Fes, Morocco

Our drive from Chefchaouen to Fes (also spelled “Fez”) took us through flatlands and rolling hills. The land had been tilled in some places and the soil looked dark.
We passed orange groves and farms of pomegranates trees. Also farms of olives. Donkeys, mules, horses and sheep are the common animals beside the road.

Youssef grew up in the town of Meknes, not far away from Fes. Fes is in the Meknes governmental district. I was hoping that he could see his family for a short while in the evening. He said that there was no time. I am not surprised when I see the way he is engaged in his duties, seemingly every single moment of time that he is awake.

We arrived in Fes later than usual. We were staying in a riad. Riad El Yacout is an old, traditional, formerly residential home that has been restored to provide accommodations for travelers. According to the owners of the riad, the house was built by a famous researcher and professor at the University of al-Qarawiyyin in the 16th century. It was recently renovated and converted.

The Riad was located off the main road, where the bus could not travel. We had to walk down some narrow roads, and finally a narrow alleyway, between some buildings to reach our destination.Our luggage was brought to the riad on carts by porters.

The place was unique. It had a huge open area in the center, and rooms all around.
You could not figure out where your room was from the room number. We were taken to the top floor by an employee assigned to help us in the endeavor. A door that was not very obvious opened up in one corner of the verandah to reveal a narrow stairway that took us down to the room. We were apparently located in-between floors!The room was grand,but the bathroom had problems. The conversion of a big 16th century home – without electricity or plumbing, and also air-conditioning – into a building capable of hosting an army of tourists of this day and age was not without its issues. The guest rooms were also all unique and different from each other, each having been converted from whatever purpose they had served in times past. One, perhaps unkind, guess was that we had been given the maid’s room!

We had a view into a courtyard with an open pool from the windows in our room.

The expectation from the tour organizers had been that we would have dinner on our own on the day of our arrival. Instead, Youssef arranged for a late dinner in the hotel for all of us. We had a tajine dish with couscous and chicken. There was a lot of food! Three musicians entertained us with traditional music during dinner. The beats of the music sounded familiar. We have heard them in India. Folks were tired after the long ride and appreciated not having to hunt for food that evening.

Fes is one of the old cities of Morocco. It was its first Imperial City. It used to be a center of education. The city was built in the 8th Century by Idris 1st. He was an Arab.

Fes is very different from Tangier. We were warned by our tour manager about being very careful in Fes, especially in the medina we were visiting. Lots of pickpockets. Lots of people, including gangs of kids, trying to extract money from you. People would apparently try to peddle junk to you, trying to distract you, while their compatriots would attempt to rob you of your stuff. Others, selling stuff that was perhaps somewhat more legitimate, would not leave you alone even if you refused their offers.

The Fes el Bali is the older medina in Fes. It is the biggest and most complex in Morocco. It is like a labyrinth!  Apparently people get lost easily, even Moroccans from other places. It was developed between the years 789 and 1200. We were told that an attempt by a travel company to map out all the alleyways of the medina was given up after a few months of effort as being an impossible task. Our guide mentioned that the medina in Fes is of Arabic design, while most other medinas in Morocco are Berber in design.

We were met by a local guide before we set out into town that morning. We drove up to the Borj Sud, The Southern Tower, located on a hill,(please excuse the poor quality of the above picture!) to get an expansive view of the whole city from the south.You could also see some of the mountains surrounding the city through the early morning fog in the distance.

Our next stop was the medina. We were met here by an assistant guide who was also going to come along with us through the medina – to help keep us safe, and keep us from getting lost. He was kept busy throughout our visit.Both our guides are from Fes, and are very familiar with the insides of the medina.

We were told to keep put in one place if we ever got separated from the group, and not to follow random people who might offer to help. We were told to move out of the way immediately if we heard the word “Balak”! If we did not move, we were likely to be knocked down by a person or a donkey in the narrow crowded alley. We were also told to politely ignore folks who bothered us. Also, the guides were allowed to lose up to 10% of the people in a tour group during a visit to the medina. The last statement is, of course, a joke!

The experience of a medina is quite unique – the shops, the storefronts, the displays lining the streets and alleys, the people, etc,

We were occasionally followed by little kids who seemed to be in their element looking for trouble, and also by the insistent hawkers who picked on one person in the group, and bothered the person indefinitely even while being ignored, keeping pace as the group as it made its way single file through the alley. They targeted the women in the group, and it was a mistake even to look at them or give them a smile.Plainclothesmen accompanied us occasionally, people passed you with carts and animals, some even carrying stuff on their head. I barely missed being hit by the cardboard boxes being carried on the head of a person going the other way, while other more confident locals ducked under his load and passed us on his side of the alley.

There was the occasional dog poop. The cats were everywhere.There were the dark and sometimes narrow, empty, alleyways that lead to god knows where. Some of these areas were residential, and we were told that the nature of the door did not reveal the wealth of the people living behind them. The insides of the abodes were also built with security in mind.Spaces between buildings were supported by wood in some places, an indication of how fragile some of the old structures might be.This is a metal worker who is supposed to have gained some fame on Youtube. It seemed like he was performing in the small square for the passers-by.There was the man posing with his donkey. He was, of course, expecting money in return for allowing us to take his picture.

We stopped at a carpet place recommended by the tour group. We were given a lecture about all the different kinds of carpets made in Morocco.We learnt that the Berber carpets had their own characteristics, different from carpets of other places – including the way the materials came together, and their designs and the fact that both sides could be used – he described a side for winter and one for summer. We were free to purchase carpets here that could be shipped to the US.

We walked beside the wall of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, but could not enter the premises. This university began as a mosque, and its minaret and the green tops of some of its buildings, are visible in pictures of the medina in Fes taken from afar. The University is considered the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher and scholar of the 12th century, is known to have studied here.

We visited an old Al-Attarine Madrasa in the medina, where children used to live and learn the religious texts.About 50 children lived and studied here at a time. We could walk into the rooms in which they lived in on the upper floors of the building. The rooms were quite small. They each had their own mailboxes. The calligraphy on some of the walls was notable.

When I asked, I was informed that the text in caligraphy like this, and on the walls of mosques, most of the time consists of lines from the Koran.

We could not enter the Mausoleum of Moulay Idris II because it was closed due to Covid. This is one of the entrances to the mausoleum.The minaret of the mosque of this mausoleum is the most distinctive feature of the medina of Fes when seen in pictures taken from a distance. It towers over its surroundings.

We visited the museum called the Fondouk el-Nejjarine. It used to be a Caravanserai for travelers in times past. The museum was dominated by artifacts of wood.Lunch was provided in a restaurant within the medina. We had tajine once again!

After lunch we visited the tannery. We we were given mint leaves to hold over our noses to keep out the smells.They work on camel hide to produce the leather in this tannery, and they use pigeon droppings in the vats for softening the leather, the key ingredient in the droppings to make this happen being ammonia. We were given a lecture on the process of creating leather products, and, again, we were taken to the store where we could make purchases. We bought a couple of leather poufs. I also bought a belt, and a wallet to replace the the one in my hand that was falling apart. I was very naive when it came to bargaining, but Youssef helped me get a good price in the end. While I was standing around waiting for others to get done with their shopping, one of the service people struck up a conversation with me and started talking about India. He said he knew songs from Indian movies. I ended up singing pieces from a Hindi song with him!

We apparently walked about 4 miles through the medina!

The next stop on the bus was the Jewish cemetery,
after which we visited the Jewish marketplace.Apparently, the open upper levels that one sees in these pictures is one distinguishing feature of Jewish marketplaces in general. The pathways in the medinas of Fes are all covered.

We walked over to the front of the Old Royal Palace to take a look at the entrance.The palace is still in use.

We were supposed to get our own dinner that evening after we returned to the hotel. We were given a few options for places to go to for this purpose, including a restaurant where one could get a camel burger if so inclined. We decided to have dinner at the riad itself, and in a spur of the moment decision, after looking at the menu, placed the order right away for what we wanted when we came down to dinner a couple of hours later. It was a good thing that we did this, because people who came to the restaurant later for dinner were limited in their choices. Some decided to wander outside the riad to look for food more to their liking – with mixed results.

I have been enjoying the beers of Morocco with my dinners – Casablanca and Flag. Both beers are on the light side.

We are crossing the Middle and High Altas mountain ranges tomorrow!

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

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Kuriacose Joseph

I am an engineer by training. I am exploring new horizons after having spent many years in the Industry. My interests are varied and I tend to write about what is on my mind at any particular moment in time.

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