When the driver unloads us (never a verb was more suitable) in Fès, we are furious. Furious with him and furious between us. I will not tell you why and how (my blood still boils), the fact is that we are fighting like those couples who think it is good to clarify their disagreements in the street and that you usually watch, as audience, with a mixture of compassion and annoyance thinking “why could not you do it at home?”. It is at the highest point of this love idyll, immersed in the chaos of the city, that Walid appears with his gentle smile and his welcoming manner.
We walk the alleys together to get to our Riad. Walid walks ahead, Matteo and I continue to “converse kindly” behind. Once arrived at the Riad, our nerves begin to relax… Because Morocco is this: it is the chaos of the Medina, it is continuous trade and bargaining even just to buy a bag of saffron, but it is also the perfect peace of the Riad, the mysticism that cloaks the atmosphere in moments of prayer and hospitality of people who have no other motives if not to make the guest feels like at home.
The Medina of Fès: the mother of all mazes
After Walid’s loving welcome and advice, we set off to discover the Medina, whose gateway is Bab Bou Jeloud (the Blue Door). Fès is the oldest of the imperial cities of Morocco and one of the best preserved medieval cities in the Arab world.
The Medina of Fès still constitutes the largest pedestrian urban area in the world, and about 70,000 people live in this labyrinth of alleys and souqs. They say that you hate it or love it: for me it was love at first sight. If it is true that the dark and chaotic Medina can sometimes give a sense of oppression, for me it was like taking a journey through time and see with my eyes a daily life I had only heard from people elderly until now.
If once beyond the door you go up the Medina to the left instead of of going down Talaa Kebira (one of the main street) you will understand what I’m talking about. We find us in the middle of a market: in this part of the Medina there are no souq which sell ceramics (the white and blue one is typical of Fès) or Argan oil. This is the market where the inhabitants display, contract and exchange the goods between them (the hens are weighed still alive, just as example). Traders prepare their goods on sheets lying on the ground. Many offer a single product: grapes, onions, mint… and the stalls are mostly sets of stakes held together precariously.
We move to the central part of the Medina: I enter a first souq, managed by a nice lady. Between the amused and the “commercial” I start the first negotiations. Matteo, who stands at the souvenirs like a candle to the sun, at a certain point, in order to leave, closes the matter with a decision-making attitude and with a large margin in favor of the seller. Three seconds follow: I look at him with a frown while she, who has already packed everything, smiles affably at him.
Our first Iftar
It’s evening. We are in the patio of our Riad, undecided on what to do for dinner, when Walid and Farid (the other boy who is entrusted with the management of the Riad) invite us to take part to Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast. Yes, because we made this trip to Morocco during Ramadan, and this made us experience the fervor that we breathe just before sunset, when a sensation of sharing and celebration literally vibrates the air. This is how at 19:25 on time, after the moment of silence that follows the propagation of the voice of the Muezzin through the speakers of the Mosques, our delicious Iftar begins. Aziz, a friend of Walid and Farid, also joins us. They call themselves “desert kids” and they live in Fès for work (tourism accounts for almost 18% of Morocco’s GDP). They tell us about their life, their dreams and their plans. The evening is an alternation of serious speeches and laughter to tears.
Visiting the country during Ramadan means that cities are a little more sleepy than usual in the morning, because people wake up early to eat their last meal before sunrise. This does not mean that even in Fès, trying to find the squaring of the circle to reach the famous tanneries, we are often stopped by young people who tell us that we are going in the wrong direction and offer to guide us: the so-called false guides.
Hundreds of cow’s, dromedary’s, sheep’s and goat’s leathers are processed every day in the tanneries of Fès following a method that has remained unchanged since the Middle Ages. To see them from above, one must access one of the numerous leather shops on Derb Chaouwara street (west part of the Medina). From number 10 you have one of the best views of the tanneries. The smell emanating from the processing of leather mixed with the use of lime and dyes can be very strong and not pleasant at all. For this reason, at the entrance, the vendors supply a bunch of mint leaves to be sniffed to look out onto the terrace overlooking the pools.
The shop owner welcomes us as longtime friends, but Walid had instructed us that we didn’t feel obligated to buy and the correct tip to leave. If on one hand the view is fascinating (it seems to see a color palette from above), on the other it leaves dismayed to see the workers immersed to the knees in these unhealthy tanks, intent on dyeing the leathers.
The absolute best thing we saw in Fès is the Madrasa el-Attarine: smaller than the equally splendid Medersa Bou Inania, this Koranic school (“Madrasa” means “school”) was founded in 1325.
The central courtyard, in addition to being a true oasis of peace in the chaos of the Medina, it leaves you speechless for the beauty of the tile mosaics (zellij), stuccos, and decorative elements in cedar wood. Upstairs there are 30 small rooms, made to accommodate the 60 students who came here to attend the lessons in the prayer room. From up here the view over the green roofs of the Medina is beautiful.
While leaving we pass in front of the Kairaounie Mosque. We glimpse women in prayer. From the outside we can sense the immense beauty of the internal courtyard but, since it is not allowed to non muslims to enter, we are satisfied with the strong spirituality that seems to come out of the mosque doors.
Derb Fès-el-Jdid area
We breathe the same climate in the east of Fès, wandering in the alleys of Derb Fès-el-Jdid, the “new” area of Fès which has actually have already seven centuries of history behind. It is the part of the Royal Palace, the Bou Jeloud gardens and the Mellah (Jewish quarter). The alleys of this part of the city are much less chaotic and touristic than the Medina. Nobody pays attention to us. It is Friday, the holy day for Islam. Men, women and children walk quickly towards the mosque in their best clothes and with the prayer rug rolled up under their arm. The stories of my grandmother and the “Sunday best” come to my mind and, yes, I feel again in another time and in another dimension.
Last night in Fès…
It is our last evening in Morocco. We booked our dinner in a restaurant in the Medina. Walid and Farid hear no reason and invite us tonight again to share with them at least part of the Iftar, as an appetizer before our “official” dinner. The evening is clear and warm and the climate is typical of the last evening of holidays. We talk again. We laugh toghether again. We exchange contacts, take pictures together, we promise to come back. When night fell we fall asleep serene, without melancholy. The feeling is to be at home.
- There is no better Riad in Fès than Riad Lalla Zoubida: I think it is clear why…
- Delight yourself with a dinner at Restaurant Dar Roumana. Book in advance and confirm that you want someone to pick you up at your Riad and bring you home after dinner (no matter how good you are with the orientation: the maze of streets in the Medina is even more intricate and Gothic in the night). On this occasion, we got to know the very nice Omar who called himself “Escort” (in the “technical” sense of the term), told us many anecdotes about the city.
- In Morocco, the tourist police are waging a battle against false guides (faux guide, in French). Official tourist guides wear an identification tag with picture and information about spoken languages. It is time to bargaining… again!
- It is not very easy to reach Fès airport by public transport. I suggest you to book a pick-up service from and to the airport in advance with the help of Riad staff. Ask in advance the amount (in the case of Fès, DM 150 – about € 15.00 per couple for the journey is fine).
- After passing the security controls, the waiting room of the airport of Fès applies prices in euros which are not convenient at all. Tip: eat something before entering!
- Are you in Morocco and you want to measure yourself with the waves of the ocean? Then click here and read this post of the Peanut Gloria Sonda who will tell you how beautiful is to surf in Imsouane.