We interrupt our regularly-scheduled tour break catch-up blog posts to bring you this post about Fes, the most fascinating, bewildering place I’ve been to since… well… ever? Certainly a long time. In fact, I almost titled this post “bewildered”, since that’s how I felt for the majority of the time that I spent there.
Everyone had Monday and Tuesday off this week, which was a Godsend given that Casablahnca is, well, kinda blah. And that the work – for them what works – has been… challenging. From what I could gather from intertubes and word around the tour, Fes would be well worth the trip. So in between eating chips, knitting, and researching upcoming travel I managed to find time last week to pre-purchase our train tickets (3.5 hour ride), and find us a Riad in the Fes medina. Really, I don’t know how I do it.
For those who don’t know, according to the trusty, always-the-first-google-result Wikipedia entry about the city, the medina in the old, walled section of Fes is “believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area”. More than one travel site compares the medina to Jeruselem.
Since we would have approximately and exactly 26 hours in Fes, including sleeping time, the four of us (we travelled with M&R, of side trips to Mont Blanc, San Sebastian, and St. Emilion fame) agreed that we would spend the time wandering the medina. Which is what we did. It was amazing. Overwhelming. The walls are too high to see over, the streets incredibly narrow, and they all quickly begin to look the same, at least to me – especially Monday evening, as the shops closed and so did some of the doors to some of the streets, removing anything resembling a landmark.
Accordingly, I felt lost approximately 90%-95% of the time (up from my usual 45-50% of the time). Duncan, on the other hand, actually managed to get us back to our Riad for the night on Monday once he got a view from our rooftop restaurant to re-situate himself, officially solidifying his reputation as the most amazing navigator ever. We would have gotten back without him, of course, as the minute you look at all confused someone will materialize, seemingly out of nowhere, to help you find your way – for a fee, of course. With varying levels of assertiveness. And at dinner/lunch time, there is suddenly no shortage of restaurants (“just 10 metres! this way, please!”) to which you can also be taken.
That said, the vibe was generally really good – we did follow first one guy, then another on Monday night and wound up eating tasty food on a rooftop. There was definitely a combo of tourist-orientation and “yeah, I live and work here what are you looking at, idiot” kind of feel. While dude A is thrusting a leather camel into your hand and suddenly willing to accept your significantly-lower price, dude B is just trying to bring his goats through, or that guy over there is about to kill that chicken. And I’m not sure what the older dude perched in that… doorway? porch? is doing.
Being car-free, stuff is brought in via donkey or man-power. I eventually had to give up saying “watch your step” as we navigated around the donkey poop. And less-than even streets. Between watching your step at least sometimes and trying to look at what you’re walking by, it’s complete sensory overload. It smells alternately like bread (baking in the public ovens – families put different marks on their loaves and come back to get them later), delicious sweets, spices, a stable, etc. Sort of like in Istanbul, there seemed to be general sections amid the mayhem- we agreed at one point to go back to the corner of robes and shoes, for example, so we could accomplish one souvenir mission. But then again, we only really saw maybe 1/3 of the medina?
We got a guide for part of the time on Tuesday, so we wouldn’t miss the main “tourist” sights: the tanneries, the oldest, continually-operating university, Al-Karaouine, some medersas, etc. He was also great and while it ended up being a stop in lots of shops, I think that’s kinda what happens when you’re a tourist. And in fairness, they’re also fascinating. And it was very low pressure, soft-selling. Besides which, when Duncan fell behind at one point our guide simply asked “where is Belushi?” As in John Belushi. I think, anyway (as opposed to James). All I need now is to get him some wayfarers and send him on a mission from God…
Possibly the best moment happened as we left an excellent view point over Al-Karouine and the rest of the medina, which also just happened to be a massive carpet-selling shop/former Riad/cool building. We politely looked at some carpets before making it clear we weren’t interested. The seller really didn’t seem to mind, especially when we promised to send our friend next week – and besides, there were plenty of others in the place. As we made our way out, a grinning man with a tray of tea for another group of potential buyers passed us singing “Hello, I love you won’t you tell me your name!” We chuckled and continued out, which elicited a big grin and “Hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more no more…” to which the seller cried out as we stepped outside: “HE’S JOKING!!!”
Maybe you had to be there.
The truth is I don’t know how to describe it other than as a list of sights, sounds, smells, and interactions with people. I’ll cut myself off here and post some pictures. The only thing missing is the view from our Riad’s roof on Monday night where we watched a very huge moon rise over the medina, before slipping behind and then rising again above some clouds. Pure magic.