In Morocco it’s Fes, elsewhere Fez. As visitors we believe in local spelling. Either way a visit is exciting, challenging and frequently inspiring.
We had two nights there, the first after a long drive from Casablanca fortunately divided by visits to Rabat, Meknes and the Roman site of Volubilis. Even so the last leg was long and our return to Marrakech on the third day even longer to the point of exhaustion.
Fortunately it was the middle day we have to remember. Our elegant and cultured guide joined us at the hotel where we waited for the driver. First we visited the palace gates and then drove out to one of the castles overlooking the city. The panorama is impressive, with the ancient Fes el Bali mosque (9th century) indicating the centre of the medina by its minaret. Beyond is the other castle and on the horizon the Rif mountains.
Before the medina we visited the pottery, fascinating with kick wheels in operation as they have been for centuries. Everything is hand made, with the tiles for mosaics cut from larger pieces then reassembled in reverse before a backing is cemented to them. The characteristic clay of the region is buff; as well as for a variety of vessels it renders the adobe walls of the city.
On the way to the medina we saw the Jewish quarter, on either side of a spacious road. The lanes of the medina are anything but spacious. Alleys would exaggerate many. Some are blind alleys, very useful for defence, as we had seen in Sicily previously.
Naturally, if there is a medina there are souks or markets. Salesmen are of course keen to sell their wares but none were aggressive. One of the largest open spaces is where the leather is tanned and dyed. It was low season but several workmen were checking the condition of the hides before they are hung to dry and tan on rooftops. Thoughtfully the manager had given us sprigs of mint to deflect the stench. Even before the busier months it was not entirely successful. Jasmine blossom worked better.
The Chouara tannery produces finished goods of all kinds, from wallets to coats, in almost as many colours. Having bought what we needed in Marrakech we were able to resist. It would perhaps have been better had we waited because the Fes leather is preferable.
Anther point of interest was the square of the metal workers. How carefully they chase out designs on a flat sheet is only surpassed by the cavalier jumping on a large disc to introduce the walls between base and rim to create a dish without damage to the intricate design.
Having seen the minaret of Fes el Bali it was inspiring to stand close to it. The series of elegant arches at the entrance create an illusion of the gates of Paradise.
Nearby is the ancient Al Quaruyine university which, unlike the mosque, we were able to enter. How wonderful it is, from the tiled courtyard and elegant doors to the minute cells of the students, very like San Marco monastery in Florence. The university was established in 859, therefore preceding Padua in Italy.
Lunch was followed by more visits in the medina: the women’s mosque and the later, thirteenth century, Fes el Djedid. The most interesting, and tempting, was the merchant who was not a merchant but, as he explained, someone trying to dispose of the family collection of antiques that filled his ancestral home. Again there was an opportunity to haggle, but airline weight conditions over-ruled desires.
So to our hotel, not realising how long a journey would follow. Our preference, and advice to anyone following this route – Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes and back again to Marrakech – is to ask for an early evening departure from Fes to somewhere like Ifrane. This is a winter sports resort, Alpine in appearance, that would probably accept out of season travellers with gratitude. Ifrane is about three hours’ easy driving from Fes and therefore six or seven hours from Marrakech. Drivers are willing but such long days invite risk.