Face the crowd in Fes

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Africa » Morocco » Fès-Boulemane » Fes
April 6th 2019
Published: September 1st 2019
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There is no queue at the gate of patience ~ Moroccan Proverb

Today we were travelling northeast from Meknes to Fes.

It was a wet afternoon in Meknes. Heavy rain fell from dark clouds shrouding the city, and a bitter wind swept the empty streets. We emerged from the medina and sheltered as best we could in the shadows of Bab el-Mansour (the city’s iconic gateway) until a taxi arrived. We jumped in, dropped by the hotel where we’d left our packs a few hours earlier and headed to the Meknes train station – we were about to embark on a one-hour train journey to Fes.

Moroccan train travel is unbridled and anarchic, and you get to experience the gamut of Moroccan life in the cramped and chaotic confines of your designated carriage. We’d previously discovered (on route from Rabat to Meknes) that the ticketed seating system is not followed in the country, so there’s little comfort in holding a ticket with a seat number as you wait for your train to pull into the station. Someone will be in your seat, and they won’t be moving…

We piled onto the train with packs in tow, and as expected, our seats were occupied and spare seats difficult to find. There was barely room to move, and people were throwing themselves at whatever seats they could find. Ren and I were separated in the ensuing bedlam, and we had no choice but to stand in the congested aisle and wait for someone to get off at a station along the way. I eventually settled on a seat opposite a young Moroccan couple from Tangier with a two month-old baby girl.

The baby started crying, so the father somehow managed to carry her up and down the congested aisle, which seemed to work until he sat down and returned the tiny little bundle to his wife. I could sense they were embarrassed by the baby’s incessant crying, and I really felt for them. I wish I’d told them that it was OK and not to worry. I was happy enough, because I had a seat – and seats are gold on Moroccan trains!

The mother tried breast feeding the little one, but she wouldn’t stop crying. Eventually, the mother got up, navigated the congested aisle with the little baby in her arms and disappeared into the small area between the train carriages. She returned after a while, and the baby was fast asleep. The relief on the mother’s face was palpable. She handed the baby to the father as she settled in her seat, and he smiled at me as he nursed the child with a calmness I’ll never forget. Before I knew it, he handed the little bundle to me, and I was suddenly in charge of a tiny baby that had only just stopped crying. I quickly glanced at the mother to see if she approved of her husband’s impulsive gesture, expecting to see a look of complete horror in her eyes. How wrong I was. She was smiling, nodding in approval and laughing quietly, possibly at the look of complete horror in my eyes!

I nursed the little one for about ten minutes, trying as best I could to protect her from the procession of people moving in the aisle beside me. Every so often the train would lurch on the tracks, and I was terrified the little bundle would slip out of my arms. The young parents were in no hurry to get their daughter back, and I think they would have been happy if I’d nursed her for the rest of the journey. However, I was more than ready to return her to her rightful owners, so I gently handed her back to the father and felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I was no longer responsible for her safety.

They were such a friendly young couple. The father asked where I was from and where I intended to visit in Morocco, and they were both so happy when I told them I loved Northern Morocco and that I especially loved the food. Their spoken English was good, yet the mother apologised for not being able to speak English well, even though I could understand everything she said. I was in her country, so it was me who should have been apologising – I should have been trying my hardest to speak with them in Arabic. It is a humbling experience to meet people who are willing to engage with you in a language that is not their own.

We arrived in Fes in the late afternoon. After bidding farewell to the young family, I clambered off the train with a smile. Moroccan train travel may be cramped and chaotic, but the chaos dissipates when you share a seat with locals who are so friendly and so welcoming of you to their country.

It was raining when we left Meknes an hour earlier, and it was raining when we arrived in Fes. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse. We emerged from the train station, jumped into a minibus and headed a short distance to Hotel Olympic – our accommodation for the next two nights. After settling in, I headed out looking for supplies. I’d heard there was a tiny street-front bottle-shop opposite Hotel Olympic, so I’d been looking forward to sampling the local Stork beer. Unfortunately the bottle-shop had closed down, but I was told there was another just around the corner. However, by this stage the rain was getting a lot heavier, so I abandoned the expedition and returned to the hotel empty handed.

By the time we headed out to dinner, it was absolutely pouring. We splashed through the sodden streets of Fes until we scurried off the sidewalk into Restaurant Marrakech. We may have been drenched, but this destination was absolutely worth the effort. The place was warm and welcoming, and the food was exceptional. We started with a Moroccan version of tapas – small bowls of lentils, carrots and cucumber served with khobz (traditional round bread), and we warmed up with mint tea. The restaurant was run by a small family (mother cooking, father serving and a young daughter helping wherever she could), and they were incredibly efficient – the place was absolutely buzzing. I ordered a beef tagine with zucchini, thyme and olives, and it was superb. Ren opted for Morocco’s famous savoury-sweet pie (pastilla), and while I’m always up for new food experiences, this peculiar blend of ingredients offered a taste that I just couldn’t grasp. Why spoil a perfectly good chicken pie by dusting it with icing sugar?

By the time we finished eating, the rain had stopped. We ventured out of the warm and boisterous restaurant and walked back to our hotel in the cool evening air. I managed to jot down a few travel notes in our spacious room, but I was succumbing to exhaustion. We’d explored four different places over the course of a single day – Moulay Idriss in the early morning, Volubilis in the late morning, Meknes in the early afternoon and Fes in the late afternoon/evening… it was time to retire!

We woke early and prepared for a long day – we were exploring the new and old districts of Fes. We enjoyed a late breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which comprised baguettes, boiled eggs, croissants, jam, orange juice and tea. It was fairly basic, but nice enough.

Feeling suitably refreshed, we jumped into a minibus and headed to Fes el-Jdid (new Fes) – a district within the city that is only 700 years old. The term ‘new’ is used in a very relative sense in Morocco. Our first stop was the Royal Palace, where we admired the palace gates while shivering in the early morning air – it was incredibly cold when you wandered into shadow and lost contact with the sun. We walked the outer perimeter of the palace walls until we found ourselves in the bustling Mellah (Jewish Quarter). Friendly street vendors were preparing for the day, and we sampled some dates stuffed with walnuts from one of the stalls – and they were fantastic.

After soaking in the Mellah’s morning atmosphere, we jumped into a minibus and headed to a high vantage point which afforded an incredible vista of the sprawling Fes el-Bali (old Fes). This was to be the focus of our walking tour, but before we made our way into the old medina, we dropped into a large workshop to see ceramic artisans apply their trade. It was fantastic to watch on as skilled craftspeople made tagines and other ceramic artefacts, but it wasn’t so fantastic having to navigate the various sale points during our unnecessarily complex and convoluted exit from the workshop. Despite the persistent guarantees that everything would be packaged for a safe journey home, I just couldn’t imagine a tagine making it back to Australia in one piece – especially not in my backpack.

We eventually emerged (ceramic-free) from the workshop, jumped into a minibus and headed to the main entrance of the medina. The old city is one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world, so it can only be explored on foot – which is always my preference. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we were looking forward to the adventure.

I have to admit my memory of the medina is a little shambolic, much like the place itself. At first we followed narrow alleys in the quiet and deserted Andalusian Quarter (the residential part of the old city), but then we walked through a seemingly innocuous doorway and found ourselves amidst the utter chaos of the souqs (markets). There were times, I think, where I subconsciously narrowed my periphery to cope with the sensory overload. We walked past decapitated heads of camels and goats, freshly butchered carcases, fish, vegetables, fruit, spices, snails, cheese – every food type you could possibly imagine. I remember bees swarming around peanut brittle and nougat stalls. I remember mosques, hammams, clothing shops, tailors, coppersmiths and barbers. I remember standing on a small arched bridge spanning a fast flowing canal and thinking of Venice.

We managed to grab some downtime in a leather shop overlooking the Chaouwara Tanneries, but it was downtime at a cost. On entering this over-stocked shop we were given a twig of fresh mint, and it soon became apparent it was to veil the pungent smell arising from the tanneries below. The mint didn’t leave my nose! I used to jog past the Blundstone tannery every morning when I lived in South Hobart, but I’d never experienced the causticness of leather production at such close quarters.

My senses calmed considerably when we left the congested souqs and wandered into the tranquil atmosphere of Medersa el-Attarine, an ancient Quranic school with breathtaking architecture. We also walked past the Kairaouine Mosque and University, one of the oldest universities in the world, but we were unable to enter, as it is not accessible to non-Muslims. I don’t remember much about the university, but it struck a chord to be on the outer of such an old institution.

It was time for lunch. We’d been exploring the medina for at least two hours, and my appetite had been increasing all the while (despite the decapitated camel heads and pungent tanneries). Le Patio Bleu, our lunch destination, was in a quieter part of the old city, which was a bonus. We settled at a table on the ground floor of this impressive old restaurant and grazed on a selection of cooked salads and khobz while we waited for the main meals to arrive. I tried the mechoui (steam roasted lamb), while Ren tried the chicken tagine with preserved lemon and red olives. My lamb was absolutely delicious, but Ren’s chicken was a bit dry. And as always, we refreshed with mint tea.

After embarrassing myself by inattentively lining up in a queue for the female toilet (I really had narrowed my periphery), we left Le Patio Bleu and continued exploring the medina into the mid-afternoon. We walked past the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II (Founder of Fes) before entering a textile workshop through a narrow door off a dark and secluded alley. This was much the same experience as the ceramic workshop we’d visited earlier in the day – it was great to watch on as skilled weavers created all types of Moroccan garments, but it was not so fantastic trying to avoid the less than eager sales assistants who were simply doing their job. I just wasn’t in the mood to try on or buy a Peter O’Toole/Lawrence of Arabia head scarf.

When we finally emerged from the textile workshop, it was time to navigate our way out of the old city. It had been an exhilarating experience. More than 150,000 people live in this thriving and self-sustaining ecosystem, and I was amazed how friendly and welcoming they were. I lost count of the number of times someone accidently brushed my arm on the way past in a crowded souq – but then stopped, turned around, put their hand on my shoulder and apologised.

We arrived back at our hotel in the late afternoon. We were staying in the Ville Nouvelle (new city) of Fes, and we hadn’t seen much of our modern surrounds. We walked to the Avenue Hassan II (Fes’ main avenue) and settled at Café Florence, where I ordered a cafe nous nous (a local cafe latte) and Ren ordered a mint tea. It was nice to just sit and relax…

On the way back to the hotel I dropped into the bottle shop I’d missed the night before. The place was much the same as bottle shops in Sri Lanka, where you are not given a chance to peruse what is available. I asked the guy at the counter if he had any local beer, and he pointed to a carton of Hahn. This wasn’t going well. I asked if he had any Stork beer, and one of his assistants suddenly appeared from the side of the counter with a bright red and yellow can with Stork written clearly on the front. Success. I could see by the look on his face that he was asking how many I wanted, so I said two. He scurried away into another room and returned with my order.

As I was waiting, an old guy shuffled in, ordered a large plastic bottle of dark liquid, tucked it away in a duffle bag and shuffled back out onto the street. I couldn’t help but wonder what the plastic bottle contained, but I was reluctant to ask the guy at the counter. When I came back out onto the street, I noticed the old guy begging from passers-by. How long did it take him to collect enough coins to buy whatever was in the plastic bottle?

We had a four-hour bus trip to Chefchaouen the following day, so we picked up some chips and chocolate digestive biscuits for the journey. After dropping our healthy supplies at the hotel, we headed back to Avenue Hassan II, this time looking for somewhere to relax and watch Fes come to life in the early evening. We weren’t all that hungry, so we opted for drinks at Monsieur Brochette – an avocado milkshake for Ren, and a mint tea for me.

After watching the world go by on Avenue Hassan II, we headed back to the hotel and went through our travel photos, then succumbed to sleep in the late evening. We had a long bus trip the next day, and we wanted to be fresh for the journey.

For some unbeknown reason, I was fascinated by our proximity to mountains during our Moroccan travels. Fes was the closest we got to the Middle Atlas, the northernmost and second highest of the country’s Atlas mountain range. I’m not sure why it was important, but I was compelled to record it.

Today we were travelling from Meknes to Fes, by train.

After our city walk around the Meknes medina (the old town), we hopped into four taxis that took us to the hotel where our luggage was being stored. We were supposed to pick up our bags and return to the taxis which would take us on to the train station, but one of the four taxis was late coming back from the medina. The driver had gone to the wrong hotel! By now two taxis had already left for the train station, but Khalid (our group leader) and our taxi were waiting at the hotel for the last taxi to arrive. Khalid was a very easy going personality, but I could see he was getting stressed. By the time they arrived and got organised, we were running a little late for our train.

By now the rain was quite severe and I got drenched just walking to and from the taxi. We rushed through the station and got to the train just in time. As usual our carriage was packed and people were sitting in our allocated seats. We managed to all get seats, although not together. I was sitting among a young basketball team who were on a high from having just won a game, and any hope of napping was gone… so I wrote instead. Andrew was at the other end of the carriage but managed to move next to me at the very end of the journey.

The one hour trip went quickly, and it was still raining heavily when we arrived in Fes. We transferred to our hotel – Hotel Olympic – in the Ville Nouvelle (new town) area. It seemed to be centrally located, but the hot water was dodgy (we both desperately needed a hot shower to warm up) and there wasn’t any wifi in our room. We had a couple of hours to explore the town before dinner, but it was raining... so I just sat in the cold hotel lobby and tried to use the wifi while Andrew had a lukewarm shower and went looking for a bottle shop – Moulay Idriss was a dry town, so most of the group were on the lookout for adult beverages. 😊

The hunt for the bottle shop and wifi both proved equally elusive, so I retired to the warmth of our bed to do some reading on Fes… but as many of you would have guessed, I got as far as ‘Fes is described as the spiritual and cultural heart of Morocco, and claims to be the oldest city in the country’… before it turned into an hour nap. 😄

Andrew had opened our balcony door and I woke up to the noise of rain lashing our building. I was justifiably very reluctant to leave my cosy bed, but we braved the torrential rain and walked to dinner with a few of our group. The temperature had plummeted, and not for the first time, so I was very glad we’d packed a few warm clothes for the mountains later in the trip! Walking to dinner in the rain was dicey. It’s hard to get your bearings in a new town when you’re concentrating on holding onto your umbrella AND not stepping in puddles AND not slipping on the tiled pavement!

Restaurant Marrakesh had a convivial and welcoming atmosphere about it. We immediately ordered some mint tea to warm us up. The manager / waiter thoroughly impressed us by reciting the entirety of the rather large menu in English, while also explaining the ingredients in each dish (the menu was written in French and we’d struggled to decipher some of it). Judging by his expression, I’d say this was a party trick he loved performing.

Andrew ordered the beef tagine with zucchini, thyme and olives, and I ordered the pastilla pie which was the house speciality. The pastilla is Fes’ signature dish, where chicken (traditionally pigeon) is slow cooked then shredded between layers of flaky thin werqa dough (thin and crispy enough to be pastry), beaten eggs, cinnamon and almonds. After it’s baked, icing sugar is dusted over the top before serving. Yes icing sugar! I’d read about this before the trip and wasn’t really sure about the sweet / savoury combination, but I was eager to try it. I never thought I’d like, much less actually finish a dish that pairs sugar and meat in a pie!

The restaurant was packed with about 30 – 40 people and it was staffed by just three people! The husband serving front of house by himself, the wife cooking downstairs by herself and the teenage daughter running orders and food between the kitchen and the restaurant. It was an incredible operation. Having worked in hospitality, I watched the waiter and remembered that feeling towards the end of the night when your adrenalin rush starts to dissipate and you will yourself to get through the last hour or so… before your legs turn into dead weights! The rain had subsided by the time we walked back to the hotel, and as much as I wanted to explore the area around our hotel that night, it would have to wait until the next day.

We woke up with the call to prayer at about 5:30am, but our room and bed were far too comfortable to entice us outside that early. We wandered downstairs to use the wifi in the lobby before breakfast. From about 7:30am, tourists from another group (G Adventures, Intrepid Travel’s Canadian competitor) started walking into the still dark breakfast room where staff were setting up, and they all unfailingly asked the same question – ‘what time is breakfast?’. We’d been informed of the time when we checked-in, so I can only assume they had been too, and there was also a great big handwritten ‘Breakfast 8am’ sign on the door! The staff were getting understandably exasperated, as was I, after listening to it continuously for 30 minutes. When they turned the lights on at 8am, the rush of those tourists can only be described as a stampede. I was shocked.

Breakfast was of a continental nature, but quite measly. Our table set for four had four glasses of orange juice, four small croissants, two small cut up baguettes, four boiled eggs, four laughing cow cheese segments, and tiny saucers of butter and jam. It was hardly generous, but adequate enough for me. The only thing they were generous with was the couple of pours of tea and coffee.

We were picked up at 9am by Idriss our local guide for the day, and we began our city explorations in Fes el-Jdid (New Fes). You know a city is quite ancient when the ‘new’ Fes is over 700 years old! To clarify, Fes el-Jdid (New Fes) is newer than Fes el Bali (Old Fes), but older than Ville Nouvelle (new town). A minibus drove us to the beautiful main gate of the Royal Palace. None of the countless royal palaces around the country are open to the public, so we were here to merely admire the magnificent brass doors, with highly ornate zellij (mosaic ceramic tiles) and carved cedar wood. We stood in Pl des Alaouites, the large open area in front of the palace while Idriss tried to explain some of the history. But I have to admit, I was very distracted… I was itching to see the doors up close and photograph them. I don’t think Idriss was impressed that a few of us wandered off in order to get there before the big bus full of tourists who had just arrived.

We then walked to the Mellah (Jewish quarter) which was very close to the palace. Many Jews fled to Fes in the 14th century, but apparently less than a hundred (of the 250,000) still live in Fes. However, their distinct houses – with wooden and wrought iron balconies and an architectural style that is more open (than Muslim architecture) and interacts with the street – still remain.

Idriss explained all the unique dry rations of seeds, dried fruit and sacks of flour we saw in the shops. I was fascinated by the traditional Moroccan black soap – made of olive oil and pulped olives – it’s a gooey green-black paste still used in hammams (traditional bathhouses) with many purported heath claims. The shop keepers were generous with their offers of samples, and an absolute standout for me was the sample of dates stuffed with walnuts! I love both those things, but had never had them together, and it was a fabulous new taste revelation to me.

The minibus picked us up at one of the gates to the medina (where storks had nested in the turrets above the gate) and drove us up into the hills surrounding Fes – to the Borj Sud viewpoint. It wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences, as it was blowing a gale (I had trouble holding my camera steady!) and the place was seriously touristy. However, the view was rather spectacular and made the madness of busloads of pushy tourists worth it. We could see the vast medina far below us, but from that distance it looked like a peaceful sea of rooftops and mosque minarets, and it gave nothing away of the maze of life in the thousands of alleyways that I’d read about. After watching the spectacle of Instagrammers doing their thing, complete with outfit changes and mini light reflector props (!)… I gladly retreated back into our minibus.

Our next stop was a ceramic workshop that specialised in mosaics. Mosaics are much loved all around Morocco, and I love the beautiful intricate geometric patterns created by this art form. We could follow the entire process from watching the amazing potters sculpting beautiful objects out of innate lumps of mud, to the drying of the products and glazing methods. Then we moved inside the workshop where the intricate artistry began. There was an area where products like bowls, plates and teapots were being hand painted; another where glazed ceramic tiles were being precisely chipped and fashioned into shapes; and a third area where these shaped mosaics were being assembled into all manner large and small products – even fountains!

This was our first ‘shopping stop’ for the day, and it gave me an insight of how annoying the other shopping stops were going to be. While it was fun wandering through the multilevel store that sat above the workshops, we didn’t wish to buy any ceramics this early in the trip… so Andrew and I were finished in about 30 minutes… and then we waited, and waited, and waited! I’m a fast and decisive shopper, but clearly there were many in our group who had no intention of making any quick decisions. To be fair, we weren’t given a timeframe and they took advantage of it. It felt like we were in there for an eternity!

We then (finally!!!) drove back downhill and began our walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage listed old medina (Fes el Bali / Old Fes), and it’s supposed to be the oldest (9th century) and largest medina in the country. Idriss had grown up in the medina, and he knew it very well. His family had moved out when he was a teenager, but he seemed nostalgic for the past… not to mention that real estate in the medina had evidently boomed since they sold.

On a slightly different note… since being in Morocco, every time we’ve approached a medina my brain has started looping ‘Funky Cold Medina’ at me. I really need to stop this from happening! We’ll be visiting many medinas on this trip and I really don’t want to have Tone Loc and his ‘80s drink-spiking song in my head every single time! 😊

The medina is apparently made up of a numerous number of distinct ancient neighbourhoods, each one separated by a big wooden door that many years ago would be locked at night. We started in the Andalusian part of the medina which was very residential and had a calm and friendly feel to it.

Idriss led us deep into the oldest parts of the medina, through tiny barely-one-person-wide alleys. The alleys themselves were not scary, but the quality of the scaffolding holding up some of the crumbling walls were a bit of a concern! I was surprised at how quiet the residential areas were. However, as we moved towards the covered souqs (markets), it started getting very energetic – everything came alive with the sounds and sights of all manner of wares, and all manner of craftspeople and tradespeople.

The entire medina is car-free, and it felt like we’d stepped back in time. The alleys turned into a rabbit warren of dark narrow lanes that criss-crossed, zig-zagged, bent, twisted and meandered all over the place. It’s like they rejected grid-planning on purpose! Within 10 minutes of being in there, I had lost all sense of direction and there would have been no hope of finding our way out of that maze on our own. There was actually a very real risk of getting lost, so Idriss led the way and Khalid brought up the rear (watching out for stray group members).

The medina was very authentic in parts, but also very touristy in others. Those Instagram photos of the famous tanneries obviously keep drawing the tourists in, and there are masses of touristy market stalls and restaurants. But luckily it’s so huge that there are still very local markets where local people go about shopping and socialising. To me, that was the real heart of the place.

We explored a few of the dimly lit souqs which were thumping with people and commerce. It initially looked like mayhem, but the souqs were split into specialty sections and it eventually started making sense (kind of). The lanes between shops were packed full of a myriad of things on display that fought for our attention, and wares from the tiny stalls overflowed into the already narrow walkways.

It was very difficult to settle into any sort of rhythm on our walk, as not only was the place surging with people, but every few minutes we’d hear the call of ‘Ballack! Ballack!’ from behind us, and we’d swiftly push ourselves into the sides of the alleyways or into shops. This was a call to let through a sad looking donkey or mule burdened with all manner of goods, or to allow heavily sweating men pushing overloaded carts to squeeze past. After they’d passed, we’d press ourselves back into the heaving throng of people and keep walking. The visual and aural overload was incessant!

The first souq we walked through was the meat and butchery section. It was full of not-so-inviting meat stalls complete with animal carcasses swinging like meaty curtains above white tiled counter tops. A few stalls had grotesque camel heads hanging from colossal hooks, and sheep brains laid out in neat rows on trays. It was certainly a sight to behold! I’m not visually squeamish, but my boundaries were certainly being pushed.

I never thought I’d say this, but the fish stalls were a welcome relief after the meat stalls! More so because I would distract myself with the opportunistic cats hanging around. The Produce Souq was very interesting and by far my favourite… it was full of sacks of fragrant orange blossom, carts of fresh mint, tables laden with white cheese, platters of pastries dripping in honey, women deftly making the thin werqa dough for pastillas, barrels of shiny olives in many colours and piles of dates so high that you could barely see the stallholder behind them.

We walked through to the Metal Souq, where a wave of shiny metals gleamed at us in the subdued light. We suddenly appeared in Place as-Seffarine, a welcome light filled square full of beautiful brass and copper products, and with coppersmiths and brass makers plying their trade with an intensity of sound that as was deafening as it was weirdly melodic. I loved the beaten silver trays and teapots very much and made a mental note to look out for the ‘made in Fes’ products when we eventually shopped for souvenirs.

We wandered through the mirror stalls and into the Dyers’ Souq. There were stacks of various coloured dyes and curiously, the dyeing of cotton yarn was taking place right there in the laneway (with the dyes being washed directly into the canal flowing through the middle of the medina!). I could also tell we were nearing the famed Chouara Tannery and surrounding leather shops because that sharp reek of fresh leather was hitting the back of my throat and catching my breath.

Fes is well known for its leather, and it’s a significant export of the country. Even though the majority of the leather processing work is now done in factories, there are three old tanneries that still use the ancient system of treating leather. Buried deep in the medina, we walked up a few flights of narrow stairs into a leather shop that had balconies overlooking the Chouara Tannery (the oldest of the three, dating back to the 11th century).

I’ve never been a fan of that sharp fresh leather smell, but the smell that hit me as I walked into the shop was on a whole other level of gross! I was very very grateful that a young guy was handing out sprigs of mint to combat that soul retching biological stench of rotting, urine and vomit!

We stood on the shop balcony with a birds eye view over the tannery, with its vast honeycomb of earthenware vats filled with gold, red, brown and milky pastel coloured liquids. We watched men engaged in the processes of turning camel, cow, goat and sheep hides into leather, sometimes standing knee deep in the various liquids while they worked.

The traditional techniques used to wash, treat, smooth and colour the hides are hundreds of years old. As I understand it, the process seems to be: the fresh hides are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water and salt. They are then cleaned of fat and hair, and then dried. The dried skins are soaked in pigeon poo (for the ammonia) and water to be softened. They are further softened by men stomping on the skins with bare feet until the desired suppleness is reached. Then the actual tanning process begins. Traditionally tanners only used natural dyes (saffron for yellow, poppy flower for red, henna for orange, cedar wood for brown, indigo for blue and mint for green), but there were murmurings that apparently chemical dyes were cheaper and produced a better and longer lasting colour.

I had always thought that the softness of leather was determined by the state / quality of the hide, and had no idea it was all to do with the tanning process. The traditional tanning skills are passed through generations of a few families who live around the tannery. We watched as men walked along the vat edges – soaking, stomping and carrying bundles of animal skins from one process to the next… it was obviously very hard and very labour intensive work!

Andrew said he eventually got used to the pungent smell of the tannery, but miserably, I didn’t. The stench was still making my eyes water and my stomach churn… especially when the sun decided to shine brightly while we were there! The sprig of mint helped immensely, but I needed two hands to operate my camera, so I resorted to shoving the mint up my nostrils so I could take photos without passing out from the disgusting odour. 😱

We were then asked to peruse the leather goods in the shop. Many of you will know that I love shoes, and the shop was chockfull of leather shoes in every imaginable colour, and it also had many other leather good of all shapes and sizes. But the designs weren’t exactly my cup of tea, and the stench from the tanneries had cast a smelly shadow over all the leather goods in that shop for me. This was our second ‘shopping stop’ of the day, and the stink of the tannery made waiting around for people to shop even more unbearable than the first stop at the ceramic workshop.

We tried to escape the shop, but Idriss and Khalid indicated that we had to stay together so they didn’t lose anyone down in the medina. So to occupy our time, a group of us gathered together and people watched the other tourists… a particular loud and eccentric shopper kept us entertained with her frenzied buying, and she clearly wanted the whole medina to know her every single thought on everything she saw. 😊

The person who kept us waiting had been intending to get fitted for a leather jacket, but she eventually gave up on the idea and we could thankfully finally exit that foul smelling shop! I could smell the stench in my hair for hours afterwards! It was so so so gross. 😲

As we left the area, I could see that just like the dye workshops, the waste from the tannery seemed to run into the canal too. I later read that there has been some suggestion to rejuvenate the old medina and stop further pollution of the waterways by moving these tanneries to the outskirts of Fes (where the new tanneries are). However, unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of local backlash against what was seen as a ‘beautification’ project at the expense of heritage skills and livelihoods.

For obvious reasons, it was a huge relief to walk away from the tannery and into the el-Attarine Souq full of spices, perfumes and incense. We were there to visit the restored 14th century Medersa el-Attarine. Medersas are Quranic theological colleges that are normally closed to non-Muslims, but this one wasn’t in use, and had been opened to tourists. We walked through imposing wooden doors into a small antechamber, from where smaller ornate wooden doors admitted us into an internal courtyard with a small fountain that wasn’t in use. I could immediately identify several elements of Moroccan architecture that I had discovered (and fallen in love with) at the Hassan II Mosque: muqarnas (moulded plaster), beautiful cedar wood ceilings and wall panels, and exquisite zellij mosaic tilework.

The courtyard was surrounded by a prayer room opposite the entrance and two porticos on the sides. The dark high ceilinged prayer room had onyx columns flanking the mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca), small stained-glass windows high up and a chandelier that may once have been beautiful when filled with candles (but now was somewhat cheapened by the ill-fitting and haphazardly placed light bulbs). The courtyard and porticos were my favourite part of the complex – the natural light highlighted the extremely beautiful and elaborate craftsmanship visible on every surface.

Small dark stairs took us upstairs into a cramped series of rooms which had been the living quarters of the students. The upstairs sections were strangely austere and plain compared to the highly decorative ground floor. However, the small wooden windows provided a lovely outlook over the courtyard below.

Like the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the Medersa el-Attarine provided a rare insight into a Moroccan religious space, especially since (as I’ve mentioned before) non-Muslims are forbidden from entering most religious spaces in Morocco. I loved this visit to the Medersa, and as usual, I was most attracted to and blown away by the intricacy and vibrancy of the zellij artistry. I’m a very big fan of the geometric precision and colour combinations of these mosaics. And I love that it’s such a distinctive element of design in Morocco… from religious spaces, to palaces, to the cracked fountains in medina laneways, and seats in public squares.

We walked along more crowded lanes and twisting alleys to Le Patio Bleu Restaurant for lunch. It was a set menu affair where we all shared entrees and dessert, but could choose our main dish. The nine cooked salads were amazingly good – lentils, eggplant (aubergine), capsicum (bell peppers), zucchini (courgette), beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes and olives. They were so delicious and filling that I would have been satisfied with just that. However, I managed to take one for the team and also enjoy my chicken tagine with preserved lemon and red olives (even though the chicken was dry). Andrew ordered the mechoui (spit-roasted) lamb which was remarkably tender and had a lovely smoked flavour. The shared dessert was platters of sliced banana, strawberries and oranges dusted with cinnamon. The whole meal, accompanied by glasses of mint tea, was quite delicious.

We walked past the Kairaouine Mosque and University (the Medersa el-Attarine we visited earlier is attached to this complex). The university is thought to be one of the oldest continually running universities in the world. Non-Muslims couldn’t enter, but we had a quick peek through the doorway. There was a hushed reverence in the air which made me really wish I could experience more of the building.

Over the centuries, the medina buildings and souqs have grown into and around each other, and it’s now difficult to tell the shape or structure of any of the buildings. Every now and again I’d catch sight of a beautiful minaret or a decorative wall to indicate that we were passing a mosque or building of note. But it was extremely easy to miss gems like that if you didn’t happen to be looking in the right direction at just the right moment.

Just before we left the medina, we visited a large fabric shop that held all manner of fabrics from table clothes to scarfs. I really wasn’t interested in the vigorous fabric display, but the weaver working on a loom in the corner of the showroom caught my eye. I tried to figure out the way the loom worked, but it was too quick for my eye to follow. Anja and I got talking to the very affable weaver Ibrahim and he described the intricate process to us. I hadn’t realised that it took so long to just set up and load the loom with all the different coloured spools of thread! He had ‘accidentally’ learnt the trade from his brother. From the age of about five he had gradually picked up the skill, as he had to wait for his mother at this shop after Arabic school. He looked to be in his late 20s now, and was dreaming of opening his own shop where he could be ‘very creative’ with his designs.

There’s nothing beautiful or serene about the labyrinth of alleys and shops that make up the Fes medina. In fact, it’s totally bonkers in there and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed an everyday space with such ferocious visual, auditory and olfactory pollution before. It’s a constant push and pull of tourists and shoppers, motorbikes and carts, donkeys and mules, craftspeople and tradespeople, spices and slabs of bloody meat… all competing for air or ground space. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t totally incredible and amazing – I doubt there would be anything quite like the mad intensity of the Fes medina anywhere else in the world (although we haven’t been to Marrakesh yet, so I should probably hold superlative judgements for the moment).

It was a relief to leave the medina behind and get back into the quieter Ville Nouvelle area. Back at the hotel, we huddled together and had some quiet time in the depressingly cold and dark hotel lounge while trying to use their frustratingly weak wifi. Anja asked if we wanted to join a few others who had been talking about dinner plans, but then one of the women pointedly called it a ‘girls night’ in front of Andrew, so we pulled out of those plans super-fast! 😊

The grey day with swollen skies had turned into a pleasant evening, so we wandered down the beautiful boulevard of Hassan II Avenue which was around the corner from our hotel. It was a Saturday night and the boulevard was full of young families, couples and groups of friends out admiring the lovely dusky orange skies. We walked past the entire cafe and restaurant section and stopped at Cafe Florence for a mint tea and the popular Moroccan coffee cafe nous nous (half espresso/half milk – nous nous literally means half-half).

We were still full from lunch, so picked a dinner place that had some nice salads on the menu. But after we’d ordered a mint tea and an avocado shake, the kitchen sent us news that they were out of most ingredients to make any of the salads… we weren’t fussed to skip dinner, so it didn’t really matter. As we sipped our drinks and people-watched, we reflected on our time in Fes.

From what we saw of Fes, I’d say it has two contrasting strongly personalities – the noisy, fascinating and overwhelming old and new Fes sectors, which were both an assault on all our senses; and then there’s the younger, hipper and vibrant Ville Nouvelle, where grid planning, structure and orderliness reign. I definitely know where I’m more at home 😊

The rain started up again, so we decided to head back to the hotel to do some writing. We stopped at the row of small shops to buy ‘writing snacks’ and drinks for that evening, plus ‘bus snacks’ and water for the bus trip the next day.

Next we travel north to Chefchaouen, the blue city in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco.


2nd September 2019
fes medina

I have never seen something like this before. It is very sad to look at. Greetings to you and Andrew.
3rd September 2019
fes medina

Re: Camel
Yes it was quite a confronting sight! But if we want to eat meat, we should be prepared to see how sad it really is for many animals. Thanks for your comment and your comment :)
2nd September 2019

Interesting read
I was with you every step of the walk! Such an amazing place. I never had the pastilla, and should have maybe had it in Fez.
3rd September 2019

Re: Interesting read
Thanks Josie. The pastilla was interesting but not something I need to have again :)
3rd September 2019
chouara tannery

Oh, that's lovely
I love that photo. When I read your blog I all of a sudden want to go to northern Africa again to be able to roam around in an old Medina or two again. I love them and the life there. /Ake
3rd September 2019
chouara tannery

Re: Oh, that's lovely
Thanks Ake! She was pregnant and had just caught a mouse :) I love medinas too, but this one was rather full on! Hope all is well with you and Emma.
8th September 2019
borj sud viewpoint

Really enjoy reading your excellent entries about the different cities you've visited in Morocco! It's making me very excited as we leave for Morocco in just under a month. However, hope to avoid the meat market at all costs! Looking forward to reading your next blog!
9th September 2019
borj sud viewpoint

Re: Fes
Thanks Sylvia! I had forgotten that your trip was coming up so soon - I can't wait to read all about it. The meat market wasn't unbearable, but you may need to tell your local guide that you want to avoid it... I think it's on one of the 'usual' walking routes to the tanneries :)
15th September 2019

Thank you for teleporting us back and refreshing our memories of this town. We loved the souks, the energy, the tea ceremonies and all the donkeys. Sounds like you encountered a bit of interesting weather.
16th September 2019

Re: Fes
Thank you for reading and commenting Merry. When I read your blogs on Morocco a long time ago, it was very obvious that you and Dave loved your time there. The weather sucked a bit, but it didn't really stop us from doing what we wanted to do - so can't complain really :)

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