The Dye pits of Fez (Fes)
While the stench is overwelming, the experience is once in a lifetime.......
Some travelers are exhausted by the haggling in the souks of Morocco, by the barely-organized chaos of the medinas. In Fes, the stunning mosaic tile creations that are so typical all over the country can be bought directly from the artisans who make them in a showroom just outside the walls of the old Medina -- haggle, and stress, free. See how the pottery and mosaic is made then shop till you drop without needing to haggle. The prices are fixed and they ship internationally with Fed Ex. Buy items as small as cups, as large as garden fountains and dining tables. They even accept dollars and euros!
Rose water, olives, camel heads, and leathers. What else could one by at the Fez souk? With tanneries behind gnome-sized doors and saffron-selling spice shops behind friendly purveyors, Fez was a shopping experience that required a map, a guide, and a little bit of faith.
On my travels, a highlight has to be capturing images of local people, either chatting and then asking for a photo (usually positive) or like this one, a candid shot. While staying in Fes, in Morocco, I went to the Souk every day. It's an amazing place and for sure, you will get lost and more than once! This shot, for me is perfect. I first selected the plain backdrop of a wall, then just waited for a subject to enter my canvas. This elderly man caught in profile, made that particular day's shoot very worth while and satisfying!
In the middle of the chaotic, restless and quirky medina of Fes rises a tall, unassuming (in true Moroccan fashion) building that would be the answer to what I precisely needed that day. Calmness. A short parenthesis from the bustling outside world. Spread out on three different levels with each 2-3 different rooms, including a lovely rooftop terrace that overlooks the medina, Café Clock is one of the funkiest cafés I have ever been in, and it was never more welcome. While still very Moroccan, with its hues of brown and ornate carvings, the café is also home to many funky works of art, starting with the gorgeous central chandelier. What makes this place so special, outside its beautiful and modern setting, is its menu. Exit tagines and couscous. At Café Clock, you can eat grilled veggies sandwiches, milkshakes, hummous, falafels, pancakes and other delicious delicacies. And even if you aren't particularly hungry, thirsty or in need of a break, Café Clock has something to offer - namely, free wifi, cooking, calligraphy, yoga and dance classes, concerts, and movie showings, to name but a few. Morocco is an incredible country, and the Fes medina does not disappoint - but sometimes, all a girl needs is free wifi and a decadent chocolate milkshake away from the hustle. And Café Clock is just the perfect place for that.
Deep in the maze that is the city of Fes, lies Dar Anebar. It is both a restaurant and a Riad. With a traditional courtyard that has a fountain and multiple dining rooms off the main area, there are plenty of "nooks and crannies" hiding delightful Moroccan details to inspire. The service is impeccable and the food, though very Moroccan, is also quite French (a good thing most certainly). Rooms in the Riad are of superior comfort and high speed WiFi is included, as is breakfast. My only complaint is that the lack of a door between the bathroom and bedroom can make sharing the space slightly awkward if you're staying in the Riad with friends. Still, if you're in Fes and looking for one of the most authentic experiences you can have, that's still luxurious -- this is where you need to stay.
Over a sultan's feast of pastilla, marinated salads, tajines, and pastries at La Maison Bleue in the Fès medina, my husband and I were spellbound by the haunting voice of this oud player. The melancholy cadence of his instrument coalesced with the slow enchantment of his vocals to form an unforgettable and almost tangible atmosphere of magic and mystery.
At first glance, the narrow alley you have to maneuver to get to Café Clock -- does not look advisable. In fact, while walking down the path, I remarked to my friends, "This looks like a place in which we might find weed for sale." Yet the best adventures often begin in such a manner. You will feel glad for the thickness of the Riad walls that house the café, it's a break from the sensory overload that is Fes. The staff is young, fluent in three languages and enthusiastic. Even kind. It's another variation from the world outside. Decor reflects the history of Morocco while also representing those who visit. There's a mannequin keeping watch high up on the wall, dressed in the robe of an Arab princess, and horns hang upside down forming a sort of chandelier between the three levels of the cafe. Food is fresh, made to order, again representing both Morocco and foreign palates. There's a small movie theater that plays local films on Tuesday evenings and western films on Fridays. Make your way up top to the roof terrace and you have the perfect spot to relax for sunset. There are yoga lessons available, henna application and the chance to hire a local guide. Café Clock is nothing like the rest of Fes, and that's not a bad thing! Breakfast is served all day, WiFi is free and jewelry is for sale handmade by the female staff; there's even a cookbook you can take home that compiles classic Moroccan recipes, with a twist. (Perfect souvenir for mom, or your favorite chef!)
Everywhere I went in the Fes medina, I saw these numbered boxes painted on the walls. I had no idea what they were all about until later. I learned that these are election boxes. Morocco has a multi-party political system and each party is assigned a numbered box. I think I saw as many as twenty numbered boxes! Campaign posters are officially limited to these spaces so parties cannot plaster their campaign notices over just any available surface. Some parties have iconic symbols that represent them so instead of posters, they use spray paint and stencils to paint the image of their party’s symbol on the wall. I was particularly curious about the symbols; many looked like hieroglyphics to me and I wondering what kind of campaign message they were intending to convey. Perhaps in a country where nearly 40 percent of the population is illiterate, using a symbol to just remind people the party is active and running goes a long way.
The Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts in Fes, Morocco is interesting enough ... but be sure to climb the last flight of stairs to the rooftop for a view like this!
Preserving food in salt is a centuries old method that crosses cultures. In Morocco, they salt preserve all sorts of vegetables as well as lemons. Every market you go to, you see containers and jars packed with all sorts of preserved veggies. Chicken tajine with preserved lemons and olives is a classic Moroccan dish which I loved eating and wanted to be able to make home home but I needed the preserved lemons. The cook, at the riad that we staying at in Fes, gave shared her recipe which is very simple. • 6 large organic lemons (Since you’ll be eating the rind, get organic lemons if you can. If not, wash the lemons well.) • 1/4 – 1/3 cup sea salt • Mason jar or any jar with a tight lid 1. Slice the lemons as if to quarter them but leave the base intact. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of salt on the flesh of the lemons and then reshape the fruit. 2. Pack the lemons into the jar, pressing down on each one to squash them. Sprinkle salt on top of each lemon as you go along. Add enough fresh pressed lemon juice to cover the lemons. I add a couple of dried chilies to the jar to add some “bite” to the lemons but you can add any dried herbs you like. Every few days, shake the jar to redistribute the salt. The lemons will be ready after one month. To use, remove and discard the pulp and gently rinse the rind under running water before slicing and adding to the dish. I’ve been using thinly sliced strips on top of grilled seafood and diced bits sprinkled in salads. Delicious!
When I told people I was traveling to Fes for north Africa’s most celebrated music festival, I heard, “Will you feel safe there?” or “You’re traveling halfway around the world to listen to church music?” Ironically, at the primary concerts, attendees were required to walk through a metal detector machine. Just one more reminder that being sacred also requires being secure. My Relais & Chateaux hotel, Riad Fes, was a brisk, 10-minute walk to Bab Al Makina, the main venue, and I arrived just as Morocco’s Presidential motorcade was about to pull up - I was a little underdressed. As the King of Morocco said in dedicating the festival, “The Kingdom of Morocco boasts a richly diverse, multi-faceted history, successfully forged together by its people, who have managed over the centuries, to build a deeply-rooted nation based on a commitment to lofty values and a long-standing tradition of respect for the Other….” What’s sacred about this festival isn’t the music, it’s the collaboration. It’s the fusion of Himalayan musicians with those from the Mauritanian desert, Bengali ragas joining in Gospel singing with those from South Africa, and an Eastern Orthodox Aramaen choir synthesizing with those from the Alfama distract of Lisbon. My only regret was not staying long enough to see Patti Smith later in the week. The title for the Opening Night celebration was “Love is my Religion.” I can’t think of a more exquisite way to describe the purpose of the World Sacred Music festival.
From Fes, Morocco, we headed East to the Sahara Desert, where we stayed in a tent village, rode camels to tiny villages, and walked for miles in surreal sand dunes.
My favorite souvenirs are items that carry significance in the local culture. In Morocco, these are known as the hand of Fatima, named after Muhammad's daughter. In the rest of the Arabic world, they are known as hamsa (or khamsa), which literally means “five” but can also mean “the five fingers of the hand”. The hamsa is a lucky charm of sorts, believed to provide protection against the evil eye. The exact origins of this symbol are unknown, but some Mesopotamian artifacts contained the image of an open right hand. At some point the symbol was also incorporated into Jewish culture where it is known as the hand of Miriam, for the sister of Moses and Aaron.
Within the ancient walls of Fez, Palais Amani is a magnificent restored riad with citrus-scented air, a panoramic rooftop terrace, and a mosaic-tiled hammam.Palais Amani’s spa provides facials, massages, gommage and, of course, hammam treatments. In summer and autumn, treatments take place in a rooftop pergola, looking out over the city. The assorted unguents employed are made using unique-to-Morocco argan oil from the gardens of Ourika. If you’re interested enough in your boots to wonder where the leather came from, ask the hotel to arrange a tannery trip – but bear in mind these are only for the stout of heart and resilient of nose. The hotel can also arrange city tours, cooking demonstrations, wine tastings and classes in henna painting. If you’re after a particular item of Moroccan craftwork and don’t fancy taking your chances in the souks, Palais Amani can put you in touch with talented and trustworthy craftsmen. 75km outside Fez, the Roman ruins at Volubilis are the best preserved in North Africa, and boast some amazing mosaics. The Atlas Mountains offer inspiring hiking trails and unbeatable views across the desert back to Fez, as well as the opportunity to visit a rural mountain village or two.
Probably one of my favorite souvenirs from Morocco are the mini tagines I bought from a friend's shop and a pottery factory we visited in Fes, where these mini tagines were also available in what I've been told are the city's emblematic blue and white. Easy to stuff in a suitcase (wrapped for safety in a scarf you bought, perhaps?), the mini tagines are a happy reminder of the many tagine meals you'll undoubtedly devour but are more likely to make it home safely and without taking up half of your suitcase. And they're as functional as they are cute (isn't everything cuter in mini-form?) as you can use them to hold sugar cubes or spices in your kitchen or maybe even knick-knacks and paperclips on your desk at work!
The tangled maze of narrow alleys in the medina in Fes, Morocco requires that all deliveries are made by push cart or donkey. I woke this guy from his nap to transport my luggage to my riad - which was most helpful, since I had no idea where it was!
One of the great things about Fez is the opportunity to learn how many of the handicrafts you see are created. During a tour of the city, we saw pottery and tile pieces in progress, from the creation of small tiles, later a mosaic design, to a tagine, whipped up in seconds by memory on the pottery wheel. Here, freshly-painted pottery waits to be fired in the kiln while their artist continues on in the background. No pattern, just memory and skill.
The medina in Fes is unparalleled - it will surprise, delight, and offend you as you wind through it's maze of shops. One of the highlights for those interested in seeing unusual professions is the leather dye vats. You don't need a map to find them, just follow your nose. You can view the vats from above from the various leather shops that have 'viewing areas'. You will be astonished at the work going on below you. Cow and goat hides are soaked in large vats to clean and then to dye them. The dye colors are natural and come from plants and flowers such as poppy (red), saffron (yellow), and mint (green). Men only work literally inside the vats stomping the hides down into the dyes - like grapes at a winery. They slather their legs in vaseline to ensure their skin doesn't get dyed in the process - a hazard of the workplace. This is a site to see so don't forget your camera. And don't worry - if you are worried about the smell, the shop will provide fresh mint for you to inhale while peering over the edge to see this ancient profession in action. How to find the vats? Most people hire guides to navigate them through the medina, so simply ask your guide - or just point your nose to the sky and inhale!
While we felt blessed throughout our time in Morocco, our Fes experience would be driven by divine providence, guiding us into not just a city, but into a relationship with a man that held it deep in his heart… “I know a guy!” That’s all we needed to hear from our I Tour Morocco guide, Hafid. He had taken great care of us for hundreds of kilometers and had one last suggestion for our tour in Fes. A phone call and few minutes later and we had Mohammed Bouftila, an internationally acclaimed Medina guide, climbing into the front seat. To get the most from a Medina tour, particularly in a mazed Medina so rich in culture, history and artisans, find a guide. The Medina is crammed with stories and Momo started with one from his childhood, growing up in a nearby riad where his mother and sister still live. He had his favorite routes and off-the-map places. Some of the most incredible locations involved access into abandoned riads and palaces that were either in the process of renovation or looking for a sponsor. The Medina environment continues to be a communal living effort. Neighbors share walls, bakers, activities, religion and family life. It has been this way for a millennia and Momo loves to demonstrate how these traditions carry forward. Any credentialed guide in the Medina can provide similar services, but by the end of our time in Fes, we felt part of Momo’s family and world. Find Momo via email - email@example.com
It's a long, fragrant walk through the food markets to Café Clock before you duck into an unassuming alley that leads you up to this eccentric little haven. Tour the three-story townhouse before you settle on a spot; each turn reveals something new and unexpected: decor ranges from a brass-horn chandelier to a collection of fez hats hanging on the wall to graffiti adorning the wall of a tiny cinema. The menu serves everything from quinoa and tofu (good luck finding that anywhere else in the medina) and grilled chicken sandwiches to — for the more adventurous palates — a camel burger. On any given night of the week, there will be concerts, movie screenings, folk-art lessons, henna classes. It's a gathering ground for tourists and locals alike — OK fine, when we went it was predominantly tourists, but we also chatted with a few employees who were hanging out there on their day off. Have you ever wanted to chill in your place of employment when you didn't have to? I didn't think so.
A visit to the tanneries was quite an experience. Walking through the medina of Fez, you will definitely be stopped by more than one or two locals begging to guide you to the tannery. I suggest finding a licensed guide before setting off to find it on your own, unless you are navigationally gifted. After being led by our guide down the twisted and narrow paths in the Medina, we were taken up to one of the leather shops ( the best views of the tanneries working can be seen here.) My husband and I were greeted by merchants with sprigs of mint to ward of the very strong odor that is definitely an assault on the senses. It is quite fascinating to stand upon the rooftops and watch the tanners using nothing but their bare hands and feet to dye the leather. Leather tanneries in Morocco still follow the ancient system of treating leather. Hides are soaked for a few days in vessels full of cow urine, quicklime, water and salt before being picked at and dried. Next they are sent to a different set of vessels filled with diluted pigeon excrement and water to be softened. With nothing but their bare feet and hands, tanners knead the skins to their desired softness as well as with the final dying process. Afterwards, you have the option of purchasing leather products in the shop. No worries, the merchants are not offended if you decide not to, just be polite when declining. This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Fez.
My first international trip was to Morocco for a friend's wedding. After seven hours of dancing and eating, the hosts served dinner around 1:30 am. It was the ultimate cultural experience in a country so different from our own.
Staying in The Medina in Fes, Morocco is one of the most amazing experiences travel can offer. One of the surprises was the people and how helpful they were. Our Riad owners arranged for baggage handling to our waiting taxi. A local touch that also helped to get us out of the maze. Nice to have an audience as well. To get this experience, it is important to choose to stay in The Medina. And, find a Riad of your liking and price range. Our favorite and highly recommend: Riad Numero Nine. It is the most authentic and interesting way to experience this mystical place.
Though I usually stick to budget-friendly hostels for accommodation, Morocco is definitely one place I don't mind springing for something a little nicer. This is because, in addition to indulging in my love for Moroccan-inspired decorating, staying in a restored riad (home with an interior courtyard garden) or dar (house) in the medina allows you to stay in a piece of history and, if you're staying in Fez as I was when I spent a few nights at Dar Houdou, you can actually stay in a UNESCO Heritage Site (as the city's labyrinthine medina is). Of course, things have changed since these homes were originally built, but sometimes that's for the better (for example, when restoring these homes, one has to add more full baths as it was historically more typical to go to hammam). Of course, if you do stay in this restored dar, be sure to leave an issue of AFAR to make their reading table complete!
I had just been marvelling at the intricacy of the Bou Inania Medersa and its outstanding Moorish architecture, when the heavy wooden door creaked open. The guardian of the medersa was revealed - his red jalaba perfectly framed by the panelwork and mosaic behind.
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