July 29th - July 31st, 1999
Catching the first bus out that morning, it became all too apparent that we had left the efficient roads of Europe behind us. While Moroccan roads are considered good by African standards, travel on them is relatively slow. Two lane roads are as big as they get, and they have a 80 kph (50 mph) speed limit -- which you're lucky if you can hit. It took our bus about seven hours to travel the 300-odd kilometers to Fes, averaging a blistering 45 kph. With the coast far behind us, the temperature shot up and Fes was baking at about 40° C or over 100° F when we arrived. We grabbed lunch, found a room in the Ville Nouvelle, and waited until later in the afternoon for the heat to break before wandering around.
In our travels through Europe, we had seen a number of relatively intact medieval cities, but most of them had long gone commercial and were being preserved by and for the tourists. Fes is quite different -- the medina is essentially a city of about a quarter of a million people functioning as they did 500 years ago. Oh yes, the candles and oil lamps have been replaced by bare light bulbs, some semblance of a sewage system (impressive by 19th century standards) is in place, and TV antennae/satellite dishes dot the roofs, but other than those few concessions to the modern world Fes remains rooted in the realm of yesterday. The people of Fes are quite proud of being the cultural heart of Morocco, and the UNESCO has dubbed Fes a World Heritage site.
Above left: one of the gates (or babs) to the city of Fes. To the right is a sign warning that this section of road is off-limits to donkeys. Fes is built into the shady side of a large hill down which the river Fes runs. As such, most streets and alleys are not flat, with many steps and rough areas. Cars, scooter, bicycles and even carts are unable to negotiate them. So, for transport inside the medina, donkeys are the vehicle of choice. Very often we would be wandering around when suddenly the ever present shoulder-to-shoulder crowd would part and a donkey would come barrelling down the road. Tell ya, it keeps you on your toes!
Walking though Fes' medina can oftentimes trigger sensory overload, as the density of shops and craftsmen/women is incredible. Most shops are no larger than four square meters, and inside up to six workers will be hammering brass, carving stone, sewing beautiful dresses and garments, baking bread -- what have you. The sights and smells change constantly as you wade through the humanity around you, with the smells of baking bread and sweets mixing with the butcher's hanging carcasses and the ever present donkey and human dung. You can see how some languages view a street as a three dimensional artery and not the two dimensional plane English conceptualizes it as. In Fes you flow along the veins of a very big and old beast, becoming one with it.
In order to help people cope with the brutal heat of this arid land, many parks and gardens have been built around the medina. This allows a place for people to escape the hotboxes they call home and keep cool. However, the ground water levels have been dropping in this portion of Morocco for a long time now. The picture above right was once a fantastic water garden, but it dried up decades ago as the river Fes lost its vitality. It likely will get worse, here and elsewhere in Africa, as time goes on.
Leather goods are still a big business in Fes, and our guide Sahim took us to one during the hottest and ripest part of the day. All sorts of curing and dying pots have been cast in brick and concrete, surrounded by workers quarters and drying areas. We smelt a lot more dead camel that afternoon than we really were counting on. In the drying area (above right), Kathy and Sahim pose with several skins colored yellow with saffron, a traditionally male color.
Normally, we don't like to use guides, but Fes is such a huge tangle of little streets and alleys -- even the word labyrinth is too pale of a term for it. You can't find a comprehensive map of the medina, and we're not too sure how much it would help anyway. However, those who live here have every turn and nook in their brain, and to watch a local sprint through the bedlam to a destination is sight in itself. Also, a good guide can melt away all the language and security issues, and Sahim despite his tender age is indeed a good guide.
While each of Fes' 800 mosques are off limits to infidels like us, we were able to visit a Koranic school (above) where services are held. While old and weathered, the detailing was intricate, with the walls themselves shouting out verses of the Koran. Water is central to Islam-- they believe that babbling water is the sound of heaven -- the school was built around a courtyard at the center of which was a fountain used by the faithful to wash before worshipping.
We were able to sample some quite fine Moroccan cuisine in a restaurant housed in a beautiful 17th century house. We sat at the bottom of a three story tall light well, with ornate tiles, carvings and reliefs all around. Paid for it, too.
Finally, we succumbed to Fes' ultimate tourist trap and bought ourselves a Moroccan carpet. Ours came from a woman's weaver co-operative where the weaver gets fully half of the carpet's purchase price. It takes one weaver woman 18 months to finish such a carpet, and we're sure our weaver was quite happy as she had only just completed our carpet that week (immediate sales are soooo gratifying). Prices are controlled by the state and aren't cheap, but it sure beats the 300% markup the importers tack on to bring these carpets into the US.
Wealth in Morocco
One couldn't help notice that, in the French-built Ville Nouvelle, of the inequities of the distribution of wealth that scars Moroccan society. Not that American society is any shining example, but the density of brand new Mercedes and BMWs is higher in Fes' Ville Nouvelle than it is in Marin county back in California! Seems that if you make it in Moroccan society, it's your duty to rub your status icons right in the noses of all of your dirt poor countrymen that surround you. Real shame, as that behavior simply ships badly needed cash right out of the country and into the hands of the Europeans. Not that Americans have clean hands in that matter; we siphon off billions from third world countries via our chain restaurants, military hardware, and through computer and movie software.
We would have liked to have brought you more pictures, but unfortunately Jim's flu blossomed into a technicolor lung and ear infection, knocking him out of commision the last day we were in Fes. Shame, as we would have loved to wander around further in the medina getting lost and discovering even more new and unusual stuff.
Due to travel convenience and simply because we wanted to visit again, we did make another trip to Fes for an evening. You may find the pictures there enjoyable.