What’s all the Fes about?

Days: 463-464 (1 October 2015 – 2 October 2015)

Total distance travelled: 123,552.4 kilometres (76,740.6 miles)

If Marrakesh is the tourist capital, Casablanca the business capital and Rabat the official capital, then by all accounts, we were now en-route to the spiritual capital.

We were in transit between Chefchaouen and Fes, a name famously tied to those red, flat topped and tassled hats, although probably more closely associated with the stereotypical image of the Ottoman Turk.

Before Fes however, we were stopped on a wide gravel expanse beside the road, I guess it was supposed to be a lookout point, as there were nice views of a large lake below.

Despite the lake below, our eyes had settled on another tantalising view. A stallholder hawking fresh (and some possibly not so fresh) pomegranates!

A pair of plump fruit were promptly purchased, one of which looked a little less than savoury when cut open, but this proved no problem to exchange for another.

Trying to comprehend how expensive this basket would be (the fruit that is) back home... (left) & What a view! Nice lake in the background as well (right)

Trying to comprehend how expensive this basket would be (the fruit that is) back home… (left) & What a view! Nice lake in the background as well (right)

For the next few minutes as we munched away on the delicious fruit within, we were fairly quiet indeed.

Our arrival in Fes was a little later than expected (at least for my expectations), so other than find ourselves a cheap kebab shop for dinner and another store that sold beer, there was little else to do but consume our purchases!

After such a relaxed arrival, we were as set as we’d ever be for the following days tour which would see us abandon our guide for the day, and be adopted by local resident of Fes who would show us the town.

We were soon checking out some sights, the first of which was conditional, that is no pointing cameras to our left, as it was a military installation.

At least we had some beautiful distractions…

Even with a tour guide, we weren't opening these doors... (left) & More of that lovely Islamic detail (right)

Even with a tour guide, we weren’t opening these doors… (left) & More of that lovely Islamic detail (right)

We didn’t need too long there, after all, there’s only so much one can appreciate from a series of closed doors, no matter how beautiful they may be.

Our next taste of Fes came in the form of the old Jewish neighbourhood.

Old due to both its age, as well as in the sense as it is now more a former Jewish neighbourhood, as very few remained in Morocco after the exodus to Israel in the years immediately after the establishment of the Jewish state.

The old Jewish Quarter

The old Jewish Quarter

The area today might at first look a little grim, but despite the well worn shutters, dearth of sunlight and lingering trash, it is in fact an area still well and truly alive, its past inhabitants gone, so today home to many poorer Fes families (although if you recall a few numbers I bandied about in the Rabat post, there are over five million worse off, not just here, but throughout the country).

We encountered few residents of the area, although if we include rather poor looking feline specimens of which there was an abundance, then the local presence would have felt much larger.

Once we’d completed our meandering path through the narrow laneways of crumbling stone, flaked paint and cracked wood, we were promptly whisked away to see the city from an entirely different perspective.

Soon we found ourselves in the shadows of Borj Sud (or, South Tower), the city of Fes laid out below us like a miniature train-set.

But at first, it wasn’t the city that captured my attention, but rather the small families of birds that made the small holes in the walls of the fortress their homes.

When I did finally decide to appreciate the other direction, it wasn’t a half bad view at all.

A few sights were pointed out by our companion guide, including our next destination, the souk.

Fes spread out before us (Click on image to enlarge)

Fes spread out before us (Click on image to enlarge)

But before we got to the souk, there was an unexpected detour, one that typifies day tours in these sorts of countries.

We instead found ourselves at a ceramic co-operative, where after a series of demonstrations, the group was then bustled into their shop where we were encouraged to support the local artisans, as their stuff was genuine, not ‘Made in China’ like the stuff you’d find in the souks.

Just as ‘genuine’ as the Llama wool scarf Sarah had bought in Ecuador, which has undoubtedly been made with at least some polyester…

Still, we did our bit and bought a small butter dish for back home (they were lucky we were in the market for one anyway).

Pretty shortly after the last transaction was concluded, we found ourselves down amidst the hustle of the city, and the bustle of the souk.

I loved this sign, but what does it mean..? (left) & Crates piled high in the souk (right)

I loved this sign, but what does it mean..? (left) & Crates piled high in the souk (right)

As much as we love markets, we were pretty quickly craning our necks upwards to look at something I thought was even more fascinating, although at a glance its purpose may be far from obvious.

Attached to the facade of an old house (known as Dar al-Magana, which is Arabic for ‘clockhouse’), a series of wooden beams just outwards, casting a series of shadowed lines across the street below.

This was in fact an ancient water clock, although this particular example is no longer in working order.

The ancient water clock attached to Dar al-Magana (left) & A hard days work... (right)

The ancient water clock attached to Dar al-Magana (left) & A hard days work… (right)

We snapped some photos, dodged a few fruit vendors, then promptly entered an Islamic madrasa, or school.

After the seemingly chaotic surrounds of the souk, it immediately felt like a place of tranquility.

We admired the intricate artwork and design, enjoyed the lack of gaudy imagery you’d find within a Christian church, then continued on our way.

The beaut of Islam (left) & Peace inside the Madrasa Bou Inania (right)

The beauty of Islam (left) & Peace inside the Madrasa Bou Inania (right)

It’s one of those moments when that now globally renowned “same same, but different” line is truly apt.

The souk wasn’t all that different to any other we’d wandered in Morocco, but like every day, in any souk, the experience is always different.

Different vendors, at different times, likely selling the same wares.

The highlight for me was an old book store, crammed within and around the walls, and under the awnings of an ancient (like the rest of the souk) house.

Books old and new were stacked upon tables and even the ground where necessary. The proprietor, a jovial, bearded fellow with a steaming pot of tea and pet rooster.

It was a pretty cool place indeed.

Some respite from the hustle (left) & A man shows off his cock... (right)

Some respite from the hustle (left) & A man shows off his cock… (right)

Of course it wouldn’t be everyday life for many without Islam, and its most obvious presence beyond in day to day life was in prayer.

With mosques in abundance, there was never a shortage of minarets from which to catch the Muezzin call to prayer as it echoed through the tight confines that qualify as streets in the medina of Fes.

We might not have understood a single word, but that hasn’t stopped it becomming one of our favourite sounds from our travels (it just encapsulates exotic, even though it shouldn’t given there is an Islamic population in Australia).

I think it’s the overlapping call from a series of mosques that is the key difference…

A father leads his daughter to prayer (left) & Airing some dirty laundry (right)

A father leads his daughter to prayer (left) & Airing some dirty laundry (right)

A group lunch followed, however for once it wasn’t one of those situations where you feel railroaded into ordering from three or four overpriced options (in fact this lunch may have been included as part of the tour cost).

Our surroundings were a beautiful old home, the crockery was equally tasteful, but the food… finally we had a taste of the Morocco we’d been dreaming of.

Sure, we each were to select a main, but it was the appetiser courses which were served with abandon on our already full table, but were so incredibly delicious!

Finally! The Moroccan meal we'd been dreaming of...

Finally! The Moroccan meal we’d been dreaming of…

Finally, we had a big tick for Morocco in the food column!

We weren’t done wandering the medina, as after all, one of the probable highlights of Fes was still to come… the tanneries!

You may have seen images of the tanneries already. Large vats where the animal hides are both soaked to aid in the removal of the fur (usually in urine), and also often where they are dyed, and most famously, are those images taken from above.

We were looking forward to the colour, possibly insects, and of course, the expected smell.

Not everyone's open for business (left) & Another colourful mosque (right)

Not everyone’s open for business (left) & Another colourful mosque (right)

Through this neck of the woods, there was plenty of colour, although the crowds were noticeably thinner, which was probably a nice change to the oft required method of simply barreling ones way through the press of humanity.

We were apparently close, the occasional barrow of hides now passing us on its way somewhere… at least not to the place we were going.

Signage pointed us down a narrow laneway, cluttered though it was with men, however our guide instead lead us into a leathergoods shop, apparently as it was from here we would get those postcard, elevated views.

Several flights of stairs through the dimly lit store saw us facing some shuttered windows, our whole troupe momentarily blinded when they were first flung open… to show us a most disappointing scene below!

The famous tanneries of Fes. Missing the colours, action and smell that we'd hoped for...

The famous tanneries of Fes. Missing the colours, action and smell that we’d hoped for…

Below us sat a construction site, the vats empty, the colours absent and the smell solely one of dust.

You win some, you lose some.

We’d now have to try our luck at the tanneries back in Marrakesh at the tail end of our tour…



* Our flights from London Gatwick to Marrakesh (via Casablanca) with Royal Air Maroc cost us £88.09 per person.

* Our 15 night Morocco tour was booked through On-the-go travel, and costs per person vary depending on the season.

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8 Responses to What’s all the Fes about?

  1. We liked Fes a lot better than Marrakech. Such a colorful place.

  2. traciehowe says:

    How interesting to read about your experience in Fes. Compared to my own, it looks like you found a lot more than I did. Despite the disappointing tanneries. The ones we were shown were very interesting. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t judge a place by one short visit.

    • Chris says:

      It was still hard for us to get under the skin (the drawback of being bound to a group), but there were some gems to be found. That water clock was quite amazing!

  3. wanderingwagarschristina says:

    It’s amazing how much you saw. I never would have guessed you were part of a tour group. I didn’t realize how much there was to see in Fes outside of the tanneries. I hope you ended up seeing them in Marrakesh (didn’t know they were there as well).

  4. Fes looks like a slice of Morocco. The mosques look really exquisite. The pomegranates look red and luscious. The food on the table is quite a spread, now wonder you gave a big tick to food.

  5. Neha Verma says:

    Fes looks like a beautiful old town. I heard the name for the first time. But I am now fascinated to visit here. Particularly the rugged streets and that book store – what a find. The food also seems to be quiet delicious

  6. backpackways says:

    Such a wonderful destination. Looks much different that what I had imagined. Never knew about the Jewish existence there.

  7. Pingback: Where East meets West: Istanbul | theworldwithchrisandsarah

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