Meandering Through Old Fes

traditional-moroccan-music

You hear the bangs of coppersmiths in the labyrinth souks combined with the beat and clangs of Moroccan music and the constant calls to prayers,

fruit-vendor

add to that the intoxicating smells of fruits, spices, fresh innards and dung,

children-playing

then you see the chaos of men pushing wheelbarrows, children playing and

donkey

donkeys transporting people and things, and not to mention the vibrant colors of rugs, potteries, spices… all happening simultaneously.  The old city of Fes stimulates all the senses.

Rashid, our guide picked us up right after breakfast at Dar Labchara.  To discover the city, an official guide is essential.

crowded-medina

Ours took us around the medina, passing narrow alleys housing hundreds of merchants and craftsmen selling an assortment of products from dates to musical instruments.

Fes el Bali (Fes the old) is our baptism of fire into an exotic medieval world.  Not much seemed to have changed within this walled city with over 9,000 alleyways.

winding-alleyway

Fes el Bali is the old medina where most cultural sights are located; its labyrinth of narrow winding alleys is almost impossible to negotiate without getting lost.

collapsing-walls-with-enforcement

It is a car-free urban space and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans 1,300 years of Moroccan heritage.  It is the central business where 150,000 people living inside the wall – a cocktail of Berbers, Arabs, and Africans in hooded djellaba cloaks, red tarboosh hat they call fez and open heel babouche slippers – come and go, much like it was 1,300 years ago.

following-rashid

Following Rashid, we found ourselves in the market staring at a camel’s head,

camel-head

preserved-lemon-and-olives

artichoke

drooling over a variety of Moroccan food specialties, admiring vegetables I don’t get to buy in my part of the world, and devouring some beautiful, crunchy strawberries in season.

strawberries

Chaotic, overwhelming, stimulating, similar, in a certain way, to our wet market yet distinctly Moroccan in every way.

Morocco is a shopper’s delight and weaving through the maze like narrow lanes led us to various outdoor bazaars called souks.

cheese-vendor

They consist of tiny stalls displaying objects ranging from colorful scarves to buckets of olives.  It is an integral part of the medina.  It is where the locals buy their essentials.

making-breadA stand making bread

Each Moroccan town has its unique souk quarter displaying some of the fine Moroccan ornaments and crafts.  In larger cities like Fes or Marrakech, there are “specialty” souks of all kinds –

slippers

the spice souk, the carpenter’s souk, the leather souk, the slipper souk, the dyer’s souk… all within a bigger souk.  At every turn, we found ourselves in a new souk typically named after what they are selling.

seffarine-square

One such souk was at the Seffarine Square.  A delightful square that is the center of Fes’ copperware trade surrounded by artisans hammering sheets of metal into shape:  huge cauldrons, kettles, pots, plates and the likes.

craftsman

metalworks

On one side lay the Kairaouine library, on the other, the Seffarine Madrasa.  The open space is a refreshing break from the confining tight corners of the medina.

Built in AD857, the University of al-Karaouine is perhaps the oldest university in the world.

Karaouine-Mosque

Not open to non-muslim, we had to content ourselves with viewing its beautiful architecture from the entrance.  Rashid took a shot from my camera for a peek at one of the dozen horseshoe arches in the mihrab (prayer niche).

rooftop-view-of-Karaouine

A better view of the university can be had at any rooftop balcony nearby.

Rashid then lead us to another lovely square where you will find the Fondouk el Nejjarine.

nejjarine-museum

The beautifully restored building used to be a fondouk or a caravanserai, a roadside inn built to shelter men, goods and animals along ancient caravan routes.

rooftop-cafe

rooftop-cafe-view

It is today a museum of wooden arts and crafts.  It has a nice little rooftop café boasting of outstanding views of the city.

A visit to Fes will not be complete without seeing a tannery.  And at the Chounara Tannery, the smell of lye, acidic pigeon excrements and dyes drifts around the rooftop balcony, we were given sprigs of mint to mask the stench.

lye-vats

The view from the balcony allows for a site that has not changed since the 11th century –

tannery

workers balancing between stone vessels arranged like honeycombs filled with vibrant dyes.  They soak the hides in the acidic solution and then transfers them to another vat containing dyes such as henna, saffron, or mint.

dye-vats

It is a rare visual spectacle and experience not to be missed at any cost.

Now purchasing high quality leather products produced from these tanneries is another thing.  In fact, shopping in Morocco is an entertaining experience worthy of a post all its own.

A Dar in Fes

Dar-LabcharaCredits: Papers by Gwenipooh Designs and Graham Like the Cracker from Scrapmatters’ Life Little Surprises Kit; Elements by Designs by Tater from Scrapmatters’ LLS Kit and journaling snippets by Crystal Wilkerson

Founded 1,200 years ago in the northern part of Morocco, Fes has remained to be the country’s cultural and spiritual capital.  It is home to the oldest university in the world and its medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Fes has the best-preserved old city in the Arab World and to spend a few nights inside those walls is to, in some way, experience its unique culture.

“When you reach the train station, please call this number”, Said (Sa-eed) advised on his email. “A handsome young man will meet you at the bank outside Bab Boujeloud.” – the main and most attractive point of entry into the medina, Fes el Bali.

A petit taxi outside the train station, he advised, would cost 10 Dh to get us to the main gate.  And true enough; handsome young man introduced himself as Ibrahim.

Decorated with blue (color of Fes) zellij tile on the outside and green (color of Islam) on the other side, the gate leads to the Bab Boujeloud Square.

narrow-alleyway

Meandering through the narrow alleys teeming with people, restaurants and lodgings called riads and dars, provided a perfect primer of Fes.  The passages taper as we marched deeper into the medina, the maze of corridors begin to confuse.  We finally reached a wooden arched door in an uncommonly narrow lane.  Ibrahim unlocked the door and welcomed us into a world bursting with exotic eastern charm.  Dars and riads are traditional homes unique to Morocco.

indoor-patio-2

Entirely closed on the outside, the dar’s foyer serves as gatekeeper that led to an inner courtyard of traditional zellij (small colored tiles) floors, exquisite Moroccan design and furnishings with touches of deep red.

indoor-patio

The courtyard is the center of the house and serves as seating and dining area.  The second floor balcony overlooks it.

A burly man, Ibrahim’s uncle, Said warmly welcomed us to Fes.  He owns Dar Labchara, a lovely house he inherited from his father.  While we sipped tea and recharged from the four-hour journey, he gave us a rundown of what to expect of Fes.

We met a guy on the train also named Said, we told him, exceptionally friendly and extremely eager to help.  “You are the 3rd guests who met him”, he said.  “Does he wear a black leather jacket?” Said asked.  He revealed that one of his guests decided to pay the factory (he said he owned) a visit and found that the Said from the train isn’t quite what he presented himself to be, pretending to own a ceramic factory when he only earns a commission for bringing “tourists” there.  Not exactly harmful, but neither was he truthful.  And with that, he candidly warned of fraudsters roaming the narrow alleyways of the medina.  Warnings of this manner I came across while researching for this trip, I was still shocked, however, to have met one so early in the trip.

dinner

For a traditional Moroccan dinner, Ibrahim pointed us to the nearby Restaurant Palais des Merinides, assigning Mohammed, a staff, to bring and fetch us after.  Beautiful interiors.  As the culinary center of Morocco, my expectations were high.  Maybe too high because the food was actually decent but impressed we were not.  The Pastilla Fassia (chicken pastille) was flavorful and memorable, the play in sweet and savory appealed to me but not to everyone in the group.

Mechoui

The Mechoui (roasted mutton) was not as tender as I wished it to be.  They say that many restaurants like this pay commission for sending guests over, I hope this wasn’t the case with our dar.

Breakfast, however, was a different story. It more than made up for last night’s lackluster effort to wow.

breakfast-bread-2

The variety of breads alone – flatbread (khobz), pan-fried bread (harcha), pan-fried pancakes (msemen), a more traditional looking pancake (meloui)…

breakfast-bread

were enough to overlook the lack of any meat in the morning.  To complement the breads were cheese, butter, jams and honey, fried eggs served in a pool of olive oil seasoned with cumin and salt.

bessara

One morning, we were served a traditional soup called bessara.  It is pureed beans served with olive oil and cumin.  Usually eaten at breakfast and a prefered soup during Ramadan. Tastes like pea soup with a strong olive oil taste that leaves a slight bitter aftertaste, which quite frankly, appealed to me.

door

From the street, the houses in the medina is hidden by a high wall with a door somewhere, giving no clue as to what lays beneath.  But once inside, one is transported into a remarkable intricately decorated palace.  Fes, in a similar fashion, reveals its charm unexpectedly, its mysteries difficult to comprehend but once revealed, opens up to a brilliant world within.  The key is to run straight in.

Useful Info:

Dar Labchara
8 Derb Lebchara, Souiket
Ben Safi Talaa Sghira
Fes, Morocco
Phone: +212 535 741 306
Mobile: +212 662 347 547
Email: contact@darlabchara.com