To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.Bill Bryson
Jan 29-Feb 7 2015
Fes and Marrakesh are both ancient and historic cities best known for their lively and colorful markets as well as their walled neighborhoods with maze-like alleys known as medinas.
We began our trip staying in Fes, founded in 789 and the capital city of modern Morocco until 1925. We spent the majority of our time within one of the cities two medinas, known as Fes el Bali. Fes el Bali is believed to be the world’s largest car-free pedestrian zone and also has the distinciton of being home to the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in 859.
The place we stayed within Fes el Bali was a beautiful Moroccan riad. Riads are traditional homes designed to be inward focused with a distinctive interior courtyard or garden. The inward focus also allows for family privacy and protection from the weather. The walls are absent of any large windows and instead adorned with tadelakt plaster and zellige tiles, often with Arabic calligraphy. Some of the doors in our riad were over 500 years old, it was like staying in a museum. Multi-story with numerous rooms, it was far more space then we needed, but it was inexpensive and ended up being a unique experience.
After just a short amount of time we were already experiencing culture shock. As soon as we would step outside and begin wandering around- boys, men, taxi drivers, all of them came to us in a rush trying to give advice, take us to the correct place “just because they were kind”, or show us the city. We knew it was going to be this way but we weren’t quite prepared. Even in the riad itself, we had our own care taker, making us meals and making sure everything was fine. Some people might enjoy this, but for us we prefer not to burden other people and do things for ourselves. In a way it almost felt like we were being watched or monitored, keeping us from getting doing something that would offend the culture, or treating it as if we were on some sort of college spring break. It was uncortable for awhile, but we eventually would get used to it and except it for what it was. It was our first time in a predominantly Muslim and Arab country, and it gave us a lot of insight into a part of the world we previoulsy knew very little about.
Our first day in Fes was spent getting the lay of the land. Being in such a strange place, for us, we opted to take a guided tour, something that we rarely, if ever do. We started off going around the outside of the walled medina, stopping to see the ornate gated entrances, passing by Bab Mellah, the Old Jewish Quarter, and a visit and tour to a ceramics factory to see how local pottery was all made by hand. It is an amazingly intricate process, the artwork and details that go into making even just a single dish, furniture and even fountains. ‘Fes Blue’ was the popular color of choice, which is double fired in the firing process. At the end of the tour we were taken to several lookout areas in the hills above the medinas, letting us get a full panorama out across the enormity of it all, allowing us to relax for a bit and absorb the foreign landscape we were now in.
The second day consisted of a tour within the medina itself. We visited a few museums, a rug shop, and a leather tannery. The rug shops were probably the most annoying part of the trip. They would sit you down, bring you mint tea, and then begin unraveling rug after rug in the hopes you would buy one. It seemed like it would never end, and even saying “no, I’m not interested” didn’t stop them. The rugs were beautiful though, and I understand a lot of people come here just to buy them, but it just wasn’t for us. We did break down eventually though, after the fourth or fifth visit to a rug shop during the trip, we ended up buying a small rug that we will treasure for ever. Seriously though, sometimes you’re just randomly walking around and before you know it some guy is unrolling rugs in front of you with no escape.
On the other hand, the Chouara Tannery was pretty neat, if not smelly, experience. Numerous stone vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and various liquids spread out like a tray of watercolors. Dozens of men, many standing waist deep in dyes, work under the hot sun tending to the hides that remain soaked in the vessels. The tanneries process the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels, turning them into high quality leather products such as bags, coats, shoes, and slippers. This is all achieved manually, without the need for modern machinery, and the process has barely changed since medieval times, which makes these tanneries absolutely fascinating to visit. Of course these means they still use cow urine (along with quicklime, water and salt) as a base to breakdown and soften the animal hydes, and then further into the process they use water mixed with pigeon poop (which contains ammonia) to help the hides obsorb the dye. They did give us sprigs of fresh mint to help hide the smell so it really wasn’t that bad after the initial whiffs.
Our third day was spent exploring on our own. By now we were starting to relax a bit and were more used to things, we were getting better at dealing with the touts, the daily calls to prayer started to sound normal, and we weren’t getting lost as often in the maze of alleys and walkways while out looking for something to eat.
At night we decided to venture into the new town center to find some drinks, and maybe hang out with some of the locals- it definitely ended up being an experience. We hailed a cab outside of the medina gates and started heading towards the new town, along the way the driver and a local female passenger, who was already in the taxi when we got in, started arguing, the next thing we knew he was turning around and kicking her out back where we had started. Once we finally made it to the bar we went inside and noticed that it was almost all men. We met a friendly local who talked and drank with us for a bit, and he explained that the only women in bars are prostitues. We still aren’t quite sure if he meant literally or figuratively. Then later when we moved down the street to another bar, we found much of the same, although slightly more lively as it at least had a dance floor. Except nobody was actually dancing with each other, it had more of a middle school dance vibe going on. All in all though it was a good night out, we got some beers, which are pretty hard to find elsewhere, and were able to experience some of the local late night culture. Back at the riad we rested up for the next day.
In the morning we headed back out of the medina and into the new town to pick up a rental car, the process was surprisingly easy and straight forward, even though a lot of other things hadn’t been up to this point. In between Fes and Marrakesh we would go on a multi-day road trip that included crossing the Atlas Mountains twice and riding camels and spending the night amongst Saharan sand dunes. You can read it about in the post Moroccan Road Trip and the post Erg Chebbi & Sahara Desert.
After arriving in Marrakesh at the end of our road trip and visit to the desert, we again chose to stay in a beautiful riad, like Fes, within the cities main medina. This time, however, we opted to do all of our exploring and touring on our own. Some of the sites we experienced included the world famous Jemaa el-Fnaa market and square, strolling around the Jardins de la Ménara, and touring the Jardin Majorelle.
Our first stop was the Jemaa el-Fnaa market and square. Jemaa el Fna is the heart of Marrakech. By day the square is home to traditional Water Sellers, Snake Charmers and men with monkeys on chains who urge you to take a picture with them. Side by side, day after day, street hawkers set up their almost identical carts selling freshly squeezed orange juice. We watched the sunset from one of the many restaurant balconies that surround the square. The place quickly filled up with people and the sound of frantic drumming mixed with the Snake Charmers piping and traditional Berber music filled the air.
As the sky turned dark, the street performers took centre stage, surrounded by huge crowds who looked on appreciatively. But the real action was at the food stalls, each selling an array of Moroccan cuisine such as tagine, meats, kebabs, snails, sheeps heads and little French cakes. Once we’d had enough we headed back to our riad for the night. We would pass through the square to take in the sights and sounds many times during our stay in Marrakesh.
The next day we took a long walk to the Jardins de la Ménara, a botanical garden on the west side of the city established during the 12th century. It is dominated by a large pavilion that sits on an artificial lake used to irrigate the surrounding gardens and orchards using a sophisticated system of underground channels. We walked around the surrounding orchards and olive groves watching as people hung out and enjoyed the day, a nice retreat from the chaotic city that surrounds. We would spend the rest of the day exploring back in the medina, including a small photograhy museum that provided excellent views over the city.
The day before we left we went into the new town of Marrakesh, dominated by highrises and businesses, to a wonderful place known as Jardin Majorelle, a garden designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’a and 30’s. The structures found within the gardens are painted with a shade of bold cobalt blue named after him, Majorelle Blue. Within the 12 acre garden is the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, whose collection includes North African textiles from Saint Laurent’s personal collection as well as ceramics, jewelry, and paintings by Majorelle. The garden hosts more than 15 bird species that are endemic to North Africa and has many fountains, and a notable collection of cacti. A truly beautiful and inspiring place. As the evening came we headed to a nearby bar, and unlike the ones we visited in Fes, this one felt more like a hip western bar, with a good mix of both young local men and women chatting and enjoying the night out. It was a great to end our trip in Morocco.
Overall, Marrakesh was a much more polished version of Fes, with a more developed tourist infrastructure and a more liberal culture. On the other hand we found the medina in Fes to be superior with more interesting souks and history, even if the touts were more aggressive. Looking back, it probably would have been best to start in Marrakesh and do our route in reverse, ending in Fes, but either way we still had a blast and it was an adventure we will never forget. Would we return? Heck yeah. There’s still other parts of Morocco we would like to visit that we have heard some great things about, and sites we visited during our road trip that we would like to spend more time at. Knowing more about the culture we would enjoy our time in either Fes or Marrkesh even more the second time around with the experience that we have gained.