The city is a tangled mass, dark and mysterious in places, vibrant and colourful in others. The medina of Fes, the largest pedestrian medina in the word (200 hectares), is a maze and the only thing to do in it is to get lost. Should you let yourself be guided by one of the men and boys waiting outside the hotel, calling out ‘My friend’? The sceptical tourist wonders whether to take a tour with one of these (phoney) guides and risk being hassled every step of the way. After all, they were really born here and they know this labyrinth like the back of their hand. But the places that they take you to will probably be by prior arrangement – tourist traps, which is precisely what every tourist is trying to avoid. But then, what else? Well, what about hiring the services of Kabbaj Chakib, the best guide in town and a one-man fountain of knowledge?
A very present past
In his suit and tie, the silver-tongued Kabbaj Chakib brushes off the fake guides with a wave of his hand and takes you to the medina’s most beautiful spots and most impressive madrasas. They’re in the guidebooks, of course, but this tour comes with a complement of detailed information. You will learn that the medina was created in 808. Families of craftsmen from Cordova made their home here on the right bank of the river and literary families set themselves up on the left. Jewish families settled in Fes, before the arrival of Tunisians and Andalusians. This mix of cultures and religions generated the city’s richness. And a rare climate of toleration, too: in 859, the University of al-Karaouine, founded by a woman, opened its doors to people of all religions and all social classes. The artisans could attend the university, which probably explains the development of the city’s high-quality craftsmanship. As in Venice, the medina’s numerous palaces (more than a hundred) and well-to-do town houses (around 2,500) were in constant need of maintenance and restoration, enabling the craftsmen to keep their skills up to date. But these places are hidden treasures: you have to know a bit, look hard and knock on a few doors to locate the city’s magnificent madrasas, like Bou Inania, built in the middle of the fourteenth century and renown for the finesse and abundance of it wooden, plaster and zellige decoration... or its incredible palaces, like the Palais Sheherazade, right in the centre of the medina, its garden filled with hundred-year-old palm trees, fountains and a swimming pool.
For all your senses, from every direction
Fes’s medina has evolved so much over the course of the twentieth century yet remains true to itself. It has always been socially diverse. In past times, most well-established families lived alongside the most humble. But as a large peasant population settled in the medina, wealthier families moved out to the new town or to Rabat and Casablanca to find work. Which gives the town a particular aesthetic. On the one hand, there are palaces decorated in zellige, in sculpted and painted precious woods, in rare marbles and stucco lacings and on the other there are the common workers and craftsmen. Far from being frozen in the past, the medina throbs with life. It buzzes from the first light of sunrise, with people hammering at copper, transporting water, cooking skewers of meat, tanning leather. Donkeys pass by, struggling not to give out under their mountainous loads of assorted objects. Splendidly decorated zellige fountains stream sparkling droplets of water into the sun’s slanting rays. The smell of warm bread drifts from an oven. Real life is right here before your eyes, as you sip a mint tea on one of the small squares. Fes gives you an eye-full, a nose-full and a head-full. History, art, the common people and the most noble. Life bubbles away. And then there’s the cooking. Fes is the capital of Moroccan gastronomy.
Middle Atlas : Fes' Pantry
The region is the biggest livestock-farming area in Morocco. In the Middle Atlas, the heart of the Berber country, the shepherds migrate with the seasons. Livestock farming provides very good meat and also wool and leather. The presence of numerous springs and rivers has enabled the development of tanneries that are one of the city’s tourist attractions. A grid of basins in which, one by one, animal skins are dipped. The smell is particularly strong. Before the visit begins, the tanner hands out mint leaves to those with sensitive noses. But those same people will enjoy the smell of orange water and rose water that perfumes the streets when the flowers are in bloom. Traditionally, in Fes they use these waters to scent their houses as well as their pastries. They’re made by the dadas, the women who rule over the kitchens.
A cultural broth
Descended from sub-Saharan African slaves, the dadas were servants to rich Fassi families. In the service of these demanding gourmets, they developed a sophisticated cuisine of fine products. Their recipes are often ancestral, transmitted orally from generation to generation and refined over the course of time. Just like the town itself, specialities such as stuffed spleen or mrouzia combine Andalusian, Berber, Arab and Jewish flavours. The town, with its love of sweet and savoury mixes, has another great speciality: pastilla, as a main course (with pigeon) or as a dessert (with cream and oranges), combines spices and condiments, without overburdening the palate. No chili in Fassi cuisine! According to what’s in season, tajines are made with cardoons, with artichokes, or with arum and accompanied by durum wheat.
A glossary, for those lost in the maze of Fassi flavours
Mrouzia: sweet and sour tajine of mutton or lamb flavoured with almonds, honey and cinnamon.
Harira: a soup eaten to break the fast of Ramadan containing dried vegetables and meat prepared in thousands of different ways, according to the family and the region.
Tangia: a typical dish from Marrakesh, also found in Fes. Meat in an earthenware pot cooked for seven hours in the wood stove of a hammam.
Tchicha: a soup made from semolina and flavoured with coriander.
Briouat: a triangular pastry stuffed with meat or fish.