Born in England, travel was in my blood from the beginning.My family was on the road working in agricultural shows and from the start I was travelling all over England and Wales even when in a pushchair! Although I am sure I was kicking and screaming at least some of the time. ...Find out more!
This is a very good question, and quite subjective depending upon your tolerance for hassle. Fes is probably the most aggravating city in the whole of Morocco. It seems that some of its residents are hell bent on driving everyone insane with their non-stop entreaties to buy something or be your guide. Hashish mister, Cocaine, Women, Camels…. the list goes on and on.
The dichotomy is that it is also one of the most fascinating; from the ancient tanneries to the Madrasa Bou Inania. Whether that is enough to compensate for the obvious downsides I will leave the reader to judge.
Fes is split into several sprawling areas; the one that most visitors see is the old walled city of Fes el Bali and that is where we will start our journey.
Jumping back a little, my day had begun on the morning train from Marrakech as it wound its way through a wonderful varied landscape before finally pulling into the brand new station in Fes. I have to say that the new stations in Morocco are excellent, with free Wi-Fi and clean restrooms, definitely a step up from the old days!
To get to Fes (el Bali from now on) it is easy to grab a taxi from the forecourt of the station, just don’t grab the first one who approaches you. I suggest walking away a little distance and then trying your luck. If there are two or three of you it’s the same price, so split the fare. It won’t be expensive and the distance is too far, and may be unsafe, to walk.
Aim for the main gate, the Bab Boujloud, around which are a cluster of cheap hotels and hostels, many overpriced, dark and dank but with a couple of gems. Rooms at the popular Hotel Cascade just inside the gate were cheap but frankly grotty to my mind. I found a great little hotel (the Bab Boujloud, just outside the gate) with a single room for 12 Euros including free Wi-Fi, breakfast, private bathroom, TV and AC plus a roof terrace with amazing views over the city. It all depends on your budget of course and your tolerance for wildlife!
Talking about wildlife…Once you leave the sanctuary of your room the vultures descend with obvious glee at the sight of fresh meat; tempting tourist morsels to the slaughter. Calm down, it’s not that bad. If you keep walking and totally ignore them, do not shake hands or engage in any conversation, then they will rapidly lose interest in you and latch on to another sucker. One tactic is to shout at you and complain that you are racist or some such thing. It’s just a ploy to your western guilt so “keep calm and carry on”. Once over that hurdle all that remains is to get lost!
In true traveller tradition you have never visited a medina unless you really, really need to ask directions and you are totally lost. That is half the fun and leads to some interesting diversions as well as a chance to take on a conversation with a local that is not solely commercial. In Fes, even armed with a map, expect this to be the case. Do not be put off by just following your nose (the aromas range from the tempting to the poisonous) and having fun. There is an easy route that takes you in a bit of a circle, just follow the Rue Talaa Kebira down and the Zkak Rouah back. That should be simple enough.
Passing along the narrow streets of the medina you will run into all sorts of craziness. I came across a dentist shop with a range of false teeth for sale, some looked rather used! Camel heads hung from butchers stalls and artisans toiled in little shops building and repairing all manner of things that were required for daily life. Donkeys and carts barged passed shoppers with cries of Balak! Look out! And you had better, they won’t stop.
At the end of the medina close to the river are the tanneries; impressive, stinking, colourful and ancient. Many leather shops will let you look for free from a terrace above; there you will get a great view of the actual work that goes on there without losing all your faculties to the stench. Mint leaves are provided to crush under your nose to hide the pungency. If you are brave, and stupid, a few dirhams dropped into a caretakers hand will get you closer to the action. Personally, I suggest fireman’s breathing apparatus as visitors have been known to become violently ill in proximity to the fumes. Having said all that, it is a must see part of Fes and a great insight to the leather industry. Take a chance as you wander back up the hill to duck down the small alleys left and right to admire the architecture, fountains and hidden treasures.
Another must see is the Bou Inania madersa. Although access is limited to the courtyard the architecture is splendid and a sense of calm prevails from the mayhem outside.
After a hard day fighting the touts and guides, avoiding carpet sellers and keeping your sense of smell intact you deserve a treat. My suggestion is the Café Clock, a wonderfully restored 250 year old building and courtyard with great food, superb coffee and a roof terrace that overlooks the old medina; definitely worth it, an oasis of calm in Fes el Bali.
So there you have it. It’s neither fragrant nor user friendly, it can be hot, dirty and some of its citizens rude. It can also be charming, quirky, delightful and wondrous. Above all it is a challenge, but one I know you are up to!