Into Fes el Bali, the Incredible Fez Medina

No cars in the medina, Stuff's moved about by hand, in carts or on donkeys
No cars in the medina, Stuff's moved about by hand, in carts or on donkeys

Zagan the motorhome remains happily ensconced in the airy, hassle-free Camping Diamant Vert a few kilometers south-west of the old town of Fes, the UNESCO-listed Fez Medina. British-registered motorhomes make up half of the vans here at the moment and there are relatively few French camping cars to be see. A wheelchair-bound German chap has arrived to one side of us, impressively alone and towing a trailer with what appears to be a small 4×4 truck complete with crane in the back so he can take his chair with him.

Morroco! Famous for high quality carpets, among many other things.
Morroco! Famous for high quality carpets, among many other things.

When Ju and I last visited Fes, five years ago, we took a guided tour of the medina, and were quite amazed at the place. Since then we’ve visited a fair few other old towns across Morocco and Tunisia (I even wrote a medina survival guide at one point), but Fes remains the one which has presented the biggest impact to us. When Phil and Jules said they were interested in doing a tour of the old town here, we were more than happy to join ’em.

Fes Old Town
Fes Old Town

Guiding in Morocco is big business, and you can almost spot the guides by their shining, new cars. There are a fairly limited number of official guides, the ones who know what they’re talking about, can speak various languages and have passed the exams to prove it. There are, no doubt, a good number of unofficial guides too, who risk fines or imprisonment if caught. Given the fact their families might suffer hardship if these ‘faux guides’ don’t seek out work, it’s understandable they’re willing to take the risk.

Fes
Fes

Since arriving in Fes we’ve had three offers of guides. One was from our French neighbours, who’d sourced their guy through a friend. He cost 200 Dh (about £16) for the both of them, including transport to and from the campsite, and afterwards our neighbour advised he was excellent but only spoke French. We were also offered a guide by a tout in the new town, who quoted a price of 100 Dh (£8), which sounded too cheap to be an official guide. Finally our British/Kiwi neighbours had used the guide attached to the campsite (his name is Elouafi, and he pays the campsite 10% of his income for exclusive access to us lot), and had paid 350 Dh if I remember rightly, about £28. We met Elouafi (who asked us to call him ‘Wafi’) one evening at the site, he spoke good English and quoted a price of 600 Dh for the four of us, which he reduced to 500 Dh when we asked for a discount. In the end that’s what we went for, and got a 6 hour tour for about £10 a head. I’m fairly sure we could have got a much cheaper price, but the tour was great and having easy access to a Berber to ask all of our burning questions was very useful.

Us four (plus Tigger) at the Royal Palace
Us four (plus Tigger) at the Royal Palace

The tours seem to follow a similar pattern: depending on where you start off, you either head to the Royal Palace first, or to a viewpoint overlooking the city. The palace is only viewable from the outside, no public access is possible and we have to make do with admiring the enormous metal-clad ornate gates. The palace grounds are huge, large enough for an aircraft landing strip within the walls, but even so the king only spends a fortnight a year there. Next to the palace is the Jewish medina, where Jews long resided since being kicked out of Spain some centuries back.

Crafts are practised in the open or in tiny workshops around the medina
Crafts are practised in the open or in tiny workshops around the medina

Wafi took us to a quieter area of the viewpoint over the city, alongside a sprawling cemetery where we stood and admired the clustered-together city from above. Getting permission from Wafi we wandered into the cemetery to look around and get some photos, which seemed to cause some issues with the guardian. I recall being told in no uncertain terms to exit a cemetery in Tunisia, and I’ve a feeling us non-Muslims aren’t really welcome in these sensitive areas.

The cemetery above Fes
The cemetery above Fes

Next up is the medina itself, which defies description. You have to come and see for yourself to believe such an anachronism really exists. I always get the feeling it’s some kind of giant Hollywood-esque studio, or at least it’s perpetuated entirely as eye, nose and ear candy for us astonished Westerners. It isn’t, of course, it can’t be, it’s far too large and complex, although I’m fairly sure the hard currency which flows through us does no harm to keeping the place alive.

A baker in Fes.
A baker in Fes
And a potter. He spun the wheel with his feet
And a potter. He spun the wheel with his feet

Wafi was keen to get across to us facets of Islam and Moroccan politics which we might not have been aware of. The progressive attitude towards women’s rights, the supportive nature of the religion towards the poor, the benign and caring nature of the king. It was clear from the way he spoke, and the things he showed us, that religion here is so integrated into the state and everyday life that it would be almost impossible to separate them without irreparable damage. Islam and Morocco are one and the same thing. Although he speaks good English, the words didn’t always make sense though, as he puzzled me various times (which is frankly fairly easy to do) talking about karma and the complex relationships between men and women.

Phil and Jules using mint to prevent Tigger's nose from over heating
Phil and Jules using mint to prevent Tigger’s nose from falling off from the whiff of pigeon poop
Workers at the tannery co-operative in Fes
Workers at the tannery co-operative in Fes
The Fez Tanneries
The Fez Tanneries
Leather is laid out all over the city to dry
Leather is laid out all over the city to dry

The intensity of the tour was lessened a second time in, and having seen a few other medina. They all present a complex picture of ageless squalor and gnarled hands, a cacophony of shouts and sounds, gentle shoves to get out of the way, stench and whiffs of tempting foods, flashing reflections from bright things alongside crumbling grimy walls and dirty paint, incredibly intricate stucco and enough sights to keep your head spinning and rapidly filling camera busy for a month. Less of an intensity: yes, but intense nevertheless. I’m glad to be home, it’s draining being in there.

No cars in the medina, Stuff's moved about by hand, in carts or on donkeys
No cars in the medina, Stuff’s moved about by hand, in carts or on donkeys
A somewhat out-of-control donkey?
A somewhat out-of-control donkey?
Eggs being carried, carefully, along a busy alley
Eggs being carried, carefully, along a busy alley

Another thing all medina have in common: the experienced sales tactics of the Arabs and Berbers. These guys aren’t known as the best salesmen in the world for nothing. That said, us camper vanners aren’t known as the tightest gits in the world for nothing either, and our vans remain free of any new carpets (Arab or Berber), mosaic, pottery, leather, herbs or spices. Not to say the quality of the stuff on sale wasn’t top notch, we just didn’t need any of it. The only time we got close to buying anything was a leather bag at the famous tanneries, but the prices quoted by Ju and the seller remained way, way too far apart to enable a transaction to be completed. The seller had talked us through the leather preparation process taking place outside, so I offered him a coin when we left, which he refused without looking at it.

A Fes salesman failing to sell anything to Ju
A Fes salesman (who looks a lot like Phil) failing to sell anything to Ju
Ju and Jules having a go at making carpet: a ridiculously hard thing to do by hand. At this place 1300 ladies use looms to work from home, and sell them through a co-operative. The quality looked excellent, and I'm sure they would be worth every penny
Ju and Jules having a go at making carpet: a ridiculously hard thing to do by hand. At this place 1300 ladies use looms to work from home, and sell them through a co-operative. The quality looked excellent, and I’m sure they would be worth every penny
The full-on carpet sales experience, including the mint tea
The full-on carpet sales experience, including the mint tea

For us, that’s Fes done for another year. Note that I haven’t photographed the less appealing aspects of the city, but rest assured they exist. If you come to Fes, you’ll be greeted by sights you may simply not want to see. A mad man sat in his pants rocking, alone. A lady begged for help from our guide, as she was about to be evicted with her daughters and was desperate for help. Animals looked maltreated everywhere, with the exception of the well-groomed police horses. Rubbish is strewn across patches of wasteland around the city. Beggars are everywhere in the medina. People are clearly working under conditions which would cause an outcry in the West. You have to work out how to mentally handle these things for yourself.

Our plan is to stay in the campsite tomorrow, attempt to change one of the headlights on Zagan and fix an inner tube on one of the bikes, and then do some planning for the coming days. The next run is on 29 Jan in Marrakesh, so we’ve three weeks to amble down there, hopefully getting some more training runs in as we go. Everyone except me has recovered well from yesterday’s exertions, and I’m not surprised as I was in bad shape by the time I finished yesterday. Seems maybe I need to lay off the pies…

A typical (if a bit large) workshop in the Fes medina
A typical (if a bit large) workshop in the Fes medina
Fes's walls
Fes’s walls. Wafi told us the price of real estate here is going through the roof, further widening the already huge gap between rich and poor
Pottery being painted by hand
Pottery being painted by hand
Snails. Nope, we didn't eat any of 'em. Wafi said they can do without food without months, making the daytime self-starvation of the Ramadan look easy
Snails. Nope, we didn’t eat any of ’em. Wafi said they can do without food without months, making the daytime self-starvation of the Ramadan look easy
Ancient colours and patterns are everywhere in Fes
Ancient colours and patterns are everywhere in Fes

Here are the details of the guide we used in Fes. If you come to the Camping Diamant Vert then the reception can likely also contact him for you. His name is Elouafi Hanaf, and you can either call him on (00212) 67204156 or email guide_elouafi@hotmail.com.

Our English-Speaking Guide in Fes: Elouafi Hanaf
Our English-Speaking Guide in Fes: Elouafi Hanaf

Cheers, Jay

A Brush with a Migrant, Moulay Idriss, Morocco
Semi Marathon De Fes
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9 Comments

  1. Wow – makes one think – I’m sure I couldn’t get my head around all those people just eeking out a living while our bank balance would probably house and feed a family for their whole life! Your right, how does one deal with that? Having said that, it is reality and it is here and now and we shouldn’t shy away from facing it and putting our own lives in perspective. Wonderful post. A few lines from me, one who has led a fairly sheltered life, can never really do justice to the reality.

  2. We have visited Fes several times. Your description is spot on ☺. We are currently planning our first motorhome trip to Morocco so we are really enjoying your blog. Thanks!

  3. That’s a really interesting and well written account of a visit to Fes Medina and great pictures. I would only add that a visit with a guide is a different kettle of fish from wandering about (mostly lost) by oneselves… We “enjoyed” several very full on visits by ourselves whilst parked up at the Blue Gate (Bab Boujloud) guarded parking (50dh per night, no services) – it’s another kind of experience I guess and I’m glad we did it but I think if one is going for just a day then it has to be with a guide, a proper guide. By “full on” I mean intensive, non-stop, low-level harassment-to-part-with-your-money (not, it must be stressed, harassment of any threatening nature). That said, the unguided visits we made were intoxicating experiences of the human (and animal) melee, like passing through the intestines of some giant crazy organism that was trying to digest us.
    Wafi took you and us to some different, and some the same, places so readers intending to visit might like to research a bit on what there is to see as he will happily tailor the tour to visitors’ requests – he got us in for a look around the Qaraouine library, part of the oldest university in the world, at our request. He’s a really nice guy to boot.
    Having read your blog of your first tour a few years ago it’s been great to get to meet you!
    “Bonne route!” from your British/Kiwi neighbours at Diamond Vert Camping, David & Fran

  4. Your posts are always interesting and entertaining but this was exceptional. Superbly written and thought provoking.

    Thank you.

    Chris

  5. Sounds fantastic! As always a brilliant, evocative post. We’d love to make it there one day on our trip. We just started on Tuesday and today near Carcassonne our tyre blew! I had a vague memory you guys went to a mechanic in Carcassonne for help too – any recommendations?

    • Hi guys – ouch, tyre blowouts not good… We used the Fiat main dealer in Narbonne, who sorted out our clutch but probably a bit on the expensive side (and we had to wait two weeks to get a slot – mainly due it being near Easter). Good luck! Cheers, Jay

  6. Thanks so much! So sorry we couldn’t respond until now as we ran out of battery. In Narbonne now (with spare tyre on) so we may look them up as the ordeal also damaged our waste water tank. Hope all is good with you guys – we’re still loving to read your updates. If you’re interested in reading our blog, you can do so at https://barenecessities2017.wordpress.com/
    PS well done on completing your runs!
    Andy and Sarah

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