This blog is in response to a request from a friend for impressions of Fes. I was last there in December 2001. Let’s do the timewarp again… We were glad to be on the train. Our arrival in Tangiers had been less than auspicious. The ferry port was busy and drizzly and the cash machine was broken. Without a dirham to our names, we had been driven the long way round to the station via a bank in a taxi whose boot wouldn’t shut. I was convinced for the entire journey that our bags would be stolen at a red light. We were already one bag down since a theft in Madrid Atocha station anyway. Things could only get better. Insha’allah.
Settled in our compartment, replete with a merguez-frites lunch, and watching the local kids and goats run alongside the train as it gained momentum on route to Fes, we began to relax. We got chatting to Mohammed and his young son, Adil, who were heading back home to Fes. We swapped life stories and experiences as we skirted around the edge of the Rif and Morocco chugged by outside the windows. When we arrived at Fes station in the Ville Nouvelle, Mohammed expertly flagged a little red petit taxi into which we squeezed ourselves and our backpacks. Once we arrived at the medina, he hailed a barrow and guided us to our hotel.
Much to Mohammed’s disappointment, we had already arranged our accommodation at the Hotel Cascade. It was scruffy and basic. We didn’t realise how apt the name was, however, until it started to rain in the night and I needed an umbrella to go to the toilet. I imagine most similarly named hotels pay homage to a nearby water feature. This one appeared to be named after the internal waterfalls caused by a combination of traditional open air Moroccan architecture and dodgy structural maintenance.
We had arranged to meet Mohammed and Adil the next morning for a tour of the medina. Mohammed managed to make some commission after all by recommending a brand new and dry hotel nearby, the Pension Talaa, where we were happy to install ourselves. (The subsequent fortunes of the Pension Talaa are well-documented on Trip Advisor). Entering the labyrinth of the Fes medina was like being transported back to the middle ages. The Fes described in 19th century travel texts was alarmingly recognisable more than two centuries later. Men drove donkeys carrying incredibly heavy loads, shouting to dawdling tourists to get out of the way; children carried dough to be baked in communal ovens, and dark doorways gave glimpses into bright, sunny courtyards and beautifully tiled mosques and madrasas. In the souk, we passed sheep’s heads on butchers’ tables, wizened old men in hooded jellabas hidden behind bushes of mint and verbena and headscarved housewives driving hard bargains. The buildings – some propped up with wooden scaffolds – were often so close and the lanes roofed with canes and reeds, that the daylight was squeezed into tiny shards and the cobbles frequently ran into blind alleys and dead ends.
Our expert guides took us to the famous Fes tannery, where we saw and smelled men pounding leather with their bare feet in tubs of dye supplemented with leather-softening pigeon poo and cow urine. We were given instruction in the herbs and spices of Moroccan cuisine, healthcare and hygiene by a spice vendor who sold us Ras-el-Hanout for our own couscous and tajine creations. We were shown intricate carpets hand spun by Berber village-women and treated to a huge spread of traditional cuisine in an sumptuously decorated palace restaurant. So far, so Moroccan, but pretty touristy.
The next morning, Mohammed decided that my male companion needed a more authentic local experience. I was parked in a local café with non-stop Al Jazeera and mint tea on tap, while he was taken to the local hammam (public baths). From my perch, I could see the guy loading sawdust into the ovens under the hammam. It looked like hot, sweaty work and reminded me of images of men fuelling the furnaces of the industrial revolution, which seemed incongruous in the 21st century. My friend re-emerged, zipped up to the chin, hooded and red-faced. Mohammed scolded him with threats of catching a cold every time he tried to remove his hood to allow heat to escape his steaming body, and doubled over laughing as he recounted how loud my friend had yelled as he was pummeled by the hammam masseur. Mohammed couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it from the street!
Back at the hotel, we got chatting to the manager, Said and his friend Hisham. Between them, they arranged for us a day trip to the hot springs at Moulay Yacoub; afternoon tea with Hisham’s mum in the courtyard of her medina home; and an overnight trip over the Atlas to the Sahara desert, where we were greeted, bleary-eyed and straight off the bus, by turbaned Berber hosts. The locals we met in Fes were the catalyst for a fond relationship with Morocco which has lasted over 10 years. In their home environment, Moroccans are the most hospitable, generous hosts I have ever encountered anywhere in the world.
This post was first published at www.mikanqueen.wordpress.com on October 22, 2011