After our day in Meknes & Volubilis we travelled in the evening to our next destination, Fes. Arriving at around 7pm, it was dark and we were all hungry! Our guide took us through some windy back streets of narrow walls with an array of tangled electrical wires poking through the surface like over grown ivy and cobbled footpaths of leaky drain pipes and many stray cats. Where were we being taken? If we didn’t know we were in the safe hands of our guide, this would have been a reasonably unnerving walk akin to being lost in precarious alley ways of London.
Finally we arrived at a door with other ‘tourists’ merrily stepping out into the street, I was intrigued. One by one we ventured inside and it felt like we had been transported to a magical world, I really did feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole and waking up in Wonderland. We were surrounded from ceiling to floor of hand made and hand carved mosaic walls and furnishings as well as lovely locals. This magnificent place hidden away like a secret box belonged to a family who open it up to travellers to experience authentic Moroccan hospitality, cuisine and décor. They were so gracious and welcoming and We dined and lounged like Royalty on their delicious food before saying our goodbyes and driven to our hotel for a good nights sleep in preparation for the wild unknown maze of Fes.
This walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will transport you back to mediaeval times. Fes, in my opinion is quite a bohemian city as it is populated by an assortment of artisans and craftsman and a University entitled al-Karaouine or al-Qarawiyyin (Arabic: جامعة القرويين) It is the oldest continually operating university in the world. The al-Karaouine was founded by a woman (Yes, a Woman!) Fatima al-Fihri, making Fes rather progressive, individual and eccentric in comparison to other places in Morocco and in fact most parts of the world. If this place existed in the UK I would liken it to the cultural hubs of Liverpool or Bristol. Fez is the medieval capital of Morocco founded by Idris I in 789, and a great city of high Islamic civilization. Fez has the best-preserved old city in the Arab world, the sprawling, labyrinthine medina of Fes el-Bali, which is incidentally also the world’s largest car-free urban zone. Within the medina transports of goods is provided by donkeys, mules and handcarts. Understand that the city infrastructure is not necessarily prepared for tourism, especially English speakers. Try to use Google translate to get across, but learning basic words won’t hurt, and you will see people appreciating your efforts.
Some consider Fez to be the handicraft capital of Morocco so if there is something you want made, there is bound to be someone here that can have it crafted for you. The moment you walk into this colourful maze you are surrounded by jewellers, carpenters, silver smiths, potters, weavers, painters and you must stop over at the tanneries where you can witness locals hand dyeing & tanning large leather hides in huge stone containers before allowing the hide to dry in the sun and being crafted into purses, bags and shoes. Leathergoods, copper and brassware are the bargains to be had, although you may also find good prices on drums and other musical instruments.
Fez is safe, but crowded. Take standard precautions regarding wallet, purse & bags, basically be responsible as you would in any other city. Appear to know where you are going, even if you don’t, or you will get offers from false guides or individuals trying to sell you something. False guides are not dangerous but they can be exasperatingly tenacious. Best technique is to ignore their presence; seems rude but it works and do not be afraid to say “La shukran” in a direct & firm tone, this means “No thank you” and saying that in a less polite way is really hard for me as a British citizen (Us Brits always have to appear polite at all times, even to people we find despicable) but that also really works if ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, they will appreciate you are learning some Moroccan Arabic and a bit more respectful, eventually leaving you alone.
The leather Tanneries here are the oldest in the world, dating back at least nine centuries. When getting close to the tannery the smell is the first to appear. The smell drifts around the balcony or the roof from where all the activity can be viewed and is enough to put off the most excited of tourists. The stench is worth braving as the view over the balcony or the roof allows those watching to see a site that has never been changed since the 11th century.
The lifestyle of a tanner is so difficult. it is considered to be one of the hardest and dirtiest careers in Fez.
The art of tanning is run and done by men. Most of the families and workers live around the tanneries and their skills are inherited from generation to generation via the male family tree though a tradition less and less evident as education becomes obligatory and horizons expand.
Fes is not for the faint hearted, specifically for those who like their comforts. Fes is like a whirlwind and in constant motion, you will be in sensory overload with so much movement, colour, texture, smells and sounds, your mind will be filled with a variety of experiences just from one day visit here. Understanding the words “Belek! Belek” which basically means “Get out of the way!” may save you from being pushed over by traders with mules or huge carts of produce attempting to squeeze past you as you cling to the wall like a star fish. If you enjoy a real good culture shock and are not afraid to step out of your snug hotel room then Fes is for you. If you do visit this vast city, make sure you go with a guide otherwise you will get lost and if you are prone to claustrophobia, the narrow, busy and noisy pathways may be a little overwhelming for you although not impossible to visit if you are prepared and remember to look up at the sky to calm you down. There are wide open spaces once you get to the end of a pathway so you can take a breather and savour your surroundings before you venture down another winding path to your next destination. There are also beautiful museums and some Mosques that visitors are welcome in also.
Fes is probably one of Jon’s favourite destinations from this entire Moroccan tour, and why wouldn’t it be? This place is a dream for Photographers! I did really enjoy visiting this city, It is truly magical with it’s unruly medina maze, it’s crumbling & dishevelled exterior walls and cascading mosaic interiors that leave you speechless. This place sits between two worlds, the world of humbling ruin and the world of ravishing craftsmanship & Interior design. After a full day of exploring Fes we stayed over night in our hotel before awaken at first light to travel to our next destination: Midelt, which was probably my favourite experience out of the entire trip.
Apologies for taking a while to continue writing about our adventure around Morocco, It’s been a busy few months! If you missed my previous write-ups about other places in Morocco we stopped at here are all the links:
Day one & two in Casablanca
Day three/Afternoon in Rabat
Day Four/Morning in Meknes
Day Four/Afternoon in Volubilis
To view Jon’s awesome commerical & travel photography click here:
Jon Roberts Photography Blog