It’s lucky I kept a journal for my Moroccan adventure last November (2018), so it can jog my memory more than six months later. The first post covered Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes and Volubilis — basically the first two days. Now we’re going to visit…
We spent two nights in Fes, one of the oldest and most colourful cities in Morocco. Our trip notes claim Fes is the “spiritual and cultural heart” of Morocco… I’m not so sure about that. Morocco is a very diverse country and I think every corner has its own unique beating heart.
But Fes does have the mother of all medinas — a well-preserved old city that is a veritable maze of narrow streets.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. First things first…
Our hotel was in the newer part of the city. On our first night a large group of us went out to a restaurant with a show. It wasn’t really my thing, but you kind of do these things when travelling. The entertainment featured traditional musicians, belly dancers and a magician. I don’t remember too much about it, to be honest.
The meal was a three-course affair of traditional Moroccan food. It started with an array of cooked salads, followed by three different tagines (which refers to the ceramic vessel in which they are cooked) — beef with prunes, chicken, and vegetables with couscous.
The third course was basically a fruit platter. This is a very typical Moroccan “dessert”. Fruit fruit fruit. Most often a mix of grapes, orange, pomegranate. Sometimes banana. Sometimes dates. I wish I got a photo of one, but I don’t think I did. Needless to say, having a taste for cakes and puddings, I was usually fairly unimpressed with the “dessert” course.
Grand tour of Fes
We were taken on a guided tour of Fes the next day. I usually like to be left to my own devices in cities like this, but I think Fes is difficult to both get around and navigate, so a guide was probably the most efficient use of our limited time. I did, however, feel as though I was rushed from one point to another.
It was a bit like a conveyor belt for busloads of tourists, all going to the same places.
Our first port of call was the gates of the Royal Palace, built in 1968. Very impressive. They were a bit of a tourist spot, with a gazillion people posing for photos in front of them (why?!).
Our guide explained the significance of the colours in Arabic art and architecture. Blue represents knowledge, green represents religion, red represents the berbers and yellow represents harmony. Apparently you will always see blue and green together, especially in Fes.
Then a short wander through the neighbouring Jewish quarter. The architecture is distinctive in that they have balconies facing the street, whereas Moroccan ostentation is all faced inwards. We saw storks everywhere in Morocco, none so impressive as the flock nesting and posing on the turrets and walls of the palace compound in Fes.
We next drove up a hill that overlooks the city, presenting an excellent aspect and view. Again, there were a gazillion people here, all being shuffled through the key tourist spots.
Following this, we visited the first of several artisans’ premises for the day, this one a ceramics studio and shop. It was interesting to see the various stages of traditional ceramic making — from manually manipulating the clay, to casting, firing and painting. They demonstrated making all the individual mosaic pieces… as well as the technique of laying out mosaics with the pieces upside down.
I was also interested to learn that the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains decorate their ceramics with silver and camel bone, whereas the Touaregs of the desert use bronze and copper.
The main focus of the day was the walking tour of the medina (old walled city). The Fes medina (or Fes el Bali) is massive, a literal maze of narrow laneways, tiny artisans’ shops, market stalls and traditional houses. It would be super easy to get lost in there…
We had a guide, however, who led us through like we were tied together and in a race. I would have so loved the time to wander and explore on my own… Oh well.
Our next stop was the famous Fes tannery. We were given sprigs of mint to combat the stench of the tanning vessels, then climbed up narrow, rickety staircases to reach the shop (lots of leather handbags in all styles and colours) and the balcony over the dye pits. (Where we all took the same photo… among others.) I didn’t think it smelled too bad.
Last visit before lunch was an old Koranic school that has recently been restored and opened to visitors. (I think it was the famous 14thC Medersa Bou Inania, considered one of Fes’s most beautiful buildings — although I can’t be sure. This is the problem of having a guide and not taking responsibility for one’s own sights!)
Like most traditional Moroccan buildings, it’s a multi-storey building surrounding a central courtyard, with lots of small rooms — either for teaching or sleeping. Apparently it’s one of the few religious buildings in Morocco that non-Muslims can enter. We trawled all over it, but it was mainly an empty building with some nice architectural features.
We ate a three-course lunch in a restaurant that used to be a traditional house — very plain on the outside, facing the street, but opulent inside with the central multi-storey courtyard and lots of mosaics. The whole residence had been converted into a restaurant, with tables on all levels (three or four?), including the roof. (We took a stroll to check out the whole place and get the view from the roof.)
The first course was similar to the first course we’d had the previous night — a selection of Moroccan cooked and pickled salads. (I remembered to photograph!) Then we got to choose our main course. Earlier on our walking tour of the medina, we had witnessed the making of pastilla — a traditional Moroccan pastry stuffed with spiced chicken and almond. Several of us decided this needed to be sampled.
Good call! Because that chicken pastilla was delicious. Somehow, cinnamon and icing sugar do actually go with minced chicken and almond, wrapped in filo pastry. (This kicked off our journey around Morocco sampling chicken pastilla everywhere we could find it.)
In the textiles shop
After lunch, we continued our tour of the medina — meaning we visited more artisans shops. These included a metal workers shop, where they make handmade metal artifacts like teapots, bowls and plates out of copper, tin and silver. I was really tempted by the teapots, because they were beautiful, but am ultimately glad I resisted them, since I’m certain it would end up unused in the cupboard. (And they were fairly expensive.)
The one shop in which I did succumb to shopping was a textiles shop. A few of us were looking at scarves — something not too expensive or hard to fit in our luggage. Although I’m not a huge scarf wearer, I decided I would get one.
I was enthralled by their explanation of “Moroccan Silk”, which is not silk as we know it, from silkworms, but made from aloe vera, or agave. In other words, it’s yet another plant fibre, made using traditional methods. In fact, we had earlier seen some recently dyed “silk” on the street near the tannery.
Armed with this knowledge, I was resolved to purchase something made from Moroccan “silk”. The scarf I ultimately selected is made from 80% silk, 10% lambswool and 10% cotton. It feels not unlike a fine merino scarf and is quite warm.
Then I thought it would be fun to try on a Moroccan kaftan, or jalaba. Secretly, I wanted to buy one. They are one size fits all, and not at all flattering… even so, I still wanted to buy one. It’s probably lucky the one I tried on cost $400, or I might have ended up with a kaftan I would probably never wear. (Close call!)
Instead, I then tried on a tunic, both less expensive and more integratable with my wardrobe. My powers of resistance deserted me, and I bought a very nice tunic that I can wear with leggings — 60% silk, 40% lambswool. I probably paid far too much for it (even though I did bargain). We discovered later that Fes prices do tend to be inflated. Oh well. It’s pretty!
Overall, it was a great day in Fes, even if it did feel like a bit of a shopping tour. But not many of us spent money (although several bought a scarf, I think). I could definitely have spent longer in Fes, since I feel as though I only saw the standard tourist circuit. But at least I have glimpsed a little of this iconic city.
I don’t know how I ever thought I would cover the whole two-week trip in one post. The above covers about 24 hours. But we did see a lot of different things in Fes.