A stay in the 9th century medina of Fes
It’s Thursday afternoon. I am currently in Fes – one of the Imperial Cities of Morocco. The medina is absolutely incredible. Built in the 9th century, it has thousands of narrow (narrow is probably too wide of a term to describe the Fes medina) alleys that snake their way through this area of almost two hundred thousand people. While walking along the paths, many of which are over a thousand years old, you get a glimpse into daily life here. Meandering through the markets (or souks as they are called) you find the fruit/vegetable, meat and other food vendors who have their own little cubbyhole to work out of. It gets crowded here during the morning (when locals do their shopping) and evening (when people are heading home from a long day). Patience is a virtue here. You will not get anywhere in a hurry.
Many of the products that Fes is known for (ceramics, woodworking products; garments, etc.) are made by hand here in the medina. There are several tanneries in the medina. Hides, from all over Morocco, are brought here to be washed, dried, dyed and then made into some beautiful handbags, jackets and other leather products. Observing one of the tanneries was very interesting – just seeing its layout was fascinating.
There are no cars allowed inside the medina. Donkeys are used to transport products to market or heavy materials needed for construction work, which is constantly going on. Many of the homes are in need of repair and renovation. The wood beams that support some of the structures are clearly visible as you walk down some of the narrow alleyways. Many Riads, or guesthouses, were purchased, or built by foreign investors (primarily the French because Morocco used to be a French territory and French is widely spoken here). In many cases, the previous structure was demolished and a new riad was built from the ground up.
Trying to navigate the medina on your own, especially on your first visit, can be a daunting task. If you don’t have your bread crumbs, finding your way back can make for a great Mission Impossible episode. Make a wrong turn and you might be finding your way for the next couple of hours or walking in circles. So, I did what every prudent tourist does – I hired my own guide for days one and two. Abdul Haque is a man about my age, I would guess. He’s knowledgeable, has good English-speaking skills and has a humorous personality at times. I enjoyed my time with him. We engaged in numerous conversations about life in this ancient city. He was born in the medina and knows it like the back of his hand – just the kind of person I needed. A half-day tour (4-5 hours) was about 400 to 500 dirhams (about 50 to 60 USD) – well worth the stress-free tour we had. On the walking tour, he showed me the tourist sites located throughout the medina, the back streets where many residents live and few tourists venture and the craft areas where each one seems to have a little portion of the medina carved out. On day two, we walked and drove to a vantage point, which provided a view of the ancient roofline of the 9thcentury medina and covered the middle town area (a newer medina built in the 14thcentury).
I’ve really enjoyed staying in the Moroccan Riad or Dar. They both have a central courtyard that is open to the sky; however, the Riad has a garden, water (such as a fountain) and birds in the courtyard and a Dar does not. These guesthouses provide such a unique Moroccan experience. I couldn’t imagine staying in a typical hotel. Staying in the Riad/Dar, you get to know the staff. When its time to checkout, I feel like they’ve become my family. The staff is so friendly. The facilities themselves are homey and very comfortable. The food is fantastic. This week, I ate lunch a few times in the medina; however, for dinner, I’ve dined at the Dar Faracha Fes (my home this week) every night. Every meal is a home-cooked delight that’s prepared by the staff. Everything is Moroccan from the salads to the entrees to the desserts. Bread is served at just about all meals. Local residents make the bread dough in their own home and then deliver it to one of many public ovens where it’s baked for them. Each resident has their own way to mark their bread so it can be distinguished from other people’s bread. Some of the dishes this week were:
Eggplant (aubergine in French) is typical Moroccan and a specialty in Fes. It has cumin, coriander, salt, black pepper, olive oil, tomatoes (1/2 kg), eggplant (1 kg), and red piment
Cauliflower (shiflor in Arabic) – it’s boiled for 10 minutes, then removed from water and dipped (like French toast) in a batter of raw egg, garlic, black pepper and salt, then removed and fried in hot oil
Fava beans with cumin, onion, garlic, red piment, salt, black pepper, salt butter and cooked for 30 to 35 minutes
Chicken tagine makulle is chicken with onion, saffron, salt, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper and lemon concentrate. We were instructed it’s best to eat this with your fingers.
Veal tagine with burkok (prunes) in a delicious sweet sauce. The name tagine applies to the type of earthenware pot that it’s cooked in – usually sitting on hot coals for an hour or more.
Beef tagine with potatoes and vegetables
Kafta – meatballs in a tomato-based sauce with onions, parsley and spices
Tonight we have lamb with couscous. Couscous is a staple in the local Moroccan diet.
Pastilla with milk, peach, kiwi layered on the pastilla bread (a very thin crepe that was cooked briefly in hot oil)
Mahalabia – a milk pudding with orange juice, flower, sugar and vanilla mixed together and served