24 Hours in Fes
With our last weekend in Morocco upon us it’s the last chance to get out and explore whatever part of the country that’s still to be discovered. The part that’s calling you the most. In addition to Rabat, so far this month I’ve been to Chefchaouen, Tangier, Marrakech, and some place far south in the country on the edge of the Sahara desert. My missing link is the ancient, former imperial capital of Fes.
Our apartment in Rabat is conveniently situated a 10-minute walk from the train station, so after a not-too-early start to the day, I made my way to the station and boarded a train for the 3-hour ride to Fes. About 30 minutes outside of Fes the owner of the Riad I’d be staying at called to ensure I was en route, and to confirm my pick up at the station. Since cars aren’t allowed into the medinas in most cities, without an escort take you to your digs you’re likely to waste a good chunk of time walking around in circles trying to find where you’re going in a maze of alleyways and dead ends.
I was warmly greeted at the Riad by Mohammed with an immediate offer to sit down and enjoy some mint tea. After pleasantries and a tour of the Riad, my guide was due to show up so I grabbed my camera and waited for Azzeddine. He arrived promptly and we headed out into maze of Fes el-Bali.
The history of what was once the largest city on the planet dates back to the 8th century. While most of the buildings that make up the medina nowadays are mere centuries old, the sense of historical significance of the surroundings penetrates your senses from every direction.
The Fes medina covers 950 acres and is home to 300,000 people (and countless cats). It is the world’s largest car-free urban zone and the only vehicles allowed within its walls are donkeys. No scooters to watch out for, no reckless kids on bikes to run you over. Its streets and alleyways are so intertwined, so nonsensical and so disorienting that not even Google has penetrated its depths. Hence the common sense decision to enlist the services of an expert local guide.
While the outer parts of the medina are relatively new, the deeper you go, the more evidence you have of centuries upon centuries of history just under your fingertips. We visited the oldest continuously operating university in the world, which opened its doors in 859. No, I didn’t forget the 1 in front, the university has been around for well over a thousand years. Since the medina has become so densely populated, the university serves double duty as a mosque, adding to the nearly 400 that can be found within the medieval walls. Curiously, since it was never built as a mosque it doesn’t face towards Mecca. When people are lined up to pray, they cross the floor at an odd-looking angle.
Rather than one massive bazaar lined with endless stalls, the streets in the medina seem to alternate from residential (read deserted) to retail. The retail streets are like a bazaar, or souq, with vendors selling everything from olives and dates, to brass pots, to silver chandeliers, to rugs, to anything you can imagine that can be made with leather. In fact, one of the main places of interest in the medina is the leather tanning district. It dates back to the 11th century and the same practices from back then are still being carried out today, from the donkeys carrying the skins to the dye pits to the ingredients used to process the skins – pigeon feces and cow urine. As you might imagine, the smell is less than pleasant, so when you’re getting in close for a look you’re given a sprig of mint to hold under your nose in an effort to mask it.
We continued winding our way through the city’s history, stopping at Madrasa Bou Inania to admire the architecture. Madrasa is the Arabic word for any type of educational institution, and this one, founded in the 14th century, also doubles as a mosque. It is one of the few religious buildings non-Muslims can enter in Morocco and it is widely acknowledged as an excellent example of Marinid architecture.
Azzeddine talked about Moroccan agriculture and gave me a great refresher on Islamic architecture and the religious background of this historically diverse and welcoming country. He described Morocco as a country with its feet planted firmly in Africa and its head resting snugly in Europe. After a 4 hour immersion into a millennia of history we somehow ended up back at my Riad. Now I was ready to brave the streets alone in search of a place to have dinner. Or so I thought.
I found a listing for a vegetarian restaurant (hard to come by in this country) in a Riad about a 10 minute walk away. While the location of the place was pinpointed on my phone, not all of the streets showed up on the map. In fact, the streets that are on the map don’t correspond with actual streets. If it loads, your GPS is constantly telling you that you’re walking sideways through the middle of a building. While I’m wondering around trying to find the place, many of the vendors are packing it in for the night. There’s chaos all around, and where there was once a stall selling something identifiable to mark the trail, there’s now just another random door. And likely a cat.
After a handful of wrong turns and walking past the place a couple of times, I finally located the Riad. I knocked on the oversized door only to have the person who answered it tell me the restaurant was closed. One thing the medina doesn’t have a lot of is restaurants. At least not in the part I was in. I figured my best bet was to go back to near where the Riad is and turn left instead of right. Sounds good, if only I hadn’t taken a wrong turn somewhere and gotten lost again. I wasn’t far away though, and I recognized a sign pointing to a restaurant whose name I had come across previously so it held promise. I stumbled in to the Ruined Garden, happy to not be lost, and had a wonderful meal. Back at the Riad and up on the rooftop terrace, I looked down on the city and couldn’t shake the sense of defeat that I held.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast in the courtyard I checked out of the Riad, stored my bag and headed back out to check out the sites. The streets were already in full swing so I stopped for a coffee and sat back to watch life unfold for a while. With an adequate fill of coffee and the feeling that I’d been brought up to the speed of city, I carried on. Having already seen my share of medinas in Morocco I headed out through one of the city gates, past the Jewish cemetery and up the hill to the Merenind tombs. It was impressive to stand with the 13th century ruins, looking down on city that feels like it hasn’t really changed in hundreds of years. It looked deceivingly peaceful and quiet.
Back in the medina I continued to make my way up and down more anonymous alleys until arriving at a building which housed a very curious, 14th century feature called a water clock. At the end of an even narrower alley lies the aptly named Café Clock. The eclectic interior is spread out over 4 floors, including a multi-layered rooftop terrace. There was a scattering of people sipping on smoothies with their lunch, with no one in a particular hurry to go anywhere. I finished lunch around 1:00pm, 24 hours after I arrived in Fes. It was time to go and pick up my bag, go to the train station and make the short trip back to Rabat for our final week in Morocco.
Where to stay: Riad Braya is a wonderfully converted Riad, not far from the Blue Gate and near the edge of the el-Bali medina. Its courtyard is decorated in white Carrara marble and white and blue tiles, with white plaster reaching up to the high ceiling. It’s tastefully furnished with modern furniture and abstract art on the walls. Its 7 rooms are spread out over 2 floors, and there’s a cozy living/dining room with a fireplace, courtyard pool and rooftop terrace. The service is exceptional and the place oozes style.
Where to have dinner: The Ruined Garden is situated in, yes, a garden belonging to a once neglected Riad in the medina. The space is overgrown with orange trees, rose bushes and other foliage, with tables tucked into any available space, adorned with mismatched chairs and benches with colorful cushions. The food is Moroccan, with a simple selection of soup, salads, mains and deserts. Given the lingering heat from the day I went with the Gazpacho for a starter, and spiced onion tart accompanied by a selection of traditional salads. As with most restaurants in Morocco, alcohol is not served.
Where to have lunch: Café Clock is not only a restaurant but also a community space which hosts games nights, movie showings, calligraphy workshops and cooking classes. The menu is on the lighter side and is pretty evenly split between vegetarian and non-veg options. They do vegetarian takes on traditional dishes such as Harira and B’stilla. For the meat eaters out there, lamb, chicken and camel are on the menu. Avocado or beetroot smoothies are a soothing accompaniment to your meal.