There's more to Morocco than Marrakech. Fes is largely ignored by British tourists, yet spending a few days here is a fascinating experience, like travelling back in time to the Middle Ages
‘Ballack, ballack,’ shouts a scruffy young boy, as he smacks the rump of a ragged donkey struggling with a heavy load of dyed leather. ‘It means get out the way!’ yells a trader from across the narrow medina street. To avoid death by donkey, I dive into a nearby butcher’s, where I’m greeted by a blood-stained man with a pointed beard and a wide smile who is removing the hair from something ugly. ‘Welcome sir. You want to buy a goat’s head?’ he asks, gleefully. The female customer next to me is hungrily eyeing bundles of trotters that are laid out on the counter alongside other grotesque animal parts.
I tumble back out onto the street with such haste that I step on a man squatting in the gutter, happily tending bunches of mint and coriander; he doesn’t flinch. ‘It’s your first time in Fes, I take it?’ the trader quips, laughing at yet another overwhelmed tourist caught in the cultural headlights.
I spent many moments wondering if I’d unwittingly taken part in an elaborate time-travel experiment as I walked in the sprawling medina of Fes el-Bali (old town). The ancient and spiritual capital of Morocco seems to have lingered somewhere in the Middle Ages, a multi-sensory feast of foreign smells, tastes and sights.
Fes’s 9th-century medina is the finest showcase of architecture found anywhere in North Africa. It’s the largest, most intact medieval city in the Arab world, recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, and boasts the globe’s biggest car-free urban zone. Yet, while Marrakech continues to boom, Fes is largely ignored by British tourists, mainly because it’s harder to get to – it took me eight hours (including a stopover at Casablanca airport) to get here, arriving late into the night.
It was barely daylight when the day’s first call to prayer bellowed from the nearby mosque, prematurely snapping me from my slumber. It took a moment to gather my bearings as I gazed out of my hotel window at the growing melee of locals preparing for the fresh day ahead. The skyline is magnificent, peppered with principal monuments - madrasas, fondouks, palaces, residences and mosques glowing lustrously against the warm reflection of the morning sun.
The services of a local guide are essential and after a hearty traditional breakfast of strong coffee and warm Moroccan bread with honey it was time to meet mine. ‘Good morning sir. My name is Mohammed Bouftila, but you must call me Momo,’ announced the dapper figure in front of me, dressed in a traditional white jellaba and bright yellow slippers, and sporting a perfectly groomed moustache. ‘Sorry, am I late?’ I enquired. His smile broadened, he leaned in and whispered, ‘Those in a rush are already dead.’ I liked him.
‘We will start the tour of my wonderful city at the heart of the medina,’ explained Momo as I struggled desperately to keep up through the bustling cobbled streets. We stopped to speak with traders every 10 paces, exchanging medina gossip over courteous offerings of mint tea till the point where I could force no more of the sweet drink down me.
We finally arrived at the city’s oldest building, the mausoleum of the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss Zawiya, one of the most venerated pilgrimage spots in Morocco. ‘Unfortunately it’s…’ started Momo, but I’d already stepped through the large wooden keyhole-shaped doors and into the mausoleum’s large entrance. ‘It’s forbidden to enter unless you’re Muslim!’ he spurted quickly, causing me to bound backwards awkwardly into the street. Along with the other tourists I resigned myself to a peek through the door to catch a glimpse of the beautifully painted wooden arches and zellij (hand-cut polychrome tile) that adorn the vast walls inside.
We strolled round the corner to another architectural masterpiece – the 150-year-old palace Dar Glaoui. ‘This was once the finest residence in Fes,’ stated Momo proudly, as we approached the 17 sprawling buildings made up of houses, stables, a Quranic school and hammams. In this case non-Muslims are permitted to enter free of charge. Earlier that morning Momo had explained how ‘Fes’s beauty lies on the inside’ and Dar Glaoui is a wonderful example of his point. From the street it looks innocuous and grey but on entering the large, brass-bolted, cedarwood doors it was clear the high walls were concealing a stunning oasis. Inside lies the antithesis of the photosynthesis-zapping medina - beautiful courtyard gardens with lush green palms and sweet smelling bougainvilleas leading to large airy rooms with intricately tiled mosaic fountains trickling with cool water. I wandered the large palatial rooms for a couple of hours enjoying some respite from the hot sun and madness of the medina until I was ready to return to my hotel for the evening.
The ever-popular trend for boutique hotels has swept the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech into Fes, offering tourists more intimate accommodation compared to the large hotel chains situated outside the medina walls. I was staying at Riad Fes
, a great example of how a careful balance of Moroccan traditions and contemporary style can blend effortlessly to provide luxury accommodation without harming Fes’s rich architectural history. My room had all the comforts of a modern five-star hotel together with older features such as carved wood, ancient plastering and mosaic flooring offering an abundance of character. There’s even an infinity pool
in one of the courtyards.
The next morning Momo was waiting for me in the lobby. ‘Are you ready for another day in the medina?’ he asked tentatively. ‘I thought we’d do some shopping today!’ Market stalls selling anything from babouches (traditional leather slippers), embroidery and Berber jewellery to exotic carpets and Moroccan furniture line the narrow medina streets, and busy artisans sit in their huts, hand-making goods in full view. We headed towards the Seffarine Medersa, the oldest functioning Islamic school in Fes. The pretty, tree-lined square was awash with coppersmiths rhythmically beating sheets of metal into anything sellable. It’s hard to know where to start with so much choice and such cheap prices. I spent a good hour bartering over a couscous pot I wasn’t even sure I wanted but the process was enjoyable and both the trader and I seemed to walk away happy.
Fes is a hugely overwhelming city that quickly turns revelatory. Certainly for the western tourist, it’s a fantastically foreign place with immense charm - I hope that for years to come it will remain a place that offers a true Moroccan experience and doesn’t become tainted by tourism.