Being the extremely hard working chap that I am I decided recently that I needed a holiday and since Ryan Air were flying to Fes for the measly sum of £50, Fes became the destination. This was to be the second time I would be in Morocco this year, the previous time I was in Marrakech to greet our GROM competition winners at their first port of call after leaving London and setting off on their 6 month adventure. I was in Marrakech for only 2 and a half days then but that was all it took for me to fall in love with the city and the country, so when the opportunity to go to Fes came up I didn’t have to spend long pondering on it.
Having lived in Egypt for some time I have an appreciation of the Middle Eastern/North African culture and truly feel alive when immersed in these chaotic and ancient places. Upon arrival in Fes I was immediately blown away, we were met at the airport and driven to our riad (which was really a dar – the difference being a riad is built around a central garden and a dar has a courtyard at its centre and is typically a bit smaller) which was situated right in the medina and inside the old walled city or Fes el Bali as it is known. The city is made up of 3 parts: Fes el Bali as mentioned, Fes – Jdid which is known as the new city (which is amusing since it dates back to the 14th Century) and the French influenced Ville Nouvelle which is truly the new part of the city with modern restaurants and hotels.
Fes el Bali however is the best part and I could have spent weeks wandering the narrow alleys and markets, this area dates back to the 9th Century and has a truly medieval feel about it, it really does feel like you have stepped back in time several hundred years. This part of the city is a car-free zone which is not surprising as it would have to be an extremely thin car to fit down many of the alleys, instead donkeys, mules and the odd scooter are used. The medina is made up of some 9000 streets and not getting lost is simply not an option, the sooner you come to this realisation the sooner you will begin to relax and enjoy wandering the alleys aimlessly. After 4 days of doing this I did feel I knew my way around, admittedly I was given a good tip on my second day while chatting to an Australian chap named Max who ran a great coffee shop in the Medina called Cafe Clock. He told me that if you walk up hill you are going towards the Blue Gate – an icon of Fes and the gateway to the Medina which my riad was conveniently close to – head downhill and you are leaving the Blue Gate behind, that’s all the info I needed and this served me well.
Cafe Clock also does cooking classes and having been practising with my tagine that I had purchased in Marrakech I felt a little local knowledge might be useful in perfecting the art. This was an excellent activity to fill a day and learn some of the local ways, the cafe is in a restored dar and is 3 floors high, the top floor has a private modern kitchen with an open roof, it is here you have your lesson, not in the busy functioning kitchen of the cafe. Souad was our teacher and she was the most lovely of Moroccan women, she was so much fun and she loved a laugh and a joke, the lesson started with us heading to the market for our supplies. So into the medina we went, the medina is broken up into different areas depending on what merchants are selling leather goods in one section, textiles in another, copper and metal work and so on. We made our way to the meat and produce section which is conveniently right near the cafe; this is also good as you know the food is fresh in the restaurants near this area which makes eating in this area wise due to the lack of refrigeration at many places. It was mind blowing, now we really had gone back in time, butchers displayed their wares ranging from cow hearts to fully skinned sheep hanging from hooks and live chickens of which I saw several soon cease being live produce once a local had come to a final decision as to which chicken he would like on his plate that night. A bit further up the alley were the fruit and vegetables, these were of extraordinary size in most cases, I have never seen such colossal onions. Once we had what we needed it was back to the kitchen to cook it all up. What a feast we had, lamb tagine with those staple spices of Morocco – tumeric, paprika and cumin; we also had zaalouk, a delicious salad or dip made of aubergines, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and spices (a kind of rustic version of baba ganoush) and the true icing on the cake, almond macaroons that were the lightest and best I have ever tasted. After such a busy day it was time to return to the riad for a well deserved nap.
The following day we went on a guided tour of the medina, I had organised a guide before leaving London and he was there at our riad at the arranged time and ready to go. Kalam was his name, a local born and bred in the medina, dressed in a full length galabeya, a red baseball cap and dark sunglasses with a pot belly protruding, he certainly was a character. It was a very wise decision to have a guided tour as Kalam showed us areas we never would have seen otherwise, starting in the oldest part of the medina where not another tourist was to be seen, this was the real Morocco. He took us through the winding alleys and explained the history behind the various mosques and palaces, he eventually led us through a leather shop, up some stairs and outside onto a balcony with the not so pleasant odour of rotting flesh. Looking down from the balcony were the large coloured pots that were used to dye the leather, it was an incredible sight that photographs cannot truly capture. Later Kalam took us to a local restaurant hidden behind a featureless door in another alley, inside was an elegant dining room with 10 metre high roofs, another place we never would have found on our own.
The next couple of days were spent shopping, the markets are overflowing with great handmade crafts and as haggling is the norm you better make sure you truly want an item once you start the negotiating or explain in advance that you are just asking a price out of interest, this will prevent high blood pressure and a boiling rage. Fes is the kind of place you could spend weeks just watching, every corner you turn there is a new extraordinary sight, even just sitting and having a meal or sipping a coffee at one of the outdoor restaurants offers a slice of another time right before your eyes. Fes is truly magical and I fell in love with this city at first sight, I can’t wait to get back there and explore the streets of the medina even further, I still have about another 8500 to go.
- Andy Henderson