We returned to Morocco in 2008 lured by the medieval city of Fes, in particular the images we had seen of the tanneries. Staying in an atmospheric riad in the centre of the medina we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the maze of ancient streets lined with shops and workshops.
We stayed in Riad Numero 9 which must be the best located in Fes to see the old city. It is beautifully decorated in Moroccan style and we were supremely well looked after by Bruno Ussel, Atika and her sister. They were attentive but unobtrusive, offering tea and refreshments whenever we were indoors. They even brought us soup one lunchtime with excellent bread.
Breakfasts on the roof terrace with great views over Fes - one evening Bruno brought us wine, olives and nuts here. The evening call to prayer is an unforgettable experience. Many voices raised, seeming to compete for attention. On the horizon every evening black smoke signals the end of the day for the kiln workers.
Bruno makes a big effort to provide authentic Moroccan food and we enjoyed some really unusual dishes - for instance excellent spiced pumpkin omelette at breakfast and local spiced vegetables at dinner, along with tajine which we both love - lamb with apricots and prunes, though only mildly spiced. We had a couple of evening meals here with authentic home-made Moroccan food, sitting in the covered courtyard of the riad, beautifully candle-lit.
Cannot recommend this place highly enough. We happened to stay in two of the three rooms as there was a slight mix-up with our booking. This was no problem to us and at the end of our stay Bruno would not take payment for the meals in compensation! Of the two rooms, we actually preferred the one with separate bathroom to the junior suite with en suite bathroom because the shower was more efficient and we weren't really taken by the bead curtain separating the en suite toilet from the bedroom area!
The rooms look onto the courtyard so there is a slight lack of privacy as it is possible to see across into other rooms! But this is the only place we have ever stayed where we felt as though we had been welcomed into a home, and where we even felt comfortable wandering around in slippers and curling up on the sofas downstairs with a good book. And the house cat Tash is a delight - hours of fun with a bouncing cork!
A taxi from the airport to the old city was met by a porter who took our luggage in a handcart and led us through the maze of streets to the Riad. It was late afternoon and the Medina was buzzing - a great first impression.
Fes is three cities combined and the oldest of these, Fes el-Bali, straddles the Fes River. On the east bank is the original settlement of Muslim refugees fleeing persecution in Andalusia in the 9th century, hence its name Al-Andalous. The west side of the river became home to Muslim refugees from Tunisia who named their settlement Kairaouine, the name of their home city in Tunisia.
The city came to dominate Moroccan trade, politics, religion and culture under the Merenids in the thirteenth century when Fes el-Jdid was built, but began to decline in the sixteenth century.
Under the colonial rule of the French, Fes was declared a protected city and the Ville Nouvelle was created. The focus of political and economic activities moved to Rabat and the west coast.
The wall surrounding Fes el-Bali is in a pretty good state and is pierced by many gates (babs). Some of these are very ornately decorated, others quite plain, but they all speak of the past wealth and standing of the city.
Fes is, as the Rough Guide says, the oldest of the ancient Moroccan Imperial cities, and the most complete medieval city of the Arab world.
In the heart of the old city, the trading centre or Medina, Riad Numero 9 lies between the two main streets: Talaa Kebira and Talaa Seghira. We were a little apprehensive about venturing into the maze of the Medina, everyone will tell you that you will get lost. However, armed with a map provided by Bruno we felt like natives after a couple of days!
This city really is still medieval in its character - the streets haven't changed for centuries. Many of the ancient arts and crafts are still practised in specific areas such as dyers, metal workers and furniture makers.
Donkeys and mules are the usual form of goods transport in the narrow streets and alleys. These creatures are loaded high with all kind of things: crates of bottles, huge cardboard packs, plastic sacks of street rubbish.
There are various food markets and it is noticeable that everything is beautifully presented. Vast amounts of vegetables, colourful spices and herbs, all kinds of housewares from the humblest nail to the most dazzling wedding chairs. Huge wire baskets full of tangerines being wheeled through the streets - saw one full of snails! A leather souk, a slipper souk for this local footwear which everyone wears - again Riad Numero 9 came to our aid as Atika took us to a couple of shops and helped us purchase good quality slippers and a tajine which I was determined to take home! There is, of course, also tourist tat, but not very much.
The streets are noisy smelly places, full of life: small boys with trays of freshly baked bread balanced on their heads, one carrying a bowl of hot soup, women in their long gowns shopping - three haggling with a trader over live chickens tied by their legs in a bundle, almost all the stall holders are male. The whole area is an endlessly fascinating place and we spent hours just wandering around.
Talaa Kebira runs from the Bab Bou Jeloud right to the great Kairaouine Mosque. The street is packed with shops and eager merchants.
Many fowl are sold live and at one chicken stall we saw the live chickens held in cages and slaughtered and plucked by some infernal machine - talk about fresh! A meat souk, entering Talaa Kebira from an alleyway near Bab bou Jeloud, where carcasses hang up and the odour is very strong. Cloven-hoofed limbs, sausages, tripe (I think!) - even a camel head suspended from a hook!
Several fondouks can be found on the street, the buildings where traders from outside the city would stay. These are the caravanserais of Fes - typically a courtyard building on several floors, with stabling for animals on the ground floor. The most famous is the Nejjarine Fondouk.
There is one man who still makes the traditional wooden buckets and he kindly allowed me to take his photograph. His workshop/shop is one of the many traditional types remaining here. They seem to be a large space recessed into a wall with two wooden shutters for the front. These are opened, one hinging up and the other down, when his shop is open. This type is typically on the larger streets. Others are more like stalls with shutters that can be pulled down or closed like doors, for instance in the slipper souk at the east end of Talaa Kebira.
The Attarine Medersa, right at the eastern end of Talaa Kebira (the Souk el Attarin), was closed for renovation during our visit. Second only to the Bou Inania it is said to have beautiful decorative work in zellij, wood and stucco. All we could see was the fine entrance!
Turning left here we wandered along until we eventually came to the beautiful doors to the Mosque and Mausoleum of Sidi Ahmed Tijani.
On Talaa Kebira is the beautiful Bou Inania médersa. Médersas are Islamic places of learning, or places where students would live while attending the University.
Bou Inania, built during the time of the Merenids in the 1350s, is particularly beautiful. A marble floored courtyard with a central fountain is surrounded by intricately decorated walls: beautifully carved cedar, ceramic tiling (zellij) flowing, black Kufi script.
The building surrounding the courtyard has two floors. The upper floor is occupied by the students' small rooms. The ground floor has halls on three sides, the one opposite the entrance containing the mihrab - a niche which indicates the direction of Mecca.
The minaret of the médersa mosque is adorned with green ceramic. High windows are glazed with coloured glass and many arches and entrances are carved with the beautiful stalactite decoration, reminiscent of the Alhambra and other Andalusian Islamic buildings. The carved stonework on the walls is intricate and exquisite.
Almost opposite the Bou Inania médersa is a curious clock made from wood and metal set high into the wall. Said to be a water clock, with brass bowls set in windows, no-one seems quite sure how it worked.
Nearby, down a narrow alleyway, is the Café Clock. We had several snacks and one or two meals here, everything was very good but we can highly recommend the camel burger and the lemon tart. From the roof terrace of the café is an excellent view of the Bou Inania minaret and of the bustling street below.
The café is an eccentrically decorated traditional courtyard house and more than just an eating place: it has a library, a small but cosy bar, and regular entertainment and events such as belly dancing classes and calligraphy courses.
Moulay Idriss I was the first ruler of Morocco but it was his son, Moulay Idriss II, who founded the city of Fes. His shrine, the Zaouia, is venerated among Muslims, and non-Muslims cannot enter.
The Zaouia is just off the Souk el Attarin near the Kairaouine Mosque and can be quite difficult to find as it is surrounded by a maze of alleyways, though there are usually children who will help. It has a very beautiful courtyard with fine arches, for us only glimpsed from outside.
The Kairaouine Mosque, named after refugees from Kairawan in Tunisia, is the most important in the country, governing for instance, the times of Ramadan, and the University is one of the oldest having been founded in 857A.D.
We could not, of course, enter the mosque, but it was possible to see into the courtyard and take photographs for a small fee.
It is a beautiful, tranquil space with fine examples of traditional ceramics and wood and delicate stone carving.
The metal workers area is in Seffarine Square. Here men hammer out huge bowls in copper and brass and in the covered alleyways leading off there are welders and wrought iron craftsmen at work. Nearby is a woodworking area with the sweetest of smells in the Medina.
The entrance to the fourteenth century Kairaouine Library is on Seffarine Square. Also founded by refugees from Kairawan, it once held an immense collection of Islamic scholarly books. Though many of the books were dispersed in the seventeenth century it remains one of the most important Islamic libraries in the world.
Here too can be found the Seffarine Médersa, the oldest médersa in the city (1280), where a student persuaded us to part with 30 dirham to show us around. He was very enthusiastic, explaining his love of learning while leading us up narrow stairways past student rooms and cooking smells to the rooftop to see the courtyards - in truth not much to see - I suspect we didn't actually see the oldest part of the médersa which is said to be very decayed, but rather only the newer student quarters.
On to Sebbaghene to the dyers souk but there was no colour - only black dyeing going on while we were there, rather grim. Further on past this tiny street we came to more fresh produce areas: fresh cheeses laid out on bright green leaves and a fish souk with no odour at all.
It was photographs of the tanneries which had first stimulated our interest in Fes. On our first attempt we were snaffled by a child who took us to a leather shop whose roof overlooked the Chorbi tanneries. Vats of black and white liquids and hundreds of hanging skins - it looks a hellish place to work.
This beautifully restored eighteenth century building would have been a rather high class fondouk, serving the richer travelling merchants. Fondouks were the places where merchants stayed on their trade routes. It has wonderful carved wood inside and a magnificent entrance beside a beautiful tiled wall fountain. No doubt the central courtyard was once open to the sky.
Appropriately, it is now a Museum of Woodworking.
Typically living quarters were on the upper floors and animals were stabled on the ground floor where meals were also prepared and eaten. Here news from distant lands would be discussed and stories told. This one looks a little high class for open air dining around a fire though.
The Jewish Mellah lies outside of Fes el-Jdid - the massive Royal city built by the Merenids after they conquered Fes in 1248. Bab Semmarin leads south out of Fes el-Jdid to the Mellah.
This quarter was named after either the salty river, Oued el-Maleh, or the job given to the Fassi Jews of salting the heads of criminals before they were hung on the gates. Jewish districts in other Moroccan cities followed and are also called Mellah.
Very few, if any, Jewish families still live here. Centuries ago they lived under the protection of the Sultan and established goldsmithing businesses. Jewellery shops are in abundance here. The huge Jewish cemetery is immaculately maintained, the regimented rows of whitewashed tombs an eerie sight at dusk.
We also visited the seventeenth century Ibn Danan Synagogue, guided there from the cemetery by an opportunistic youth! I don't think we would have found it otherwise, though, as the exterior is very inconspicuous. Inside a very enthusiastic caretaker showed us around, including a subterranean mikva or ritual bath. He also opened up the Torah Ark - a large wooden cupboard housing the Torah.
There actually isn't very much of interest to these fourteenth century tombs, but the view of Fes is excellent and the scenes of workers drying hides and wool fascinating.
The tombs lie on a hill to the south of the city and we reached them walking from Bab Bou Jeloud.
All along the roadside workers were spreading out raw wool and there are huge amounts drying on the lower hillsides - the upper hillsides seem to be reserved for drying hides.
On another afternoon we came back for a drink on the terrace of the Hotel des Merenides overlooking the panorama of the city - a great place to relax if it's not too windy!
I was keen to see Islamic gardens as I like their geometrical style and use of water. Fez has very helpful routes marked by coloured signs throughout the Medina so we followed the green Andalusian Palaces and Gardens route.
The Bou Jeloud Gardens were under renovation during our visit but they look lovely through the gate - straight intersecting paths, fountains and water channels. These are probably the best examples of Islamic gardens in the vicinity but I had hopes of seeing at least the bones of some in the grounds of old palaces in the city.
Dar Pacha Tazi was unimpressive. The Mokri Palace, however, is quite something. It covers a large area and has extensive, though derelict, gardens with fountains and terraces; they could be wonderful if renovated. The palace was obviously very grand in its day but the parts we saw are rather decayed now. In one glass-roofed internal courtyard families were living in the adjoining rooms. Other parts of the palace are in a better state of repair and can be visited via a different entrance though this is apparently difficult to find and is of more architectural than horticultural interest.
We then made our way to Riyad Mokri which is now the Institute of Traditional Building Crafts.
The gardens here were the best of rather a poor bunch, though they too were rather run down and not a great example of the style and none of the fountains or rills were working.
In fact, some of the best gardens we saw were at the Batha Museum.
On our wanderings on the Andalusian Palaces and Gardens trail we'd passed Dar el Ghalia and decided to reserve a table for dinner as we'd heard very good things about it. We also knew that it was exceedingly difficult to locate, even in the daylight, so we weren't about to go alone into the dark alleyways in this part of the city. We arranged with the restaurant that they would send someone to guide us from Numero 9. We also ordered the food that we wanted - rather unusual but at least it ensures you get what you want. I suspect all the ingredients were purchased that afternoon in the markets.
Dar el Ghalia is a Riad developed from an eighteenth century palace. Its interior is very traditional Moroccan and the staff carry this through with traditional Moroccan dress. Our guide was friendly and efficient and we arrived at the unobtrusive door in the narrow alley without mishap, though it is very dark in places on the route and the ground is broken.
We were taken into the central courtyard which is triple height to the glass roof and to our table in a little salon off to one side, also triple height and looking onto the courtyard. The fountain was switched on and we really began to feel well-looked after. It turned out that we were the only people eating there that night so we had superb service - though I would imagine that it is always good here.
I had Pastilla Pigeaneux which I wanted to try again after loving it in Marrakech. This one was superb: about 12cm diameter dusted with fine sugar, crisp, very thin pastry with dark pigeon meat and fruits and mildly spiced with cinnamon - truly excellent and I think the best thing I had during the whole holiday. This was followed by a lamb tajine with peas and olives, again mildly spiced, the meat beautiful and dropping off the bone. Andrew started with harira - a Moroccan soup with tomatoes and chick peas in its traditional form but this version also had chunks of meat. Then an unusual chicken, lemon and olive tajine. A bottle of Moroccan Cabernet Sauvignon to drink and bottled water, as always. Andrew couldn't resist dessert: crispy crépes in a milky sauce with succulent orange slices. We finished with coffee and Moroccan pastries: marzipan, one pastry stuffed with dates and honey, a very light biscuit and a coconut biscuit.
Everything was absolutely excellent and highly recommended. We were guided back to Numero 9 through the darkened streets full and highly satisfied. The fountain was switched off as we left.
This museum of Fassi artifacts was the summer palace of Sultan Moulay Abd al-Aziz. Built towards the end of the nineteenth century it is a cool oasis in the city.
The museum has some interesting pieces: costumes, rugs and everyday items, and the rooms themselves are worth seeing, with some fine ceilings, zellij and wooden doorways.
The palace is set around a large rectangular garden, renovated to its original plans. Arcades surround the space with a tiled courtyard at each end, fountains, water channels and an abundance of plants and shady trees. By far the best-preserved garden we saw.
We had seen a photograph of these tanneries and thought it looked so interesting we had to come and see for ourselves. This is where the process of turning tough animal hides into soft leather for slippers and jackets begins, a practice dating back to medieval times and still going on in the medieval heart of Fes.
The sight is quite amazing: barefoot men in shorts knee deep in vats of dye, others spreading skins anywhere there is space, washing the skins in a covered corner before the dyeing process.
The sheep, goat and cattle skins are first cured, softening the leather, in a solution which includes pigeon droppings - cattle urine was originally used and the new solution can only be marginally better in smell! The hides are then laid on every available surface to dry before the dyeing process. Traditionally vegetable dyes are used: poppy for red, turmeric yellow, henna orange, indigo blue and mint green. We were told by the owner of the leather shop on whose roof we were standing that natural dyes are still used.
There are some men wearing overalls and rubber boots and I would guess these are formen or overseers. Otherwise there was really no protective gear in evidence.
One of the reasons the tanneries are located on the outskirts of the medina is access to water - the other is to isolate as far as possible the dreadful smell! This is horrendous and sprigs of fresh mint were given to us to help mask it.