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,
add to that the intoxicating smells of fruits, spices, fresh innards and dung,
then you see the chaos of men pushing wheelbarrows, children playing and
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.
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.
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.
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, we found ourselves in the market staring at a camel’s head,
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.
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.
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.
A 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 –
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The view from the balcony allows for a site that has not changed since the 11th century –
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.
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.