Fes, Morocco: History and Mystery

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Fes, Morocco: History and Mystery

By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor

The Bab Bujeloud - photos by Kent St. John

The Bab Bujeloud – photos by Kent St.John

The call to prayers from the muezzins permeated the clear air from several of the minarets in the culverts far below much as they have for 1,200 years. From my perch above, the medina spread in a mustard color from the top of a mountain down, much like a spider’s web.

In researching for my trip I had read that it is very possible to get lost in the city’s web, forever back in time. It is clear why Fes (also spelled Fez) is called the city of ten thousand alleys.

After a week in Marrakech I wanted to delve further into Morocco’s mystique and Fes is its spiritual center. With a deep breath I turned around to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains from Fes’s new airport, it was time to turn back the clock.

Into the Belly

Fes’s importance as a spiritual city was immediately evident by the sheer beauty of the three-gated Bab Boujeloud, outshone only by the full amber moon that dominated from above. Gas lights past the gates glowed and the nightly ritual of cruising had begun. Food stalls wafted spices and it was bewitching.

As if under the spell of an ancient seeker, I was drawn into the medina – the Arab word for city.

Within 50 feet my first choice of narrow alleys to follow forced a decision; all paths looked promising. I simply followed the one with the brightest propane lanterns. As lost as Alice in Wonderland, I gazed at stalls filled with product. Fes has always been a trading city.

Progress was slow walking down the narrow alleys as donkeys laden with goods climbed up, clearly the city’s version of goods distribution. As in the souks of Marrakech, certain areas are for certain products and the most amazing were the food stalls, an endless path of edibles.

Merchants load their goods.

Merchants load their goods.

Food Glorious Food

As fancy as any patisserie in Paris, small stalls were laid out with exotic delicacies, some identifiable others truly strange to my American upbringing. Moroccans take their food very seriously and with falafel stalls interspaced with kabob stalls, it was evident I had entered an ancient version of a mall food court.

A few feet further down a camel head and paws were hung advertising a stall with camel cuts. PETA has no office in Fes. Escargot was at the next stall and smelled garlicky and delicious. They were. At $1.50 I was in Francophile heaven. Fez blends many cultures.

More to my tastes were the stalls of fresh cheeses, baked breads and sweets. The vibrant colors of fruits and candy created a visual kaleidoscope that I had never seen before. Of course the endless opportunity to sip mint tea amidst the chaos was a perfect way to spend hours people watching. Nothing is boring in Fes.

A Little Gift

I suggest that the first item you buy when shopping in Fes is a leather suitcase. Chances are you will need it after seeing the crafts that are available in the stalls. Handcrafted leather and silver goods as well as Berber rugs fill stall after stall. Pottery in every color of the rainbow is plentiful and Fes is known for its refined look, dating back to the ninth century.

A souk or market

A souk or market

In one part of the medina I came across a smell that completely dazed me. A man noticing my look laughed and in perfect English explained that I was in the area where hides are softened and stained. The finished products are fantastic but I was grateful not to be a tanner.

Bargaining is a way of life in the markets and is not as intimidating as it sounds. A basic rule is to half the first price and meet somewhere in the middle. It is all done with a smile and a glass of mint tea is an added upgrade. The glass doesn’t obligate you to buy; just be fair and all will be fine.

A Night in Heaven

Just as in Marrakech the guest houses or riads are astounding and unique to Morocco. A riad has one central item to qualify as such, a courtyard with a fountain. While they come in all price ranges I recommend that you check them out in person.

Two that I looked at were the Riad Sheherazade and Dar Victoria. Both were opulent in furnishings and tile walls and exotic.

The Sheherazade was larger and featured a small pool in the courtyard. The Victoria smaller but just as opulent featured a rooftop terrace that looks out over Fes. Either will give you a feeling of bliss and tranquility.

The Riad Sheherazade
The Riad Sheherazade

If you are looking for more of a hotel stay I recommend the astounding Palais Jamai, overlooking the city. The property is large and done in the unique Moroccan style, complete with gardens and paths to meander. Sitting by the large pool with Fes below is truly a blessing from Allah.

Filling up

I felt like a visiting Pasha as I dined at the low set tables amidst pillows at Dar El Ghalia, a riad built from a converted 18th century palace. Drinks in the picturesque courtyard were a perfect start to an amazing meal.

Numerous dishes of salads started the marathon meal. As well as the national dish of Lamb tagine there was a spectacular chicken dish named, “Her Majesty’s Turban.”

It was aptly named as the perfectly roasted chicken sat on a pile of golden egg noodles. Dinner here is a long event and punctuated with periods of relaxation.

An escort from the nearest taxi stand is recommended as the Ghalia is off the beaten track; you can also be escorted back after dinner.

One of the world’s most romantic dining destinations is in Fes and is called La Maison Blue. For more than a hundred years the same family has operated the hotel and restaurant.

Moroccan boys in the cobblestone streets
Moroccan boys in the cobblestone streets

After a stunning meal the chance to recline and listen from your alcove to the North African sounds of gnawa is an unbeatable Fes opportunity.

Melting Pot

From its very inception Fes was known as a place of tolerance, the founder Edris II was born of an Arab father and Berber mother. It was to Fes that those expelled from Cordoba Spain fled centuries ago. It has always been a city of education and was raised to an imperial city in 1250.

The Karaouiyine Mosque is one of the oldest and illustrious mosques in the world and remains the seat of the Muslim university. Pope Sylvester II (909-1003) was taught in the city. Even today much can be learned from exploring this magical Moroccan city, culture, history and art are evident in any direction. Take a trip back in time; you may just learn something about the future.

Wanna Go?

A gnawa musician
A gnawa musician

Royal Air Moroc flies from NYC to Casablanca and then on to Fes. It is a 6 ½ hour flight to Casablanca then another 45 minutes to Fes. Royal Air Moroc’s planes were modern with good service and timely departures.

Riads (Guest Houses)

Palais Jamai
The finest hotel in the city with the best services; live royally.

Riad Sheherazade
An oasis in Fes that will satisfy the most discerning traveler, one of the larger riads in the city.

Dar Victoria
Small gem completely done in rich Moroccan style, centrally located. Tel. 212 (0) 35 63 00 24

Dar El Ghalia
Live in luxury from the past; wonderful dining completes the package.

La Maison Blue
The place with the biggest reputation worldwide; enjoy at the very least a great dinner.

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Kent St John

Kent St John

Kent St. John was GoNOMAD's Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012.Kent enjoyed travel "with discrimination and an appreciation of subtleties," always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.