I am a fan of lists, especially of lists of places to go and recommendations of what you should do – I’ve even written a few myself see York and London walks I have my own unpublished bucket list, which I keep adding to, and Morocco was there pretty near the top. One thing that stuck with me from one of the lists I read was that you should, at least once in your life, find yourself lost in Fes.
We arrived into Fes, in the evening and it was dark. The first stop was at the supermarket to get snacks, water and alcohol. According to our tour guide to purchase these in the hotel would be prohibitively expensive. For me it was a chance to explore a Moroccan supermarket, and as I discovered, it definitely had a Moroccan character to it, with colourful spices and other food on open display, and with alcohol being sold in a different shop, albeit obviously run by the same people.
We checked into the hotel, which was quite luxurious after having had a couple of nights camping/glamping in the desert (Yes, there was wifi! Yes, there was a pool! Yes, there were hot showers and proper beds!), and then headed out for dinner. It was my first experience of eating Puerto Riccan food, albeit with a Moroccan influence, and I have to say it was delicious – cheap, fresh and plentiful.
The next day we got to spend some time exploring Fes. We started off visiting the Royal Palace with its magnificent mosaic facade/entry – unfortunately you can’t go to into the palace itself. Because of its sheer size, at 80 hectares, this was disappointing- one can only imagine the grandeur of the gardens and courtyards inside.
There are two medinas in Fes, and from here we walked through the smaller of the two, which helped us to get into the Fes vibe, without the intensity of the larger more vibrant medina – Fes-el-Bali, which we were due to visit later in the day. We wandered past small traditional shops – quite different from the supermarket, but still selling many of the same products – for instance we were shown a traditional olive/honey soap scrub (see the photo of the pink bucket below) that we were to see many times again in every market we went to in Morocco.
At the end of our stroll we were picked up by the bus on the other side of the medina and driven to a view point overlooking Fes-el-Bali, so we could get a sense of its size and scale.
From here we were taken to a pottery “factory” (a misnomer as everything was made by hand by skilled craftsmen in the traditional manner). We were shown the clay used – this was not the red terracotta coloured clay we were expecting, but a grey clay that is first sun dried and then heated to very high temperatures – apparently it is unique to Fes and its more hardy and less likely to chip and break than terracotta. We saw the clay being thrown, the complex mosaic design and execution process, as well as platters and tagine dishes being hand painted with very complex and delicate designs.
Not surprisingly at the end of our visit there was plenty of opportunity to buy. There was so much choice – we could have purchased bathroom vanities, tiled tables, and mosaic fountains, not to mention thousands of platters, tagine dishes and bowls. I could have spent a fortune, but of course any purchases would have to be lugged by moi for the rest of the trip, not to mention the need to store it in the already limited space I have in my London flat. Instead I settled for a small ceramic container, which was expertly wrapped for me. As for those additional non-breakable properties I mentioned earlier? Time will tell, but I can confirm that it has made it back to London in one piece!
It was now time to explore the famed Fes medina, and perhaps that opportunity to lose myself in Fes. However, there was no way our tour guides were going to let that happen. They explained just how easy it was to get lost, and how nearly impossible it would be for us to find our way out – google maps would be useless here. As we wound our way through narrow alleyways with their random twists and snakelike turns, through what appeared to be doorways that were in fact covered alleyways, you quickly lost all sense of direction. While I didn’t feel particulalry unsafe, I knew if I got lost, first because of the language barriers, and second that there would be no taxis to jump into (this medina is one of the largest pedestrian zones in the world) should this happen I really wouldn’t be ale to find my way out. Therefore I knew that it was important to keep my awareness of where the tour guide was at any one time to the fore.
From wandering quiet, twisty laneways, all of a sudden we were out in the open and in the noisy bustling marketplace. We dived in and once agin we were twisting and turning, but this time we were in a place where the sounds, sights and smells all caught your attention. We saw food stalls where women were doing their daily shop, the dyeing souks where men’s hands were stained with dark coloured dyes, and all means of other products – copper, leather, traditional clothing, bridal accessories (including bridal thrones!), even coffins (which apparently are only for women to maintain their modesty even in death).
In the middle of this was a most magnificent mosque, where people were called to prayer. We were led to a restaurant for lunch in the middle of all this, and up through the most magnificently mosaic decorated stairways and into a private dining room. I got to try Pastilla a traditional chicken, almond and cinnamon pie – unusual but delicious, and a break from the tagine we were having at nearly every meal.
After lunch we were taken to the leather tanneries, and a lot of those on the tour reacted to the smells and sites here, but again being a farmer’s daughter who had seen sheepskins being cured as a child, this didn’t particularly bother me.
That night we got to experience a traditional Moroccan dinner/music/cultural performance. It was held in a magnificent room covered in the mosaics Morroco is known for. As for the entertainment, I was glad I went, but it did feel very “we’re doing this for the tourists” – we got to see a traditional music group perform traditional music/dance, belly dancing, a magician and then traditional wedding was staged. All of these had tourist participation as part of their performance, and I was glad not to be chosen.
This effectively ended our time in Fes, as early the next morning we headed for Chefchaouen and didn’t return until after dark, and then we parted for good early the next morning. So, did I mange to get lost in Fes? Not really, as while I didn’t know where I was for a lot of the time, I knew that our tour guide who had grown up in the medina definitely knew we were. However, one day it would be good to return and to properly experience getting lost in this amazing medina.