As I got out of the taxi, the elderly gentleman pulled my hood up over my head to protect me from the rain, and smiled. It was a kind, gentle smile and not that of someone who was about to rob me.
But as he picked up the handles of his empty food cart and beckoned for me to follow him into the dark, disorientating depths of the city’s medina, the crisp, clean sheets and soft, squishy pillows of the bed that awaited me at my riad seemed very far away.
I dodged puddles as I attempted to keep pace with my guide. Bags of rubbish lay piled high at the sides of the narrow streets, their contents spilling out on to the wet pavements, attracting the attention of the local street cats who sauntered along the gutters and sat, bedraggled, in doorways.
But it wasn’t only cats who lingered on the dark streets of the medina after midnight. Cloaked figures stood hidden in the shadows, their dark eyes following me as I passed. Occasionally my guide would make eye contact and attempt a greeting but mostly their presence was recognised but never acknowledged.
This was Fes’ underworld, and with every minute that I spent there came a definite sensation that the Witching Hour was fast approaching.
That was my introduction to Fes’ medina – believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban area. Founded in the 9th century and home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Al-Karaouine, the confusing maze that is Fes’ medina contains approximately 9500 alleyways and is inhabited by a whopping 156,000 people.
Getting lost here is virtually unavoidable.
Unless you live here, of course.
With the rain still hammering down on the cobbled streets below, my guide finally slows down and comes to a stop. Ahead of us appears to be nothing more than a dead end. Momentarily I stand there, asking myself, “what happens next?” Is this the point at which he pulls out a knife? Will I have time to run? Consciously, but as subtly as I can manage, I begin to back away in order to create a space between us. But as I do so, he turns around. Not to face me but to face a large, imposing studded door to the right of where we are standing. I strain my eyes in the darkness, and can just about make out the words “DAR NEJMA” to the right of the door.
He knocks, and we wait in silence for what seems like an eternity. Finally the large door creaks open and my eyes meet with those of a smiling young girl with braces on her teeth. She greets me and the two of them share a brief, but seemingly friendly conversation in Arabic. I hand my guide the three 10 dirham coins the taxi driver had given me in change, and utter the only word I know in Arabic, “shukraan,” (“thank you”) and subsequently follow the girl inside.
Considering that I’d arrived at the riad three hours later than I was scheduled to (bad snow and freezing temperatures in England had dictated that there were massive delays on the runway at Stansted), the girl didn’t seem at all perturbed as she checked me and my soaking wet clothing and possessions into my beautiful room.
I must have been asleep no more than 20 minutes later, thoughts of how surreal my experience of getting there had been still swirling around in my head.
The following day I felt as though I’d emerged into a different world entirely. My room was grand and spacious and peaceful, and as I opened the wooden shutters on my windows, I looked down on to this incredible internal courtyard.
What was even better was the realisation that my breakfast would be served to me at one of the tables in that very courtyard. I felt like a queen.
For those of you who are interested, a traditional Moroccan breakfast includes some or all of the following:
- Traditional mint tea (although I had the choice of freshly ground coffee as well)
- A glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice
- Moroccan bread and pancakes, often made from semolina.
- Fried eggs seasoned with cumin
- Fresh goats cheese and olives
- A selection of dips and spreads – normally honey, amlou (traditionally made from almonds, argan oil and honey), and either strawberry or apricot jam.
And let me tell you, the breakfast served to me at Dar Nejma was AMAZING! (and included all of the above).
With my one full day in Fes, I had big plans to head out into the medina, tick off all the sights on my list (Bab Boujloud (the main entrance gates to the medina), Medersa Bou Inania (reportedly the finest of Fes’ theological colleges), Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts, Karaouiyne Mosque and University , and Chaouwara Tanneries), snap lots of photographs of life in the medina, browse the souks, wander the markets, sample some Moroccan snacks, and spend a bit of time getting wonderfully lost.
What I hadn’t accounted for was just how difficult all of these things would be to accomplish. Because, whilst I found Fes’ medina an absolutely fascinating place, exploring it is both challenging and incredibly frustrating (especially as a young(ish) solo female traveller) . Because you WILL get hassled and everyone you meet WILL attempt to extract money from you.
Here are a few things you should know before setting out to explore Fes’ medina:
- Everyone will want to know where you are going. If you give them the name of a specific destination they will take it upon themselves to show you the way; if you tell them you are just walking they will walk with you, ask you a few questions about yourself, give you a bit of information about the medina, suggest some places you might like to visit, and subsequently take it upon themselves to show you the way. And they will expect money in return.
- Nobody is a tour guide; they’re either “a student” or “your friend,” which basically means that they will play the part of your tour guide; just without a licence to do so. And they will expect money in return.
- If someone tells you that you’re “going the wrong way,” it simply means that you’re heading away from the heavily touristed parts of the medina.
- If you stop walking, someone will assume that you need help. This makes taking photographs nye on impossible.
- If you tell someone that you did not ask for a guide and therefore you do not have any money to pay them, that is never an acceptable answer; they will follow you until you realise that the only way to get rid of them is to give them some money.
The one activity that I expected to be the most challenging to undertake – that of finding and exploring the Chaouwara Tanneries – was actually one of the most stress-free. The odd medina resident pointed me in the right direction, but no-one followed me or attempted the show me the way.
The final part of the route takes you down a very narrow street (I assume this was Rue Chouara), which appears to come to a dead end at number 64. I’d read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that the terrace of number 10 has the best views of the tanneries, but of course the gentleman at number 64 informed me that number 10 was closed. Apparently the owners had sold up and moved away (they’d probably made enough money to because everyone was visiting their terrace and buying from their leather shop). Whether they had remains to be seen but as I could see no other options along this particularly crowded narrow road, and the gentleman promised me that visiting his terrace was “completely free,” I decided I may as well stroll up and take a look.
The Chaouwara Tanneries are one of Fes’ most iconic sites, and offer a unique window into the pungent (although I didn’t find it too bad; apparently it’s much worse in summer!) natural process of producing world-class leather, using methods that have remained unchanged for centuries.
You don’t have a choice but to view the tanneries from the terraces of one of the surrounding leather shops, but you’ll get a stack of interesting information from one of the workers (most of whom are related to the people who actually produce the leather) and I really didn’t feel under any pressure to either leave a tip or to buy anything.
I did end up purchasing some traditional Moroccan slippers (the ones with the pointy toes), but that was primarily because I’d made the decision to buy some before I even arrived in Fes and I figured I’d end up with a better quality pair by purchasing directly from the people who produced the leather.
If you’re interested in spending a little more than I did on a leather product (I haggled my slippers down to 140 dirham – £10.79) then it’s worth noting that the best quality leather is goatskin (the poorest quality of leather incidentally comes from sheepskin).
Somewhere else that is an absolute must-see (and is very easy to find, because it’s located on the main Talaa Kebira thoroughfare not far from Bab Bou Jeloud) is Medusa Bou Inania. Considered to be the finest of Fes’ theological colleges, it was built by the Merenid sultan Bou Inan between 1351 and 1357 and functioned both as an educational institute and as a congregational mosque. You can see its beautiful green-tiled minaret in the photo above.
For the majority of the time I was inside Medusa Bou Inania I was joined by just two or three other people, so I was able to wander around and snap photos at my leisure (something that is very much a novelty in Fes’ medina). Every part of it is stunning viewed from a distance, but get up close and you’ll really appreciate the craftsmanship that went into constructing and renovating this incredible structure. The detail is absolutely amazing!
It’s also one of the few religious places in Morocco that’s accessible for non-Islamic visitors (outside of prayer times). Entry costs just 20 dirham (£1.54)
Sadly though, the majority of my time in Fes’ medina was either spent being hassled, trying to run away from someone who was hassling me, lost because I had managed to run away from someone who was hassling me, or reluctantly under the care of a local either because I was lost or because I just didn’t have the energy left to fight them anymore.
One gentleman – I can’t remember his name, but of course he introduced himself to me as [my] “friend” – offered to show me the Kairaouine Mosque and University (which I’d heard was one of Fes’ highlights) and , in the absence of any other options that didn’t involve me retreating to my riad and hiding from everyone, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this was the only successful way of sightseeing inside the medina, maybe he would take me somewhere I’d have never found on my own, and maybe he’d impart some interesting titbits of information that I wouldn’t have found in my guidebook.
True to his word, he did take me to the Kairaouine Mosque and University, but he gave me little time to snap any photos of the mosque’s impressive courtyard (non-muslims cannot go inside so photos have to be taken through a door on Derb Boutouil) before ushering me away and on to the university library (which is open to the public and where he did give me time to wander around alone).
Things were looking up, I thought. Until he proceeded to take me to an argan oil factory and to watch a silk weaving demonstration, where the respective vendors suddenly lost all interest in illustrating and explaining the processes involved in making their products as soon as they realised I wasn’t actually going to buy anything. When my ‘guide’ mentioned that the next sight on the agenda involved a taxi ride, I knew it was time to abort the mission.
I thanked him for his time, he asked me for money, I gave him 50 dirham (£3.92, because it was the smallest note I had on me), he demanded €10 (£8.76), I refused (the whole tour had only lasted around half an hour, if that), and he subsequently turned from being my “friend” to being quite aggressive and incredibly persistent.
I vowed to never trust any of these unofficial local guides again. Until another one found me whilst I was attempting to get to a high point in the medina in order to locate a viewpoint. This one also wasn’t a guide, he was a student, and even though I explicitly told him, “I do not have any money to pay you,” he still insisted on taking me to this viewpoint that he apparently knew I’d like.
It was an innocuous entrance to what appeared to be a partially abandoned building that was possibly once used for music rehearsals or arts performances. My guide unbolted the door and led me through an internal courtyard and up some crumbling stone stairs to another sturdy door that opened out on to a roof terrace. Out on the roof terrace I admired the view whilst he enquired as to whether I smoked (I don’t think he was referring to cigarettes at this point). I politely declined his offer whilst proceeding to snap some photos of the view.
Now, I’ve no means of comparison so I couldn’t tell you whether this secret viewpoint is one of the best in the medina, but this is what you’ll see from here:
Despite acknowledging the fact that I told him I didn’t have any money to pay him, even this guy asked me for money as I left. I deposited 30 dirham in his hand and he pointed me in the direction of some gardens on the edge of the medina. Whilst they weren’t the Jnan Sbil Gardens that I thought I was heading towards, they were a pleasant little oasis of tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the medina, and I did find some cool cactus and street art there.
The frustrating thing is that if you do want to visit specific places in the medina, you can’t find your accommodation despite pinpointing it on a map, or you get lost when you cannot afford to do so (you have a check-out/check-in time to keep, or a taxi/bus/train/flight to catch), you DO need the help of a local and unfortunately it WILL cost you.
Even though I had a map loaded of the medina on my phone, only a selection of the roads inside it are marked, most of them do not have names, lots of them are dead ends, and there’s no way of telling on the map whether they’re ups or downs (the medina is hilly!), and whether you should be heading uphill or downhill to reach a particular place. What’s more, because the walls either side are so high and the streets are so narrow, that little blue dot on Google Maps struggled to figure out exactly where I was.
Oh what I would’ve given to have had the power of invisibility inside that medina. I would have paid a high price for that.
Where I stayed
I stayed at two very different riads whilst in Fes (one before I caught the bus out to Chefchaouen and one when I got back).
If you’re looking for somewhere really traditional and authentic, with the sweetest staff and one of the best breakfasts ever, check out Dar Nejma. This also reprented the best value for money out of the two.Look up prices and availability at Dar Nejma here.
The other riad I stayed in was Ryad 53. Whilst still stunningly beautiful, and retaining its traditional style and design on the whole, the rooms are a little more contemporary, and it’s definitely better equipped to cater for foreign tourists, with staff who speak and understand perfect English. It’s worth noting though that I paid almost as much for one night here as I did for two at Dar Nejma.Look up prices and availability at Ryad 53 here.
Where I ate
- Cafe Clock. Recommended in Lonely Planet, this is a bustling hipster/artsy kind of place that serves up both Moroccan and Western flavours. It’s spread over three floors and also hosts cultural events in the evenings. I had their tabouleh, hummus and falafel with a spiced coffee – both of which were delicious.
- Cinema Cafe. This one was literally around the corner from Ryad 53 and was recommended by my host there. It’s primarily frequented by tourists and expats, and the menu does feature more Western dishes than local delicacies, but it’s still a nice friendly spot and the coffee (and mint tea, incidentally) is good here. If I had to choose though, I’d favour Clock.
Getting there and away
- I flew from Stanstead to Fes with Ryanair. Whilst I can no longer recommend the airline (for all of these reasons), they are still one of the cheapest to fly the route, even with all their ridiculous add-ons.
- The staff at Dar Nejma organised a taxi for me from the airport, but note that no motorised transport is allowed inside the medina. The taxi cost me €15.
- If you’re heading to Chefchaouen from Fes, you can catch a bus from the bus station just outside the medina (there are several services each day for a cost of 75 dirham one-way (£5.76)), BUT when you come back the bus will drop you at the bus station in the new part of the city. A taxi from here to the medina will cost you approximately 20 dirham (£1.54)
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