Our bus stops at a viewpoint on a hill east of the Boulevard Allal El Fessi so our guide can show us a view of the Medina, the old Arab quarter, of Fes from above. Once we enter its narrow pathways there will be no place to offer this perspective, so we grab photos from above before diving into the depths of the old heart of this cultural capital of Northern Africa.
Buildings stand shoulder to shoulder and lean on each other most of the time. Most stand two to three stories high leaving little room for passageways to navigate between them which creates the illusion that we are mice wandering into a narrow maze.
Barely five minutes into the walls of the Medina, I’m grateful that we have a guide. Although there aren’t many choices between passageways, each one burrows deeper into the cluster of constructions leaving me more and more lost.
Every few hundred feet we come to a small courtyard or a wider passageway filled with small shops which allows a momentary glimpse of blue sky before the canyon of buildings closes in above us again.
Our guide leads us through the winding alleyways to the Medrassa Acharatine. Medrasa is the Arabic word for an educational institution and this one was a school for young children. It’s white walls, carved wooden balconies and tadelakt finishes (a plaster mixture of marble dust and egg white) are subtly elegant.
The tiled courtyard of the school is peaceful, and fits with my new understanding of homes and buildings built in the Muslim world. Little importance is placed on the exterior of buildings and are usually built as high plaster, windowless walls forming a solid exterior with only a doorway or two. All of the craftsmanship and emphasis is placed on the design of the interior of the structure where it’s occupants will dwell. Elegant courtyards with intricate tile designs and carved walls and screens surprise those lucky enough to be admired inside.
We carry on through the Medina a little further and stop to peer inside a mosque.
Not far along is a collection of stalls that appears to be the heart of the market- El Bellagine.
And of course there is always the inevitable rug store.
We stop to partake in a glass of mint tea and haggle over floor coverings to the point of frustration, something everyone should do at least once in their lives. To our mutual temporary doubt or regret, we each lug one or more rugs home from this trip and vow to not do this again (for at least the remainder of the day).
We cross the doorway of the mosque and University al Karaouine, the oldest university in the world and peer inside for a photo.
Our group dines on lunch inside a riad, or traditional home with an interior courtyard. With the Islamic emphasis of design being focused on the interior of a home, and not the outward appearance, each new building we enter is always a surprise.
With what seems like a complete lack of forethought, our guide leads us from a delicious and relaxed lunch toward the cramped and foul quarter of the Chouara Tannery. Even with the complimentary sprig of mint we are provided to hold next to our noses as we stand on the balcony over the dye pots, it’s all I can do not to wretch, and I have a very strong stomach.
Imagine the skins of a thousand dead animals, left to soak in rancid water mixed with chemicals and dyes, baking in the sun. Now add to that the stench of heaps of uncollected trash, sweating workers, stray animals and their droppings, and swarms of flies to stir it all together…and you’re starting to get the idea.
I can’t imagine climbing into the pits to stomp down the skins, or to later go fish them out. It must be very hard work, and an interesting thing to watch and smell after admiring the beautiful leatherwork in the souks.
Fes is a feast for all the senses.