Before leaving for Morocco I read the book ‘A House in Fez’. It tells the (autobiographical) story of Australian journalist Suzanna Clarke and her husband who buy a run-down riad* in the heart of Fez medina. She recounts the struggles of attempting to renovate the house in traditional style, all the while giving an amusing insight into the day to day life of an expat in a Moroccan city. Reading about the once-capital from a personal view made me all the more anxious to visit. I wrote a long list of places I wished to explore, and happily, Fez did not disappoint.
Fez was the capital of Morocco for a long time, until its title was taken by Rabat in 1925. The city has two old medinas, the larger being Fes el Bali, where we stayed. It is said to be one of the world’s largest pedestrian zones, although in the last few years there has been an increasing number of locals zooming between the narrow walls on scooters! Though donkeys, mules, and hand carts remain the main methods for transporting goods.
Upon our arrival, we were dropped at Bab Ziat (a ‘bab’ is a gate leading into the walled city) and promptly got ourselves lost in the ‘labyrinth’. We walked for over an hour, being regularly pestered by ‘helpful’ strangers, who somehow knew the way before being told your destination. Some friendly Germans showed us the way to Bab Boujloud (the Blue Gate) hoping that the landmark would help us find our way. It didn’t.
After another half hour of fruitless wandering, we met an American family who, although they did not know the way, had a phone we could borrow. I made a quick call to Dar Berrada, and within minutes we had a guide to lead us to the hostel. It was about 300m from where we had been dropped off… two hours previously.
Hot, tired, and hungry, we were ecstatic to discover that our room came equipped with air con (what luxury!) A few minutes were spent freshening up, and we once again took to the snaking, maze-like streets – now oddly familiar.
We were pleased to stumble across multiple food-carts – and with street food being familiar territory – lost no time in sitting down with the regulars for steaming bowls of homemade Harira**. This was followed up with a sandwich and chips from a second vendor further along. Satisfied and sleepy, we retired ready for the full days ahead.
On our first full day in Fez, we ticked three main items off my list – besides getting lost in the medina, and admiring the local handicrafts. The first was, naturally, Bab Boujloud. The Blue Gate is an icon of the old capital, regularly photographed, still in use, and rather underwhelming. If in Fez, you are bound to walk under it as it is on the Main Street of the medina, but honestly, there are gates and infrastructures that are much more ornately decorated!
We spent half the morning at Madrasa Bou Inania. Built from 1351-1356, the madrasa functioned both as an educational institute and as a congregational mosque. Non-Muslims are allowed into the central courtyard. We paid the 20 Dirham ($2 – €1.80) entrance fee, then proceeded to marvel at the ancient building.
I have fallen head-over-heels in love with Moroccan architecture and decor. The designs, the colours, the intricacies never fail to take my breath away. Bou Inania was almost an overload. I walked around the square, gazing closely at the Zellij (mosaic patters) muttering about sheer beauty under my breath. I am sure I appeared quite demented!
We took a break from the hot, bustling streets (air-con we love you) before the inevitable trip to Fez tanneries. We had read that it could be quite an intense experience between people jostling for your attention, and the smell of the tanneries themselves. We went along with Kate and Alesha who we had met earlier in the day, stopping to look in little shops as we descended the medina streets.
At one point we ended up in a Berber cooperative, marvelling at the towers of rugs and carpets. Being a co-op, the staff get paid monthly salaries and there is no pressure put on visitors to make a purchase. We enjoyed browsing (the rugs well out of our budget) and were then escorted to the Berber co-op overlooking the tannery. Having a guide meant we did not get solicited once.
All the leather shops around the tanneries have an upper level that overlooks the dyeing process. We were lucky to be there at a time when the colours were old, and therefore not as pungent as they are when fresh! You are, however, supplied with a mint sprig upon arrival.
It is interesting to watch the men working with the dye, submerging themselves waist-deep, pushing the hide into the giant vats. The end products, too, are fascinating. Bags, shoes, jackets, leather trousers (that episode of Friends, anyone?)
With only one day remaining, we had to pick and choose how to spend our time. It is important to not over-do it while travelling, especially in hot climates. The key is to fit enough in without wearing yourself down. So on our second day we went for more stunning architecture: one of Fez’s five Royal Palaces, and a little more culture: the Nejjarine Museum of Wood, Arts, and Crafts (actually more about the building than the exhibits).
*A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard.
**Harira is a North-African red lentil soup.