Tuesday June 27, 2017

Exploring The Old And New of Fez

Written by Robert Groothuis
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Fez, Morocco

Off The Tourist Route, Fes-el-Bali, Morocco

As my train from Tangier rolled into the station at Fez, I expected to be greeted by hoards of touts with offers of taxis and hotels.  However, the forecourt area was deserted.  After finally finding a taxi, I attempted to explain where I wanted to head to, though unfortunately the driver made out that he only spoke Arabic or French.

Thankfully, another driver came to help and after much hand waving and pointing, we were under way heading along the crowded early evening streets of the Ville Nouvelle.

Hotel Renaissance turned out to be just as my guide book had described; basic.  But at the equalivient of five Euros per night I couldn’t complain.

“In Arab world we drink tea, please join us”, said one of the men standing at the reception desk. 
  "Morocco’s most popular sport," he continued, staring intently at local football game on a small TV.

The following morning I ventured out around the corner onto Boulevard Mohammed V and sat down at a corner café.  In my limited French I managed to order myself a crepe and café au lait.  A Randy Dutchman..... no that came out wrong, a Dutchman named Randy was sitting next to me and had lived in Fez for the past couple of years.  He gave me some tips on what there was to see, how much to pay and more importantly how to attract the attention of the waiter when it was time to pay.

We walked toward the tourist information office, which turned out to be shut. A man approached wearing a traditional white dishdash and explained that he was an official government tourist guide.  Ali, swiftly produced his ID card and his price of 150 Dirham seemed a fair price for a guide around
Fes el-Bali the Medina or old city.

Ali and I jumped into one of the many old Peugeot, Petit Taxis passing by.  We headed up to Borj Sud, an old hill top fortress which gave as a sweeping view over the walled Medina below us. 

I listened carefully as Ali quickly explained many historical facts, pausing every so often to check that I understood and reassuring me how important I was being his customer.  We entered through the Bab el-Ftouh gate and seemed to be immediately plunged back in time 300 years.

This first area of the Medina was mostly livestock, small ramshackle stalls with men sitting outside them, who were more willing to strike a bargain over a fresh chicken or a rabbit.  Making our way along narrow alleyways, we dodged rickety carts pulled by donkeys and crowds of locals going about their daily business.  If it hadn’t been for Ali I would have been hopelessly lost by this point.  I had also heard that once you were seen to be with a guide, other touts would not bother you. It's definately a good idea to find your own Ali when visiting this city.

We walked passed myriads of merchants for spice, jewellery, furniture, textiles and coppersmiths.  Just to remind me that it was still 2005, every so often we’d pass by mobile phone and TV traders, who seemed to attract large crowds and frantic discussions over prices.

After stopping to show me one of the traditional leather tanneries, Ali announced that it was time for his mid-day prayers and left me with his friend who just happened to run a carpet shop.  No sooner than I had my glass of hot apple tea in my hand then the hard sell started, producing a book of past customer comments that even included an entry from a couple from Mt Maunganui (my home town in New Zealand's North Island).

I decided to move on as my host seemed to be getting infuriated by his lack of success in selling me a carpet. As politely as I could I left the shop to find Ali waiting outside.

We visited a Koran school with students going about their daily studies, he pointed out some of the ornate woodwork and tile mosaics hundreds of years old. The green ones indicated Islam and the blue ones for Fez.

Finally, we approached the famous Kairaouine Mosque.  Although one of the largest in Morocco, sadly it is off limits to non-Muslims.

Dye Vats Old Medina Fez

Dye Vats, Old Medina, Fez

Gateway To Old Medina

Bab el-Ftouh Gate, Old Medina

Ali then announced that he had to leave to attend to other matters.  He dropped me off at the Bab Bou Jeloud gate and after giving me a few basic directions, sped off in a taxi.  I had found the old Medina so overwhelming that the four hours I had spent wandering around was more than enough.

I paused to relax in the Café de la Noria in the shady Bou Jeloud Gardens. I dediced to visit the old Jewish Synagogue and cemetery. A number local kids were only too willing to show me the way for a small fee.

From there, I carried on toward the new city, passing by the Royal Palace and in deep contrast a McDonalds. The wide tree lined avenues and boulevards built by the French earlier last century rolled into view.

That night, crowds of well dressed men and women strolled up and down the pavements and occupied crowded cafes to consume strong coffee.  Before retiring for the evening, I snacked on a Pastilla, a type of doughy chicken filled pie, dusted with cinnamon and sugar.

I met an early morning train to Marrakech back toward the main tourist route.  Throughout the remainder of my time in Morocco, I would always reflect on the nostalgia of the old medina of Fez.

Fez As Seen From Borj Sud

Fez As Seen From Borj Sud

Old Medina, Fez

Merchants, Old Medina, Fez

Workshop, Old Medina, FezWorkshop, Old Medina, Fez

Mosaics, Old Medina Fez

Mosaics, Old Medina Fez

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco


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“No”, gasps the women behind the counter, as I hand over my passport and paperwork.  In an attempt at her best English she replies, “You need to sign out of Ecuador first”.  My heart sinks for the second time this evening.  The man ahead of me from the bus turns around and interrupts in English, “You need to return to Ecuador border control to sign out, first”.

“30 minutes, that way” he continued, pointing back in the direction we had just traveled from.  “The bus driver says he can take your backpack and you can collect it from the depot in Tumbes”. 

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