“Cherchez-vous une chambre?”
The deep throated request echoed through the narrow passages of the Medina, catching me off guard and forcing me to pay attention to the dark, foreboding character approaching me through the mist. His face was shrouded in the night and he wore a pointed hat that immediately reminded me of a character from a Harry Potter movie.
“Oui, Monsieur,” I responded with all of the gusto of a second-year French student, out of practice for several decades. The robed character muttered something in incompressible French and motioned for me to follow him through the winding streets of the ancient city. With no better recourse, I followed him, eager to rest after a long night journey via taxi from the northern border of Morocco.
It was here, in the heart of the world’s largest car-free city that I was introduced to one of the most underrated tourist destinations in the world – the ancient city of Fes inside the African Kingdom of Morocco. Here in a former Moroccan capital, at the crossroads of Moorish, Berber, Arabic, and European influences, I found a friendly people at peace with themselves and the ancient world they inhabit.
The City of Fes is one of those rare places that, upon entering, truly makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time hundreds of years. The only sounds that make it to your ears are the gentle humj of human and animal activity, as cars, motorcycles, and mopeds have all been banned from the ancient Medina, the largest contiguous car-free population center in the world.
Here, bread, bricks, and even Coca-cola are delivered by mule.
Immediately outside of the walls, green hills rise up around the Medina, giving it an air of authenticity one rarely finds in the world today. Indeed, most ancient cities today are surrounded by the soaring buildings of suburbs, detracting from the overall experience. But not here in Medina…outside of the walls the green hills rise on all but one of the sides.
Roaming through the narrow streets of the Medina is the best way to see the city and experience life here. Ancient mosques line the road and sights such as the world’s oldest University (founded in 859) can be found within the dusty alleyways.
A word of caution, however. You WILL be constantly barraged by offers for tour guide services if you are out walking by yourself. In some cases, it might even make sense to take someone up on the offer simply to get the other touts off of your back. I’ve had this experience in many places in the world, but can tell you that it is particularly challenging in Fes.
While I generally shy away from using the services of these ‘tour guides,’ in Fes we did decide to have a few of the teenage boys show us around for a while. It is a useful way to get up to the vantage points within the city that allow you to see sights such as the ancient leather tanneries, which have been virtually unchanged for almost a millennium.
Leather tanning is big business in Fes, and has been for centuries. If you look closely at the hillsides above the Medina you can spy the brightly colored dyed hides drying in the sun.
Fes is a remarkable city of artisans, and one doesn’t have to travel far to find workers creating beautiful handcrafted treasures from hammered brass, copper and leather. If you are interested in a purchase, feel free to sit down and have tea with the artisans, they will explain to you their intricate work before beginning the bitter negotiations on price that will invariably occur.
While it varies by the vendor, I have found that the initial price you are quoted in Morocco will generally be at least double what the merchant is typically willing to accept, though my friend Joel Oleson has stories of negotiating them down to around a fourth of the initial offer in some cases.
Just outside of the Medina in Fes and next to the former royal palace is another newer, yet still quite old part of the city called the Mellah, or the old Jewish ghetto of the city. There are Mellahs in most major Moroccan cities, but the one in Fes was the original Mellah, originally built in 1438.
There are very few, if any, Jews remaining in the Mellah, and only a handful live in the city of Fes itself today, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Jews used to live here. This is evidenced from the large Jewish cemetery that can be visited within the walls of the Mellah and a restored synagogue nearby, as well as by many of the Andalusian architectural elements that can found found in this area, brought here by the Jews who fled persecution during the Inquisition.
Wandering through Fes, I was personally most impacted by the fact that this was a living, breathing museum, where people still lived the way that they did for centuries, and houses were passed on from generation to generation. It managed to not only survive, but thrive and yet keep its character at the same time. It did this while at the same time avoiding becoming a place that exists solely for the tourists, like many of of the other car-free destinations of the world have unfortunately become (I’m looking at you Venice.)
Sitting high on a rooftop above the central Medina of Fes, the haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer drifted through the wandering alleyways of this ancient city and echoed off the surrounding hills, helping me to realize that this place truly is one of the great cities of mankind, and well worth a trip.
If you visit Fes, below are a few recommendations based on my experiences:
- Highly consider spending the night within the old Medina itself, as opposed to outside of the walls. While it is more challenging to find lodging, it can be found with some diligence and you’ll wake up right in the middle of the peace and tranquility that only a car-free city can provide.
- Be prepared to get lost…many, many times. Your native sense of direction will be greatly impacted as well, and on multiple occasions I found myself heading in the exact opposite direction that I assumed I was heading. Even phone GPSes won’t help much here as the narrow alleyways interfere with their ability to get a signal.
- Resign yourself to the fact that you’ll probably have to eventually have someone show you around (see #2,) or else you will be constantly barraged with requests for people to show you around. And I mean constantly…
- On that note, we were told that only ‘official’ tour guides are permitted under law, so keep that in mind if taking up the services of one of the touts that follows you around.
- Ask to be taken to the balcony that overlooks the old tannery, it is well worth it, though the owner of the leather store that owns the balcony will either expect you to buy something or will be looking for a small tip.
- Have tea with the local artisans before you begin negotiations, and remember that haggling is an expected part of the experience.
- Consider getting outside of town and up into the Atlas mountains at some point, the best food I had on the trip was in villages in the mountains and the native Apes that inhabit the cedar forests in the mountains are fascinating to see.
- Consider visiting the nearly equally beautiful Medinas of Meknes, Rabat and (I’m told) Marrakesh.