Thursday, 30 April 2015

Fez - A walk in the medina

Fez has the reputation of being the closest thing you can get in Morocco to a medieval town, with its labyrinthine medina. It can intimidate at first, but during my three days in town I learned to navigate its narrow streets and become acquainted with its smells and colours. The gates of the old town, Fez El Bali, soon became familiar sights, especially Bab Boujeloud, commonly called by foreigners the Blue Gate.

In the medina of Fez, I saw many traditional jobs that have almost disappeared in other parts of the world, but that are still very much part of everyday life in Morocco. There is a square dedicated to coppermaking, for instance, with a picturesque tree in the middle. While walking through the medina I glimpsed people carving Arabic writings on marble tablets, working wood to make beautiful decorations or sewing leather slippers.
Man at work
What struck me about Fez, though, is the number of religious buildings within the walls of the medina. You cannot walk too far without encountering a mosque, a medersa (Koranic school) or a shrine. Unfortunately, in Morocco the entrance to religious buildings is mostly forbidden for non-Muslims. What you can do is glimpsing through the open doors, having a look at the beautiful decorations, and observing the people taking off their shoes and entering the mosque to pray.

Taking a look inside

The shrine and tomb (zaouia) of Moulay Idriss II is one of the most fascinating places in Fes el Bali, the medina. At the entrance of this shrine - dedicated to the 9th-century ruler and founder of the city - there are women selling candles to light in the shrine and small satchels with many kinds of nougat, a common pilgrimage gift.

Selling nougat

It's not Fez if you are not invited to visit one of the many rooftops, and of course you're expected to leave a tip if you enjoyed the experience. On a rooftop, among looms where the women make carpets and the laundry of a random family, I noticed the green roofs of the srhine and the central mosque, which is the spiritual centre of the city.

The green roof of the shrine

View from a roof
I also visited the medersa Bou Inania, which is hidden behind a door very close to Bab Boujeloud. Since I had visited medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakesh I knew more or less what to expect, but I didn't know that the two Koranic schools are so similar. If you are visiting both Marrakesh and Fez, I advice you to visit medersa Ben Youssef, which is better preserved and allows you to go upstairs in the former bedrooms of the students. Medersa Bou Inania is the subdued version, but the mosaics and the decorations are just as beautiful.

From one corner you have a perfect view of the minaret, and from the door you can observe how the life outside goes on busily while you are within the quiet walls of the medersa.

Medersa Bou Inania

Of course the medina is full of smells and surprises: spices of all kinds, hens tied to their cage for sale in the food market, or a man pushing a cart full of strawberries.
Spices in the souk
Hens for sale in the food market

Jewels and small tagines in the medina
Every now and then you'll come across one of the many fountains. They are all covered in ceramic tiles and intricate marble carvings. Some of them will have a glass tied to it with a cord or a chain, and kids will be washing off the dirt from their feet, while women will be cleaning vegetables.

A fountain with azulejos in Fez

Needless to say, I was invited to see the famous tanneries, a young man leading us along the narrow streets of Fez for what seemed to be a very long time for such a short distance. What a way to try to earn a tip! Once we arrived at the rooftop from where you can see the tanneries, we were introduced to the ancient tradition of making leather goods by hand, bags, slippers and jackets that are sold to the visitors. They were not pushy, but of course they appreciate if you buy something or if you leave a donation to the cooperative. 
A view of the tanneries
Everything around me looked interesting, and I have many tales, because everything surprised me, from the Coca-Cola with the Arabic spelling to young people's obsession for Barcelona football club. In Bab Rcif Square, I saw men cooking snails in a stall, and serving them in a broth, and I was  offered a taste.

Selling snails in Fez
The mellah, which once was the Jewish quarter, is another part of Fez that is worth having a look at. Here I found a graffiti reproduction of one of the fountains I encountered within the walls of Fez El Bali. This is a less visited part of the city, almost gritty, with kids playing football and men sitting in crowded cafés drinking endless glasses of tea.

A graffiti in Fez
A row of women chatting near Bab Rcif Square

I found Fez to be an interesting town: a bit less aggressive than Marrakesh, but also a bit more difficult to appreciate. It's not as immediately exotic, and its beauty is more in the small details or in the scenes of everyday life. It's touristic but not as much as Marrakesh, and it's overwhelming at times. It has quiet corners, and really friendly people who are never to pushy. Overall, I think that Fez should be included in every itinerary of a tour of Morocco, and it should be approached with calm, without prejudice. I think that in a city like Fez it is important to try to savour every bit of Moroccan culture, observing without intruding, with friendliness and never scared of asking questions.  

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