MOROCCO - Fes & Sale


October 12, 2009

The train trip to Fes, about 3 hours going south, took us through a greener countryside. Planted orchards and vineyards covered the rolling hills. Through the distance haze we could see the mountains. As we neared Fes, we were visited by a number of Moroccans trying to befriend us to be our tour guide or invite us to their "friend's" Riad. We had already made arrangements to stay at the small Sakaya Pension for 300 dirham/night (30 eu), right in the Medina.

On the train, we met up with fellow cruisers from the American Traveller, also traveling to Fes. We stepped off the train into a city with an entirely different feel to it than that of Marrakesh.

The legendary Moroccan city of Fes (also spelled Fez) was founded in the 9th century and home to one of the oldest universities in the world. Fes reached its height in the 13th and 14th centuries, when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom.  The political capital of Morocco was transferred to Rabat in 1912.

The fortification walls around Fez date to the 11th century having been restored with traditional mud, made of sand and lime. Its principal mosque is the holiest in the country and governs the timing of Ramadan and other Islamic festivals.

We shared a large taxi with Traveler to the centre of the Medina. There are two types of taxis in Morocco, the larger more expensive Mercedes and the battered run down smaller blue painted cars called Petit Taxis, much cheaper but sometimes barely road worthy.

Someone from our Riat was sent to show us the way and, since Traveler did not have any accommodation booked, came with us to see if they could also get a room. A young man led us through a series of twisty narrow streets, turning one way and then another until we were sure we would never find or way out of the maze. Our room was basic, decorated about as tacky as it gets. But it had the most elaborate door imaginable. Carved and painted with decorative motif. The bathroom was not all that clean so we used a plastic bag to stand on while  showering. The price included breakfast, which was coffee and a round of bread with marmalade (typical Moroccan pension breakfast). The people were very friendly and we enjoyed our accommodations.

Since there were no vacancies at the Sakaya Pension, we decided it might be interesting to follow the search for accommodation in the Medina. We wandered down the cobblestone alleyways until we found a tiny sign advertising "hotel" or "room" or "riad" over a non-descript doorway, usually in a dirty high stained cement wall in a constricted passageway. Normally the riads are more expensive than the pensions, but some are still a bargain and our friends were hoping to find one of these. Many of the riads were rooms let out in people's homes making the experience interesting. It was a treat to see the inside of these places, which looked so dreary from the outside. But once inside, it was another world. The central courtyards opened to the sky. Around the courtyard, levels with rooms, windowless except for the doorways out to the balconies overlooking the courtyard. The walls and doorways were elaborately carved wood and painted plaster with intricate details. Soon there was a gathering of  many local boys offering to guide Traveller around to various other options.

Finally, our friends settled for a place so our "tour" of riads came to an end. We all went for lunch at an outside cafe near the Blue Gates and a local boy played the bongo drums for us while we visited. It was a great people watching spot, older Muslim women strolling by in their full burkes and veils, while the younger Muslim women wore colorful headscarves with fashionable clothing overtop of leggings or long sleeved shirts. And there was the steady stream of donkeys packing their loads, the colorfully dressed "Waterman" selling cups of water, beggars, children, performers in the streets.
We made our way to the Blue Gate, the main entrance into the Medina and the main part of the walled city. The Blue Gate was currently under repair but the blue Moroccan tiling around the archway was impressive.

There was a huge difference between the Arabs of Fes as compared to Marrakesh.

In Fes, people were very friendly and didn't want anything in return for helping. The shopkeepers were all happy to show you their goods, but if you decided you were not interested, they didn't insist or chase after you like they did in Marrakesh. Just "Thankyou for looking, have a nice holiday." despite the shop keepers saying that the tourists were not buying, and their families were suffering. Shows how the western world's economic depression affects everyone.

The merchants were eager just to offer mint tea, to chat, to hear all about our sailing
adventures from across
the ocean.

After lunch we struck out on our own and walked around the Medina. The main area is laden with touristy shops, all competing to sell many of the same items. We spent hours looking for something unique and finally found it.

A twisty sheep's horn, inlaid and covered with silver and a cap, once used to carry gunpowder. A conversation piece for Chris' collection of artefacts!

Fez Pottery

Many shops sold the famous Fez Pottery, many with inlaid silver trim. The traditional Berber color is blue.

Slipper makers, Shoe sellers & Leathermakers hanging hides dried goods & everything else

Fes Caps

Moroccan tile and mirrors

Piles of  Pipes

 unusual musical instruments

I always love to visit the produce market, with its scents of fresh fruit, mint and cilantro, and colorful vegetables. The Marketplace in Fes was bustling with activity and the roar of vendors shouting their wares and locals haggling for their daily necessities.
Huge squash, crisp apples, bundles of greens, next to brooms & linens Oodles of Onions

Flat breads piled high, usually buzzing with flies.  Wasps prefer the sugary pastries and there was always a swarm of them crawling over anything sweet.

Mounds of Melons

We learned to identify the "premier" melons as the ones with 3 red dots painted on them

Street stalls selling stacks of boiled snails, to be plucked from their brown-and-white striped shells with safety pins.
Bundles of Fresh Cilantro Freshly ground spices Snails!

As we strolled along we would get a sudden whiff of the unmistakable stench of fish and meat.  The meat market area in Morocco has a characteristic all to itself. Live chickens squawk on the butcher block then their bodies twitch and pulsate. Cages of ducks, rabbits, and geese await a similar fate.

Butchers were watched by the ever present, ever hopeful profusion of stray cats.

Meat Market of a Different Sort

We strolled through the market with the usual hanging meat but also with hanging sheep and camel heads and legs with the hoof still on. And piles of brains, liver, testicles and such, everything crawling with flies.

Cow and sheep's feet are strung up, complete with hooves. Goat and camel heads lay on display.

Beyond the Souks and Marketplace, into the humid shadows of the labyrinth, constricted lanes led us through a tangle of rough streets, winding, turning and intersecting with other interesting paths.

Here was the essence of Moroccan life in Fes, men taking a moment from selling their livestock to read a paper, men and donkeys packing loads, men in gowns sipping mint tea, some just sleeping!


Continuing along, we meandered down the jumble of streets, moving aside for men pushing carts or donkeys laden to the max with heavy loads. And everywhere DONKEYS. Some melancholic, some patient. You always had to watch where you stepped. Nowhere have we ever seen donkeys used as much. They carried burdens down the streets, far too narrow for any vehicle. Some alleys had a low dropped overhead block to prevent the donkeys from traveling down those streets.

Some of the loads the donkeys carried were unimaginable. Click here to see The Donkey, Beasts of Burden Page.

Tucked away in inconspicuous nooks were cramped quarters where tradesmen toiled. Carpenters creating items from the local cedar root using a hand made lathe powered by foot, women stringing beads of coral and amber, craftsmen carving pipes and haircombs from bone and horns, tailors labouring over their Singer treadle machines in dark corners, leather makers cutting belts.

Woodworker Bone Carver Tailor Belt Maker

Muslim water fountains

Canal running through Fes

Beggars in the streets

Old, haggard, red eyed Beggars search passer-bys with outstretched hands and pleading face.

Strong Islam Faith

We passed many elaborate Mosques but were only permitted to peak in the carved entrances to the majestic tiled pillars inside. Non Muslims are not allowed inside. We could see the luxuriously intricate engraved stucco ornamented walls with glazed tile, carved and painted wooden arches, marble columns, highly delicate and almost lace-like.

A mosque in Fez was the center of a neighborhood complex usually consisting of a fountain, a msid (Koranic school for children), public toilet, hammam (public bath), and bakery.

left: Koutoubia Mosque, constructed in the 12th century



We started to climb the hills going away from the main part of the Medina and soon reached a beautiful vantage point where there was a view of the entire city. The triangular shaped roofs, minarets, stained cement tenements and twisty alleys.

Lost in the Medina

I think anyone who has been to Fes has gotten lost in the Medina! We were so mesmerized by all the sights it was soon dark and we had wondered far off the beaten track. We realized that we were hopelessly lost at the edge of the walled Medina. We were wandering around in an attempt to find a road in the right direction when a young boy warned us not to go down the street we were preparing to turn onto. He said it was dangerous and we should go in a different direction.

At this point a Moroccan girl, named Bahia, came to our assistance. She spoke English and offered to lead us back to the Medina, which was a fare distance away. So along with her little sister, Donia, we chatted as she led us down the labyrinth of alleyways and cobblestone streets back to a spot we recognized. She told us there was much crime in Fes and we were glad of her help as many of the shops were closed and the streets were empty. All she asked in return was our email address.

We had supper at the Clock Cafe, little tables set on various levels of the roof near the Water Clock tower offering camel burgers and genuine Moroccan food.