Fes is intoxicating. Like stepping back a few hundreds years to wander disorientated among the brown hooded Berbers in the souks. The second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca the city sits Northeast of the Atlas Mountains. Fes Medina is one of the oldest in the world and this huge car free maze of alleyways, souks, and donkeys pulling carts of supplies is dizzyingly bewildering to the foreign tourist; settled deep in to its ancient roots it will absolutely beguile you. Astronomers, mathematicians, poets, traders, lawyers and Kings lived here whilst hundreds of skilled craftsmen built opulent extraordinary detailed palaces for them. The previous week had enjoyed constant days of 25 degrees centigrade and sunshine. The week we were here it rained 4 days out of the 7; torrential to the point of biblical. January weather in Fes can be unpredictable.
We stayed in the beautiful Riad Al Bartal where the staff were gracious, the rooms luxurious (our room was a large second floor suite – it was HUGE!) and the evening meals were delicious.The breakfasts served in the riad courtyard were decadently fabulous and accompanied by a grey parrot, sadly caged, who would randomly call out something illegible. I visited the parrot each morning and though I’d like to think I was making a breakthrough, the conversation was a little one sided. Perhaps I bored him?! Website for the Riad: http://www.riadalbartal.com/Wandering the souks and alleyways isn’t ideal in heavy rain, but the beauty of the jaw dropping craftsmanship is payback. For our first dive in to the infamous Fes medina we paid for the services of a lcoally hired guide called Abduhl. The medina is huge and a mass of narrow alleyways filled with souks, cafes, private residences and workshops. It is also home to thousands of people. Google maps isn’t going to work in here and to get an initial orientation and an idea of what we were dealing with, a guide was a wise decision. Plus the guide knows lots of the traders and took us inside some of their private workshops that we would never have discovered or had access to if going it alone. As well as a place to barter and shop the Medina hides stunning architectural wonders like Fes Bou Inania Medresa. Medresa or Madrasa is the Arabic word for any educational institution, whether it is secular or religious. Bou Inania served as both a place of education and as a mosque and is the only medresa in Fes with a minaret which acts as a useful guide to locating it as it peeks out above the roofline within the maze like streets of the medina.Architecturally it is recongised as one of the best examples of the Marinid style and was founded in AD 1351-56 by Abu Inan Faris; a Marinid ruler of Morocco circa 1348.Entire sections were reconstructed during the 18th century and further major restoration work was carried out in the 20th century on the tiles, wood, intricately detailed plaster work and the load bearing structural aspects of the building. Intricate Islamic gemoteric patterns were also restored in the 20th century. The level of detail in the hand carved and handmade decorative aspects is quite extraordinary.
Following Abduhl deeper in to the oldest part of the Medina he showed us where mules are stabled and Berbers still come down from their remote mountain homes to trade and stay overnight in basic rooms. You need a guide to take you around this part of the Medina otherwise it’s unlikely you will ever find it…or know what it was if you did.Some of the alleyways are so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time. It is a rabbit warren of hidden doorways, trailing electrical wires, numbers and Arabic words marked on the walls.Abduhl took us to the tannery where natural dye pigments are used to colour goat and sheep hides. I believe there are two different tanneries and we visited the smaller one. Hardly any tourists and we didn’t get overly hassled to buy anything. On hot days this place would stink up the Medina for miles but on a cooler day like ours, the donated sprigs of mint leaves proffered to us by one of the local guides to waft fragrantly beneath our noses, were thankfully not required. This is allegedly the oldest leather tannery in the world unchanged since the 11th century. The methods certainly seem, and smell, archaic but the results are to be admired; for out of this enclosed area of hollowed out stone vessels, and the stinking mire of bird crap (the hides are first soaked in diluted acidic pigeon excrement featured below in the white troughs) the most beautiful quality leather goods are produced. It is a mass production line using no modern machinery but the skills and hard labour of many local families working to an ancient formula. The hides are sunk in to the pungent pigeon excrement to be stripped, then flayed for the hair to be thoroughly removed, then soaked in vegetable dye, hung to dry, before finally being cut to a pattern either for bags, shoes, leather jackets etc. Imagine standing knee deep for hours in temperatures of over 40 degrees in summer; your skin dyed with natural vegetable colouring, labouring in stinking pits of bird shit. It is a fascinating process to watch. Everywhere in the medina there is acitivity and of such high quality skills. Young local boys work on intricate wood carvings using stencil patterns. Buried deep in the streets of the medina and hidden completely from view, a weaving shop. Venturing down a narrow alleyway and through a low door it opened in to this fantastic space with wooden looms dating back over a 100 years.Areas are dedicated to particular crafts. One street is filled with metal workers making beaten copper trays, cut out patterned light shades, baskets and samovars. Put aside time to haggle the price of anything you wish to buy and know that batering is part of a long tradition of the local culture. No you won’t pay the local price – but you’re not a local so why would you expect to. Start with a figure you are happy to pay in your head and stick with it and don’t feel guilty to walk away if the price doesn’t come down to what you are happy with. Often this will result in an agreement being made. Wandering down another narrow souk alleyway we saw these elaborate cushioned objects stacked outside a doorway. Abduhl told that these are wedding chairs used to carry the bride. They invited us in to look at other wedding chairs on display in their souk; it’s pretty extravagant stuff. Weddings in Morocco must be great fun with dancing and feasts.
The Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts inside the medina is a restored funduq; an ancient inn where travelling traders lodged above and stored and sold their wares below. Based around a central inner courtyard like the riads, the displays of intricate wood carving, ancient Berber locks, musical instruments, prayer beads, old tools, different wood varieties etc competed with the beauty of the actual building. It’s a small museum with steep stairs to access each floor and a rooftop coffee shop with views across the sunbaked rooftops of Fes medina. We parted ways with Abduhl after a great day wandering around with him and learning some Arabic phrases and we spent an hour looking at the museum’s exhibits. Taking advantage of good weather the following day, we hired a driver arranged by our riad and took a day trip out of the city to the Mid Atlas region and the Cedar Forests. Rolling hills, verdant green and spectacular views. It’s not too far a drive through the Mid Atlas to an area South of Azrou (Azrou is the first real town of the Mid Atlas). The scenery en route is interesting with various crops which the driver described to us and swathes of new buildings going up on the outskirts of Fes.The sun came out and bathed the outskirts of Fes in weather you could practically bask in. The earth dried, the cedar forest floor was warmed… and best of all the monkeys in the woods came out to play. Dave would beg to differ, he’s not a monkey fan…I on the other hand will go to great lengths to see a monkey anytime, anywhere. The driver parked on the edge of the forest. We visited on a public holiday in Morocco so it was busy with local families; not too crowded and watching the reactions of the Moroccan children to the monkeys who swing down from the trees to snatch fruit from outstretched hands is amusing. There are various fruit stalls set up to cash in on the visiting Barbary Apes (they aren’t in fact apes, they are a money species) and for a few pennies people buy oranges and bananas to feed them. It’s an unfortunate side effect of tourism; these wild animals have become used to human interaction making them an easy target for illegal pet trading. I love wild animals and the Barbary Apes get very close to you but I wouldn’t recommend trying to touch one or encourage it to climb on to you. Monkey bites are painful and can carry infection. Some of these monkeys are large and I know from experience of living in Africa that they can be aggressive. We only saw playful behaviour as the monkeys chased each other through the cedars, playing tag and tumbling down to the ground to grab fruit. They roam the forest in troupes of up to a 100 and the Mid Atlas is home to three-quarters of the world population of this breed though their numbers are sadly in decline from deforestation and ilegal capture. The best places to see them are Cèdre Gouraud and at the Moudmane junction (on the N13, 8km southeast of Azrou) but be aware that in 2009 they were added to the Red List for endangered species which I didn’t find out until later in our trip.Leaving the forest we visited the lakes on the northern edge of Ifrane National Park; Dayet Aoua, Lak Ouiouane and Lak Afenouir. Home to a variety of birdlife and a beautiful area to hike or bike, locals come here to fish, swim and relax especially at Lake Dayet Aoua which is polular for lakeside picnics. We also stopped in the town of Ifrane developed by the French during the protectorate era for their administration due to its Alpine climate. Ifrane is built in the European style, but a brief stop was enough for us as it seemed so incongruous based in the Mid Atlas mountains of Morocco. We were more interested in seeing Berber culture so the driver took us to Bhalil a visit a troglodyte cave owned by Fatima who kindly opened up her second home for us to view. These cave dwellings are thought to date to the 4th century and are scattered through the hillsides of Bhalil, originally used as shepherd huts but some repurposed as more functional living spaces. These subterranean cave dwellings now sit under the foundations of the newer buildings built above, bristling with their satellite dishes and washing lines flapping in the breeze. Fatima was a great host, and although we didn’t share a common language she shared mint tea with us and had a lengthy chat with our driver who knows her well. He obviously drops by with tourists on a fairly regular basis as it provides a small income for Fatima in tips to view her cave home. We were under no allusion that she lives in a modern building down the road with flushing toilets and a widescreen TV. We spent our last couple of days exploring more of the Medina, souks and alleyways of Fes on our own now that we felt more orientated after our initial visit with Abduhl. There are several Medina Gates where you enter in to the ancient city. It’s very easy to develop an obsession in Morocco with the huge carved doorways with their imposing stone and plasterwork lintels and wood and brass craftsmanship.A tiled fountain inside the Medina. The level of work that goes in to these every day objects is mind-boggling.Feszaouiat Sidi Ahmed Tijani Mosque also inside the medina. As non-muslims we weren’t allowed entry but viewed from the doorway, which they very obligingly allowed us to take a quick photographs of. Moroccans are very friendly people with a quick sense of humour.Another mosque, open to Muslims only but you can see the intricate carving and beautiful colours from the alleyway in the Medina.
And I loved this office of wooden telephone booths where you can pay to make calls local or long distance. This was the local gas bottle delivery service to the souks. The only way you can negotiate these narrow alleways in Fes is by handcart or mule. As a visitor it is a great experience not having to deal with cars but I always feel sympathy for these ‘beasts of burden.The food stalls tower with intensely sugary sweets, fresh herbs and vegetables, hundreds of succulent clementines, grains and spices. Fish including small sharks heads…and vegetarians will recoil at some of the graphic butcher’s stalls.
Cats wait patiently for scraps at the fish stall. The locals generally seem to look after the stray cats; we saw several of them being fed in the medina. Vendors take a lot of care on the display of the produce. This laden root vegetable stall below must have taken him ages to set up. A tiny coffee shop tucked away in the medina brewing up strong bitter Arabic coffee or an Arabic favourite; mint tea.Light filters through in to the medina from lattice woodwork overhead which in the darker area causes dappled rays of sun to dance across the souks.A more expensive shop selling exquisite mirrors, ceramics and this beautifully detailed trunk which I coveted. Too expensive for me at £850 and made from camel bone which also put me off but every part of an animal killed for meat is put to use here; there is litttle or no waste. The shop regularly ships worldwide but like anything of this quality and craftsmanship you can expect to pay high prices…and rightly so. In the souks you can barter but in the more specialised shops like this most prices are fixed. You can always try but it was obvious that the owner was a professional dealer of antiquities.
We became regulars at Cafe Clock, a cafe inside the Medina. The food was great and on fine weather days you can sit on the rooftop. Walking in to the alleyway to Cafe Clock we were behind this local gentleman; it is a huge step back in time in so many ways here; it feels mystical walking behind these hooded figures. And the folks who work at Cafe Clock were great fun. Sadly it was ‘Turtle’s’ day off when we took this photo.He was the spitting image of the guy from US TV series ‘Entourage’.
Here’s to Fes and all it’s beauty, despite the rain it was still a fantastic inspiration. I also visited Marrakech several years earlier on a separate trip and I love it. The two cities feel quite different; Marrakech is a vibrant Moroccan city with a lot of buzz and excitement whilst Fes feels more ancient and traditional.
Other things to do around Fes
Moulay Idriss one of the holiest places in Morocco – Mid Atlas region. More information onf the Lonely Planet website https://www.lonelyplanet.com/morocco/moulay-idriss
Volubilis Ruins – Mid Atlas region information here on the UNESCO world heritage website https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/836
Sefrou a UNESCO medina and where they have an annual cherry festival in June.