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Gettling lost in Fès

Posted on 17th January 2008. No Comment

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Accessible, and yet remote; Morocco is a gateway country to the Islamic world, and now that Stelios and his budget airline counterparts have started running cheap flights to the North African country, people are travelling there in ever greater numbers. But of the ancient cities in Morocco, it is Marrakech that is grabbing all the attention. Perhaps it is because of the alluring name, and the images it conjures up of ostentatious princes and their harems, or the mysteries of the Islamic world. Perhaps it is simply because that is where most of the flights from Europe land. Either way, taking a stroll around the sights of Marrakech can leave one feeling that what you are seeing isn’t what is really there, but a facade. It seems as if none of it is real. The performers in the Djemaa el Fna are there solely for the tourist’s gaze; the same goes for the plush cafes surrounding the square, and the souks in the Medina. None of it would be there the way it is if it were not for mass tourism. The real Marrakech doesn’t seem to be there. It is hidden; inaccessible to the traveller. The result is similar to an North African Disneyland.

But if one looks further afield it is not hard to discover a side of Morocco that isn’t lost to the vices of mass tourism. A day’s travel by train will bring you to the spectacular city of Fès. Fès is without doubt Morocco’s most interesting and intact city. Unlike Marrakech, you get the feeling that the authentic Fès is accessible. You walk though its narrow streets, catching a glimpse through a crack in the door of someone beavering away at a sewing machine, or an old man carving a piece of wood. Here, tourism is incidental to the life of the city. Fès exists for itself and its citizens. The tourist is a fly on the wall; a privileged spectator of a way of life that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, and will continue in exactly the same way when you leave.

Into the Medina
Like most Moroccan towns, Fès is split into two parts; the new town, comprising of modern hotels and mock-western restaurants; and the old town, where the medina can be found, along with the real heart of the city. The medina in Fès is surrounded by high walls and has five gates. Bab Boujeloud, the city’s eastern most gate, is like a point of no return. From here, narrow alleyways wind their way into the Medina. Tall buildings tower over the streets shutting out much of the light (although not the heat) and making one oblivious to a world outside of the medina. The shops lining the alleys overflow onto the streets offering the passer-by a glimpse of wares and tares ranging from a cows leg, to nail scissors.

Stepping into one of these alleys is like jumping into a fast flowing river. The quantity of people jostling along sucks you in. There is no use fighting it; the best thing to do is just let yourself be taken by the crowd, to forget where you were headed and just see where the tide of people finally deposits you. Getting lost in the medina is inevitable, its just a question of which manner you chose to get lost. The tourist office has tried to be helpful by putting up colour coded signs which are meant to indicate various routes through the medina, but they are more of a hindrance than a help.

There are no cars in the medina; the narrow streets simpley aren’t wide enough. All transport is therefore either done on foot or on horseback. Bedraggled horses plod up and down the main thoroughfares loaded with crates of Coca Cola, intricately tied to their backs, and with bits of old car tires on their feet instead of horseshoes to stop them slipping on the stone floors. Of course getting a horse through the crowded alleys is rather tricky. As you bob along in the human tide, the shout ‘Balak Balak’ can be heard approaching. This is the warning cry of the men guiding the horses. I believe there is no literal translation, but its meaning is something along the lines of ‘You had better get out the way, otherwise you are going to get trampled by this here horse. I’ve warned you now, so I’m not even going to try and avoid you. Tough luck if you get trampled underfoot.’ Its usually therefore a good idea to get our of the way.

However, as spectacular as the city may be, the best thing about Fès is dusk. At around 6pm, thousands upon thousands of swallows emerge from their nests in the decaying city walls, and dusty attics. They fill the skies as they swoop and swerve, trying to get a mouthful of the insects which emerge as the day begins to cool. Watching this spectacle from a rooftop terrace, one can be forgiven for being wary of being hit by one of the birds, but even at such speeds, the swallows are obviously under total control, often passing just a few feet before your eyes. Couple this spectacle with a panoramic view over the dilapidated medina, a setting sun, and the evening call to prayer from the Medina’s dozens of minarets, and you have what must the one of the Arab world’s best offerings.

When we travel, most of us want a taste of what a place is actually like; an authentic tourist experience. In some places, the demands of tourism have led to a display of what is deemed authentic, but which is really just a display of contrived culture to entice the tourist dollar. Fès in not one of those places. The people of the city, and especially the medina are too busy getting on with their own lives to worry about the fact that you are there. As a result, the visitor is afforded a glimpse of a living city that changes little as a result of the tourist’s arrival. The desire to see the ‘real city’ is perhaps a term which is fading into the realms of traveller clichés, but there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong in wanting to see a place as it is, or as close to it as possible. Fès is a city where this can be done. It is, if not insightful or enlightening, then at least a fascinating experience.

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  • Anonymous said:

    Good article. I need a holiday.

  • narayani said:

    Nice article, makes me all nostalgic for Morocco.

    Re the streets in the medina, I seem to remember being
    stuck between a donkey, a cart, a motorbike and two
    bicycles… and several cats. Did anyone else notice the
    abundance of cats in Morocco?

  • Paul said:

    Really fascinating article. I need to get away somewhere, Marrakech did sound promising but now I’m not too sure. Would you recommend Fes over Marrakech?

  • Peter said:

    Yes, definitely. If you do go to Fes, you should make sure
    you dont stay in the new town. There are some good, basic
    hostels in the Medina around Bab Boujeloud.