walk you’re doing. Sure you can’t always tell if the colour is pink or red, but the gist of it is you can always find your way back if you get lost.
Our friends were amazed at our navigational skills when we showed them the sights of Fes el-Bali for the day, before they realised all we were doing was following the signs!
Fes el-Bali (old Fes)
Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate)
The main entrance gate to the medina is a great place to find cafes and restaurants, albeit the more tourist-orientated ones. It’s also at the top of a long hill street lined with souks, so you’ll probably be thankful for a drink stop when you’ve reached it!
We ate lunch one day at Le Kasbah café, by Bab Bou Jeloud, mainly because we could sit up on the terrace and have a great view of the gate. I must admit the food was some of the worst we’ve tasted in all of Morocco, a beef tagine that was tiny, luke warm and more fat than meat. The waiter chap was really grumpy too, and there was a cat that just wouldn’t take no for an answer. If you just order a drink you have to pay a surcharge (for the view) but this is probably preferable to eating here. You have been warned.
On the other hand, the Medina Café just outside the gate looked really nice inside, especially for a dinner, it just lacked the view, which is why we opted for lunch at Le Kasbah.
It’s also a good spot to pick up a taxi if you want to head for Fes el-Jdid or the Ville Nouvelle. It’s worth noting most drivers will be reluctant to do a short trip around Fes el-Bali, for example to Place R-Cif, as they don’t deem it to be worth their while.
Big and Little streets
There are two main streets running almost parallel down from Bab Bou Jeloud into the old city…Talaa Kebira (big hill) and Talaa Seghira (little hill). As long as you can find one of these, then you’ll be able to work out where you are. Definitely one of the top things to do in Fes.
Both streets are lined with stalls, mosques, and secret little alleyways, so just walking up one and down the other is a great way to get a taste of the medina.
The souks are peppered all over this area, so you can hop in and out of them as you please. From haberdashery and chicken feet to djellabas and teapots, this is where the locals go to shop, and tourists go for a taste of real Moroccan life.
Visiting the famous tanneries is surely one of the main things to do in Fes for any first time visitor. We’ve seen the ones in Marrakech on our very first trip to Morocco, and knew they were supposed to be even better in Fes. The tanneries area can be accessed by the alleyway at the side of the Nejjarine Square by the Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, a wonderfully restored funduq and apparently a former police station.
Following the alleyway to the left of the door above, you’ll soon come to one of the many entrances that lead up to rooftops for viewing the tanneries. Each is connected to a tannery co-operative, where the profits from sales of finished leather products are shared out between all who have worked to make the bag/belt/stool. From the guys spending days up to their thighs in the foul-smelling tannery vats, and the chaps who colour the leather in the dyers souk, to the craftsmen who produce the finished items and the men who show the curious tourists what it’s all about, each get a share.
We weren’t about to purchase anything (leather is the one thing that isn’t cheap!) so offered the chap who’d given us a little tour a few dirham for his troubles. To our surprise he refused, and explained about the collective operation of the tanneries. Quite refreshing, since he could so easily have pocked the change with his colleagues being none the wiser.
Visitors are given small sprigs of mint to ward off the smell of anomia (they use pigeon poo to soften the animal hides!), but to be honest it wasn’t as bad as everyone makes out, and we were happy without, both in Fes and Marrakech.
Medersa Bou Inania
With it’s intricate zellej (tiling) and woodcarving adorning the interior, this is the most impressive of the theological colleges in Fes, built by the Merenid Sultan Bou Inan in the 1350s. Entrance costs DH10.
This was built in 859 by refuges from Kairouan in Tunisia (see my forthcoming blog about our visit to Kairouan) and is so huge it can hold about 20,000 worshipers. There is an attached Medersa (religious school or university) which has become the leading spiritual and educational centre in the historical Muslim world. It is closed to non-Muslims, but you can look through the door and take those all-important photos.
Fes el-Jdid (new Fes)
The name ‘new’ Fes is rather misleading since it was built way back in the 13th Century by a sultan who wanted to separate himself from his subjects. This part of Fes is known for the royal palace, the gardens and also the Jewish quarter.
This is the Jewish Quarter, and most Moroccan cities have one of these. The Jews built their homes here so they could enjoy an element of the sultan’s protection and in return would support him in times of conflict. ‘Mellah‘ is the Arabic word for ‘salt’, with this name being given to Jewish communities country-wide due to their dominance in the salt trade. Outside of Morocco we know these areas as ‘ghettos’. Although few Jewish families actually live here now, behind closed doors there is still great wealth in the gold trade traditionally associated with these communities.
We did feel a little more uncomfortable here than elsewhere in Fes, and were advised it’s not somewhere to be wandering around at night. Hubbie did however do some of his finest bartering in the souks here, acquiring yet another new Moroccan-style shirt that he probably won’t ever wear!
You can’t go inside the palace, but you can gaze at the gold doors and walk around the outside walls, making sure you don’t take pictures of the numerous policemen or the guarded gates.
We had hired a guide for a couple of hours and thankfully he told us what we could and couldn’t photograph – he was very anxious we didn’t take any of the other palace entrances as we’d get him and ourselves into a lot of trouble. Indeed the guards kept a beady eye on us at all times.
The public gardens are worth a stroll through too, perfect for finding a shady spot in the heat and a good link between Fes el-Bali and Fes el-Jdid.
We only had a couple of days to enjoy Fes, but I’d recommend three to really see all the main sights properly and get to know the city. As always, we stayed at a riad, and were more than happy with our choice of Riad Laayoun, in the heart of the medina. Staying in Fes el-Bali really is the best way to experience the old city.
Fes is quite different from Marrakech: we saw very few tourists and almost felt part of the everyday life that has changed very little over the centuries. In contrasting the two I do neither a disservice – each is equally fascinating and fun to explore, and both should be visited to understand the Morocco of yesterday, and today.