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krisek Fes al Bali - A travel report by Krys
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Fes al Bali,  Morocco - flag Morocco -  Taounate
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krisek's travel reports

A place where time stopped ten centuries ago. Fes.

  12 votes
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Fes is Marocco's gem. Its medina is called 'the medina of medinas' and the maze of over nine thousand streets, alleys and cul-de-sacs is a real thing - a true life labyrinth.


Bab Boujelloud
Bab Boujelloud
Fés is listed on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The list is not a reward or award for a specific country or nation. It is a status to which the nation commits to protect the site, and, if a site is endangered through a lack of funds, destruction by nature or civilisation or war, other nations who signed the treaty must provide help.

The time in Fés stopped in the XI century and the city is most fascinating! The medina is called the medina of medinas, the darkest, albeit most colourful old town of the Arab world. The medina is massive! There are approximately 9000 (nine thousand) very narrow streets making the old town an impassable labyrinth. The narrowness of the streets can be measured by a full loaded donkey – just about to fit between the walls.

I knew about this amazing maze from a book, but I did not actually believe in it. The book said that a stranger in the city cannot possibly find his/her way in Fés’s medina and it was extremely recommended to take a guide. I was laughing at these words. Surely a clever person can find the right way in a city. I could not be more wrong. The place is impossible. It takes approximately ten turnings and you’re lost. Truly lost. This is what happened to me. Trying to be clever did not exactly help, I just did not know how to find the way back, forward, or anywhere!

Already at the parking dirt (piece of desert in the front of the city wall converted into car park) people very intensively taunted me to take them as a guide through the medina. The problem was the incompatibility or miscommunication. They knew exactly what they were talking about and I did not. I don’t mean the language barrier – these taunts spoke about 200 different languages or, more precisely - a couple sentences in 200 different languages.

I ignored them, got lost and this is how I found Tawfik, a small boy whom I asked if he could show me the way around the medina. Or actually he asked me and I decided to agree quickly. Tawfik was great.

Favourite spots:
Fruit drink seller in the medina
Fruit drink seller in the medina
The area around the gate Bab Boujeloud was one of my favourite, day and night. During the day, there were people hanging around, chatting, passing by. It was an entry point to the medina, it was easy to arrange a guide and all the necessary facilities were nearby. A few metres beyond the gate into the medina, there were shops, cafes and tearooms.

Sitting at the table of the pavement tearooms guaranteed company, conversation with both locals and visitors, and a perfect spot for people watching. The medina was a superb spectacle. The colours of the local costumes, spice shops, items for sale in the shops and out of them... were better than a theatre of the West End. The extra quality was obviously the unique scent of the street, and of course everything was real.

In the evening, the space at the gate was a scene for the night entertainers, like those in the famous Marrakech. There were fewer of them in Fés of course, but the grand gate in the background made it so special!

What's really great:
Entry to a mosque in the medina
Entry to a mosque in the medina
In Fés, the Moroccans were able to recognise the Polish language, spoken by the travellers between them. How was that possible? Well, there was a way. It turned out that Moroccans liked Polish satellite television. Their favourite channel was Polsat. They were watching Polsat regularly, but they admitted that their favourite programme was on Fridays and Saturdays – The Playboy Late Night Show. They must have been watching it very intensively so they have become very familiar with the sound and music of the Polish language and could guess the nationality instantly. That was kind of cool. Although they had a good idea where you were from, they would still engage in a conversation like:

- Hello. Where are you from?

- ...

- Oh, very nice country! Very good football! First time in Morocco?

- Yes, first time.

- Welcome!

This is what would happen at one of the fruit stands. The owner of the immediately adjacent one would ask all the same questions, despite having heard every single word.

Sights:
The main mosque of the medina
The main mosque of the medina
Fés El-Bali is old, really old. It looks impenetrable and none of its 350 or so mosques are off limits for non-Muslims. So were the majority of the beautifully decorated, mysterious Islamic schools, the medresas. Some of them date back to IX century but they are in a great condition. There were two schools open to visitors, when I visited: Medresa Bouinania, near the Bab Boujelloud, of a nice Merenid architecture, offering good views from the roof - excellent for photographers; and Medresa el Attarine, close to Fés's largest mosque Kairaouine and the adjacent university, one the oldest in the world.

Tanneries, where leather is colour-dyed, near Saffarine Square should not be missed by photographers!

There is one more fascinating thing about Fés. It’s the mansions hidden in the medina. From the outside, you cannot see the whole richness of the household. It is only well behind the gate, where the fountains are, where the marble is, where the porcelain, silk and silver are.

Accommodations:
Old city walls
Old city walls
Some of the mansions now house museum, expensive shops and restaurants, private residencies and little posh hotels.

The Camping International in the new town of Fes was adequate and safe. It was about 5km out of the centre. I was well maintained and had a few good facilities, including a simple restaurant. I did not spot any snakes or scorpions. There was plenty of shade and the swimming pool looked new. They charged €3 per person and additionally €2 for the tent. The car cost extra as well. It was relatively popular and the personnel was friendly with relaxed attitude towards the guests. I stayed three nights there, but did not spend too much during the day - I was out all day. In the night, after long day of visiting (including side trips to Meknes and Vollubilis), it was allowed to bring wine and beer and party at your tent all night long if you wished.

Nightlife:
Medina at night
Medina at night
The nightlife in the city was special. No alcohol didn't mean tea-totalling! Although in the Muslim world alcohol is prohibited by Islam, Morocco seemed to practise Islam only during the hours of daylight. At night, alcohol was drunk in considerable amounts and cinemas played hardcore porn films.

In the town, it was difficult to find beer and wine in fact, and there were no bars or pubs. It seemed that tourists were not allowed to know where these things could be acquired, but the locals knew exactly where to go. So, the trick was to get acquainted with a local chap, who was more than happy to join any party you decided to throw.

But there were nightclubs, discos and bars serving booze in the city. They were of course housed by hotels. That wasn't for me, as intimidated by the hotels average Moroccans didn't go there. Only those with hidden agendas attended those spots.

Still, tearooms and cafes were always open late and talking to the locals drinking tea was a great nightlife, too.

Hangouts:
People hanging out at one of the gates leading to the medina
People hanging out at one of the gates leading to the medina
There is another side of Fés - carpet bargaining! The first night I arrived in Fés, I took a guide from my camping site, who insisted to take me. I had an objective from this arrangement – to see Fés. He had objective too, but it was different – drag me to shops and earn commission on whatever I bought. So he took me straight to the shops! The first one was with traditional clothes of Morocco and the second - the Carpet Palace. The most expensive carpet store in Fés. What a disappointment of my guide when I decided to leave, after about an hour of looking at hundreds of handmade carpets, as large as 5x4 meters!

So, he just took me to another, a lot smaller, Berber’s carpet store. That was a lot better choice! It was more cosy and pleasant shopping. It was liking hanging out with locals and chat about their lives, their families. Their carpets were smaller and I spent three hours there. They brought tea, traditional food, cold drinks. I bargained toughly. They really loved me for that.

Restaurants:
Fruit, spice and nuts seller
Fruit, spice and nuts seller
My best memory from Fés’s medina exploration was the mint tea. Sitting at one of the very many tables of the very few tea rooms. The mint tea was magical in Morocco and… extremely sweet. When I saw how much sugar they put into a small glass of tea I thought they were making fun of me, I couldn't actually believe it! Let me illustrate it somehow. Imagine, a 125ml glass full of fresh mint and green tea inside and then four cubes of sugar the size of regular ice cubes (3.8 x 3.8 x 3.8 cm) - all packed into the small glass, looking like icebergs, barely fitting there. The sugar chunks were irregular and really resembled icebergs! The taste of the mint tea in Morocco however was unforgettable.

The medina was hiding very nice restaurants of traditional decor and menu, tagine being the most popular. The colours of the cushions and metal, richly decorated plates created an unmistakable ambiance. The smell of the gently stewed lamb and the couscous, eh what a superb experience!

Other recommendations:
View of the old medina from a hill out of town
View of the old medina from a hill out of town
So, it was almost a miracle when I saw a banner of Macro Cash & Carry. I tracked it down and parked the car outside. It looked very professional and civilised. The problem was that I did not have the member card to buy anything there. A passport of a friendly foreign country (Polish worked like a charm) however worked even better! I am not complaining about the local shops in the old town or the new town, at all. But it was great to wander around a large shop, inspect the shelves and get things at very discounted prices, including chocolate, savoury party snacks and... booze.

That was a good basket of shopping and, yes, I got the wine. It was barely drinkable, but it did the job washing down the tenderly grilled lamb! So, now I have even better memories from Fés. And by the way it means that I did not overdo it otherwise I would have had no memories at all.

I would like to recommend to take a trusted guide and see the labyrinthine medina at night. It is an unforgettable experience!

Published on Saturday July 19th, 2008


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Sat, May 29 2010 - 04:48 PM rating by horourke

Great off the beaten track and full of the finest detail making me think I have even seen the donkey in the narrow labyrinth.

Tue, Jul 22 2008 - 11:51 AM rating by marianne

excellent and everything you write is true. This is what Fez is like.

Mon, Jul 21 2008 - 12:56 PM rating by eirekay

Love the description of the mint tea! Lots of great detail. Wonderful Report!

Sat, Jul 19 2008 - 11:13 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Krys, you are unstoppable writing good reports!

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