Fes – love it or hate it, the city is the epitome of Morocco.
Our arrival to the “Athens of Africa” was admittedly, not ideal. Quite literally, we thought we were in danger. Sleep-deprived and coming from a multi-day journey through the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert didn’t help our mindset either.
Our long travel day began with a two-hour camel trek in the freezing desert temperatures of early morning. We spent another hour in a shared van that dropped us off in the small oasis town of Rissani. From there, we piled onto an overcrowded bus to Fes.
As the only non-Moroccans on board, we watched the chaotic scene. People frantically claimed seats as local women frantically paced up and down the aisles. They kissed one another’s hands in a ritual for good luck – perhaps for a safe trip? Whatever it was, it certainly did not expedite the duration of our travels. In fact, our “direct” bus included about eighty stops over a 10+ hour journey with passengers clapping twice to signal to the driver their intended stop.
We spent the first few hours of the trip huddled close together, trying to stay warm. The high altitude’s cold mountain air seeped through the drafty bus, which also had no heat.
When we finally arrived in Fes, it was late at night. Little did we know our adventures weren’t over.
Somehow we ended up in an unofficial city taxi – one of very things our guidebooks warned against. Our driver spoke no English – we had simply given him a piece of paper with the name of our riad on it: Maison Pension Sekaya. He drove erratically through the city traffic, abruptly stopping when we reached the edge of the Medina (Old Town.)
In silence, we watched our driver get out of the taxi, then quickly turn to look at us through the backseat window. With a somber face, he put out his palm as a signal for us to wait. Unsure of what was happening, we felt a slow panic set in.
Arriving in a foreign country is always disorienting. But pair a dark evening with a communication barrier and a huge culture gap, and it’s particularly unsettling. We began thinking about our time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil when a young man unexpectedly held us up at knifepoint. We anxiously watched as our driver spoke to different people passing by. At one point, we debated whether or not to “make a run for it,” but we didn’t have a clue where to go.
Eventually, our driver returned with someone by his side. As the two menacing silhouettes came closer, we saw a young teenage boy, dressed in skinny jeans, a leather jacket, and Brazilian flip-flops. He tapped on the window, startling us which startled him too. We all looked at each other wide-eyed – his curiosity meeting our terror. In perfect English, he said, “Hello, my name is Zak. I take you to your guesthouse now. The taxi cannot go any farther.”
In that moment, we realized, like stereotypical American tourists, our paranoia had taken over.
In most Moroccan cities, the Old Town is an area impassable to vehicles due to the maze of narrow streets and alleyways. Instead of looking for someone to ax-murder us, our driver had graciously taken it upon himself to find someone willing to help guide us to our riad. Needless to say, we felt a bit ridiculous.
The next morning, we headed up to the rooftop for a delicious breakfast in the warm sun – a ritual we had grown accustomed to during our stay in Morocco. We chatted with other guests at the riad, including a friendly couple: Roberto from Sao Paulo, Brazil and Cora from Cologne, Germany. We discussed life in our various countries, our thoughts on Morocco, and our perspective on long term travel. Cora mentioned that she too, had travelled for an entire year.
“I felt so FREE!” she exclaimed, smiling and smoking her cigarette. We agreed – after all, our morning with them was the start of yet another new adventure. The day held so many possibilities – and what a day it was.
We collected our guidebook and headed down to the atrium on our way out. There, a young man stopped us, introducing himself as a friend of Zak’s. He had come to offer his help in guiding us out to the main thoroughfare of the Medina. Given our experience the night before, we took him up on it.
Leading us past the Sekaya fountain (the riad’s namesake), we followed him through the quiet, narrow alleyways. After making several subsequent turns, we quickly gave up trying to figure out how we were going to get back. With one final turn, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of Rue Talaa Kebira (“The Great Slope/Climb”), one of the longest and most important streets in the Fes Medina.
The lively scene was straight out of a movie.
Little stories played out everywhere: a shop owner tending to a customer, men playing cards over tea, women in colorful headscarves holding on to children, and shops. oh, the abundance of shops! They went on for as far as the eye could see.
Zak’s friend asked if we needed a guide for the day. His gesture of hospitality now transforming into a sales pitch – classic Morocco. While overwhelmed by the surroundings, as independent travelers, we felt determined to do our own self-guided walking tour. We politely turned down his offer and he nodded, wishing us well. We watched as he disappeared into the crowds, then set off to tackle Fes by ourselves.
Beginning at Bab Bou Jeloud, the city’s ornate main entry gate built in 1913, we made our way down the souq street. Our first stop: the Madrasa Bou Inania, a former theological college that first opened in the 14th century. It’s an excellent example of architecture from the Marinid dynasty, an Arab-Berber empire that once controlled present-day Morocco and parts of Spain. The madrasa is one of few religious places in Morocco open to non-Islamic visitors.
Past the Water Clock, the Cherabliyine neighborhood is famous for its Moroccan slippers.
The “Cherbil” is made of sheep leather and one of the oldest shoes made specifically for women of North Africa. According to Fassi tradition, a groom supplies his wife with a certain number of traditional shoes – the Cherbil being the most significant. The Babouche is another artisan shoe made for women, men and children. When a person bestows this as a gift to someone, it signifies that they hope all their wishes come true.
Grabbing an omelette for lunch at a food stall, we continued our explorations through Nejjarine Fondouk, a historic area known for woodworking and crafts. Afterwards, we visited the Henna Souq with its iconic blue pottery. From the Tomb of Moulay Idriss II to the Kairaouine Mosque (the country’s oldest university), we soon realized we would barely scratch the surface of Fes during our stay.
The only downside to our self-guided walking tour was the incessant offer from locals asking to be our private guide. The constant interrogation became a defining part of our time in Fes. In hindsight, it likely would’ve been a much better strategy to simply hire a guide for the day – like Zak’s friend. As two obvious tourists walking on our own, we were simply too much of a target to be left alone.
The day we decided to visit the city’s legendary tanneries was particularly challenging.
Fes is famous for its medieval workshops that produce leather goods from the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels and exported all around the globe. The Chouara Tannery, is the city’s largest and oldest – nearly 1,000 years old to be exact. The distinct aroma of animals skins being processed is not for the faint of heart – even from a distance. They are processed in a liquid made from a mixture that includes cow urine and pigeon feces. Again, not for the faint of heart!
Sadly, we only enjoyed a brief viewing of the tanneries. As soon as we got close to them, a group of local men and nearby shopkeepers, approached us and blocked our way forward. They insisted we pay, but who exactly to pay and how much was unclear. While haggling is a part of Moroccan culture, we also knew that the terraces were free to see from the surrounding terraces.
As the mob grew agitated with us, we felt that same feeling of trepidation as the previous night in the taxi cab. Feeling trapped, the excursion simply wasn’t worth the trouble. We politely thanked all of the men for offering to be our guide(s), then promptly turned in the opposite direction to resume our walk. Far, far away from the tanneries.
As the stench began to fade away, so too, did our anxiety.
And yet, just as we felt at peace, we heard a lone shop owner’s plea to come into his shop. “Just look, it’s free,” he said. Another voice chimed in, “Come – just for a minute, it’s right here.” Mopeds buzzed around us and homeless elderly begged for money. Passing by a group of kids playing soccer, an older boy intentionally kicked the ball to hit us. Dodging out of the way, they burst into laughter – not in a playful way, but a bit menacing. It was then that we realized we had reached our limit of Fes.
Within an hour, we were back at the peaceful rooftop of our riad sipping mint tea. We looked out over the rooftops. From up high, the city looked so peaceful. We didn’t see the persistent shopowners, the angry faux guides or the mischievous kids. We just felt the magical, exotic, desert vibe that we first experienced when we arrived in Morocco.
The next morning, Roberto and Cora joined us for breakfast again. They had experienced a fabulous visit to the tanneries with a 17-year old local guide. We began to feel a bit remorseful not taking Zak’s friend up on his offer.
“The tanneries were amazing, but afterwards, the guide took us to a bunch of shops owned by his family for hours.” groaned Cora. “We ended up buying a bunch of stuff we had not intended to and probably should’ve gone to the tanneries on our own,” said Roberto.
We then told our story of a visit to the tanneries and all of us had a good laugh.