Travelogue Morocco 3: Fes

FES
23 April 2013

On first impression, Fes is a big hustle-and-bustle city, with an active pavement cafe culture (men only) and wall-to-wall restaurants and apartment blocks (all in dire need of a coat of paint). It’s as neat and tidy as the rest of the Moroccan cities we’ve seen – exemplary road maintenance conditions, free of litter and lots of attention paid to lining and adorning the streets with trees, shrubs, flowers and park benches. In the main avenues in the area where the hotels are, there are 3 lanes for traffic in either direction with the equivalent 6 lanes of gardens and walkways for an island and similar amounts on either side for tiled pavement terraces in front of the shops. Lots of people around, enjoying their city.

Fes has about 1,15 million people and is located between Rif and Middle Atlas mountains, so is rich and fertile because it gets water from both sides. Fes el-Bali is old city (from 9th century) with a labyrinth of 9400 narrow streets, while Fes el-Jedid is new city (from 13th century). El-Bali has the first university in the world, started by a woman from Tunisia. Our tour guide pointed all this out from our vantage point where the tour commenced, that had panoramic views that gave a stunning perspective to the day’s itinerary.

We started our tour with the 7 gates of the Royal Palace. This is the residential palace, which is an 82 hectare estate where the King lives when he’s in Fes. Originally, when the King decided to move to Fes and they therefore needed to build a Palace, it wouldn’t fit into the Old City (Bali) so they just started building the new city (Jedid) to accommodate. The 7 gates are enormous keyhole arches with bronzed doors. They still clean the bronze doors the old school way, with tomatoes and vinegar, the marble columns with lemon.

Moving off from the square onto the side street heralded our entrance to the Jewish Quarter, a bit of a misnomer these days since there are no longer any Jewish people living there (there was a mass emigration after WWII to Israel and the few remaining Jews live in the new city). This quarter has always been a prosperous trading area, starting off selling salt, now known for gold. Luckily for our guide, group and us it was still too early for many shops to be open, so our memories will have to be photos not trinkets and we didn’t hold the group back with our would-be shopping, as had become customary.

We’d been prepared that this was to be an entire day on foot as the entire medina is pedestrian and donkey-cart only. We walked down to the road and entered by the Blue Gate. This meant our induction to the medina was through a butchery and fishery row. It was a bit of a shock to the system, with the strong smells from the narrow covered walkways lined with open butcheries and on-counter meat displays, including some stomach-turners like severed animal heads and live chickens, rabbits and turtles still in cages with their impending fate all too clear.
A few roads down, by stark contrast, we visited the Qu’ranic School. It’s central quadrangle is lined with very detailed mosaics and carvings, with Qu’ran verses (hardly surprisingly) on every surface, mostly stucco of plaster, alabaster, marble and ceramics. The school holds about 80 students at a time, who live at the school for complete immersion in their Qu’ran education, and impressively the school still operates business-as-usual in this 600 year old building, with very few restorations having been required.

Next was the brass shop, selling brass plates with painstakingly tapped engraving and traditional Berber camelbone inlays, Moroccan lamps, pewter teapots. This store posed no danger; clearly not our category!

Winding through the twisty turny roads, you pass few windows (as mentioned in Casablanca, it was customary for windows to face internal central terraces) so it was a pleasure to be allowed entrance to a Riad to see one of the upmarket houses. A riad is a house with garden while a dar is just a house. Most of the houses of the time were built 2 or 3 stories high. The bottom floor was lined with mosaics on the walls and marble on the floor to keep it cool; in winter the family moves upstairs, which is made from wood to keep it warmer with the rising warm air.

The houses are all very close together, some alleys and passageways so low / narrow / dark that it’s hard to imagine that people live there – and to comprehend that these people can’t move furniture in or out so tradesmen have to take supplies in and build their stuff inside!

It really is a different world and such a different life. So odd to see little little children walking purposefully on their way to who knows where, somehow recognising their way in what seems to be a complete maze to us. We walked past a school and it’s so foreign to see a campus that doesn’t have a blade of grass or even much natural lighting for that matter. We passed a group of teenagers on a bend in the walkway, huddled around a boombox, which would be perfectly normal for teenagers anywhere in the world, but seems so out of place here – and must get quite monotonous for them compared to the limitless entertainment options their counterparts in other parts of the world have!

Of course there is still a lot of influence of religion and tradition and there seem to be a disproportionate number of roads, workshops and stores dedicated to the seemingly complex courtship and marriage demands. Specialised tailors creating fabrics, garb, handmade lace and sequins. Sublime bordering on the ridiculous with the puffed and adorned couches and bedazzled stretchers for the event. Pots, crockery and eventware for sale or for rental. And my favourite, the jewellery, including the 18 carat gold jewel-encrusted belt that the would-be groom presents to the potential bride as part of her dowry – that has every man silently hoping to court a skinny and every mom fattening up her daughter in anticipation of the impending nuptials!

We had a late but traditional multi-course lunch, learning from the previous day and teaming up with the Saffa couple, the American friends and the Canadian girl to share a couple of set menus. We opted for the chicken tagine, couscous with chicken and veg and a side order of kefta (spiced meatballs with tomato and egg) and, as anticipated, were still filled up by the baskets of flat bread, mese starter of sweet carrots, cauliflower, olives, rice, aubergine etc. My highlight was making a schwarma sort of thing with the kefta and flatbread… And avoiding the fresh melon dessert.

It was an exhausting day, packed with culture and ritual lessons (in English, French and Spanish every time nogal) and aft er being shown how to make brass engraved plates, twill silk, dye fabric, make carpets, tan leather, weave agave silk fabric, chip tiles, lay mosaics… we were FYI’ed out for the day! And of course knowing better than to buy wares from these tourist traps, we still remain relatively empty-handed!

We did muster the energy to jump off the tour bus at the main road in town to explore a bit and found that while the city is as vibey and lovely as it appeared from the bus, there’s not a hell of a lot to do. It’s all restaurants and cafes that line the main street, but the cafes are largely male-only (by tradition, not dictate) and the restaurants all empty (we’ve read in a few places that Moroccans don’t have a culture of eating out – suppose the women at home have to have something to do, so they must cook… And bake for fun). We have dinners at the hotel included in the package we bought, so that was out, but we found a delighful cafe and had some delicious and super-fresh confectioneries with cappuccini and the like (I of course don’t drink them, but Mother says they’re strong but wonderful).

We wanted to be back at the hotel to photograph the sunset (7pm) from the rooftop terrace (Jolande is quite an avid photographer), but were disappointed to find that the lay of the hotel on the lower side of the slope in the shadow of the hotel between us and the main drag meant there was little attraction in sunset photography. Jolande has said she’ll aim to do a sunrise shoot instead, but seeing as that’s 5h40 tomorrow morning, I’m thinking she can just give us feedback… And I’ll pinch the pics off Facebook! 😀