Fabulous Fes, a place to Eat, Pray, Shop
I last went to Fes a long, long time ago but it had always stayed in my memory as a particularly beautiful city, nestled into a series of hills and harbouring a fantastical medina full of tiny alleyways, bright carpets and laden donkeys. I arrived off the train from Marrakech at dark. The station was a scrum, but I found a friendly taxi driver who took me to the nearest gate into the Medina to Dar Roumana, where we were staying for two of our three nights. Outraged when he found out I was umarried, he immediately proposed but was not at all downcast when I rejected his suit. A porter was at the gate and rolled me through the golden-lit streets to the door of Dar Roumana.
A small door, led into the most stunning central courtyard. Fabulous mosaics cover every surface, interspersed with lacy stone carving and delicate woodwork. Vanessa, our hostess, was there to meet us and sat us down by a roaring fire with a cup of tea and gave us instructions of where to go for our first night’s dinner. Since, these included the immortal words, “Turn right at the snail seller,” I was amazed when we actually got to Cafe Clock where I had the best pumpkin soup I have ever tasted, drizzled in nutty Argan oil. It set the tone for three days of feasting.
Fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are readily available in Morocco and the Moroccan specialities of tagine and couscous are truly delicious. Fes offered us the best food I have had in Morocco and thanks to the recommendations of our hosts at Dar Roumana, some of the best food I have found in any city where I have landed as a bright eyed tourist. Here are some of our highlights:
Grilled octopus on a bed of salsa, followed by wild boar caught in the forest that week, slowly cooked and with a jus of red wine and juniper berries. My tastebuds thought all their Christmases had come at once. Truly delicious.The chef at Dar Roumana is justifiably famous!
Kofta (beef meatballs) in a sizzling tomato sauce, topped with crunchy courgettes and a runny-yolked egg at the Ruined Garden, where Robert, previously of the Ivy in London, presides over lazy lunches. The garden itself is a treasure, full of hidden corners and overgrown roses.
Thai Green Curry with chicken and the most delicate cucumber, with bananas in coconut milk to follow at Moi Anan. The chef and owner, Anan, is also a fashion designer and sat with us explaining the joys and sorrows of trying to start up a new, young fashion scene in Fes.
Half a chicken with rice and salad from the stall at the junction of Talaat Sagheer and Talaat Kabeer , the big and small roads, at the top near Boujoloud. In one huge copper pot, there were whole chickens cooking, and in the other, entire sheep’s heads. We plumped for the chicken and for two of us, a whole one plus rice and bread came to 50Dhs, around £3.50.
Fes was the first capital of Morocco and is traditional centre of Islamic practice and learning here. The city is filled with mosques, medersas ( Islamic schools), shrines and holy tombs. For a long time, the city rivalled Mecca and Medina in religious importance. The Kaoraouiyine Mosque is the biggest and finest in the city, dating back to the 12th century and still at the heart of Fes’s religious life. It sets the official prayer times and rings out the end of Ramadan fasting for the whole of the country. As non-Muslims, we weren’t allowed to go in, but when I asked the doorman if he minded if I took a photo, he went one better, took my camera and went inside to take lots of shots for me. Typical of the kindness and good heartedness that you experience so often in this country.
Our next two stops were the Attarin Medersa and the Bou Inania Medersa. Both are worth a visit as they display the finest carving and mosaic work in Fes. The dormitories were closed off when we were there, but just concentrating on the central work areas and offset rooms was enough.
One of my favourite things about historical Fes is the preponderance of mosaic drinking fountains. There is one at almost every corner, some of them still resplendent, but some quietly decaying. They were built by benefactors or local communities so that in the hot, summer months, there would always be somewhere for the poor to drink.
Serena and I are training for the Marrakech half marathon, so we combined our daily run with some history. We were up and running through the Medina at sunrise and out to the Merenid tombs on one of the hillsides overlooking the city. We were only up that early because we wanted to avoid running lycra-clad through the crowds, but if you can bear to get up, the view as the sun comes up and catches the minarets of the city and then circles over to bathe you in gold, is worth it.
Nothing to do with prayer, but my last recommendation for sightseeing is the tanneries where all the leather is cured and coloured using traditional methods. It is quite a sight with men up to their waists in vats of dye, scraping skins with metal blades, and pummelling the carcases. It is a hard and dirty job but a big employer in Fes and the Fassians are rightly proud of their leather goods.
Which brings me to the final part of our Fes experience, and one close to my heart, shopping. Morocco is a shopper’s paradise with handmade carpets, pottery, jewellery, silk tassels, kaftans, wooden boxes, bags, belts and babouches everywhere. I have lived here for just over a year now but still haven’t tired of the craftsmanship that surrounds me. I thought that I would be less impressed with Fassi work, coming from Marrakech, but that wasn’t the case.
My best buys were definitely the distinctive Fes pottery. It is made out of fine, white clay and is like our bone china but decorated in vibrant blues, reds and greens. There is a particularly dark, royal blue which is called Fes blue and that dominates but I also liked the clear reds. There are many, many different designs, including a very typical one of small flowers on a white background. Prices vary greatly according to the design and quality of the piece but there are bargains to be had. I got a lovely soap dish and matching toothbrush holder for 40 dhs each (around £3).
Serena, has a rug problem. All the signs of addiction are there: the relentless search for the next hit, the handing over of cash in squalid surroundings, the ecstatic moment when she gets her fix…. Bargaining for a rug in Morocco is something that everyone should do at least once before they die. Usually it involves plush surroundings and a nice cup of mint tea, but on this occasion, we found ourselves lured up the tiniest, darkest, seediest alleyway and led into a small kiosk crammed with gloriously coloured carpets. We launched into our best Arabic, mine is more Egyptian/classical whereas Serena is pure Marrakech. We are lucky in that it usually sets us off at a reasonably decent price and then we go down for there. This time, we were going for two smallish berber rugs in the dark Fes blue with brighter colours interwoven. We walked away with both for 500dhs which seemed fair. Every guidebook tells you this, but it is true, pay the price that you think the item is worth and then be happy with that, and make sure you leave the vendor a profit, as well as being sure that you have got a good price and of course, enjoy it!
The second night in Fes, we had put up in Dar El Ma, a lovely, quirky little Riad, wedged in between two thick walls. We had it to ourselves and bought a pile of fresh fruit to make fruit salad for breakfast in the morning. It was fun pretending we owned the place, and lounging in the central courtyard for breakfast chatting to Huda, who is the caretaker, about her thesis on domestic violence in marriage.
And if you want to stay in a little bit of luxury, my recommendation is definitely Dar Roumana. The rooms are palatial, with mosaics to rival the best in any of the medersas, combined with all the luxuries of a soft bed and fluffy towels. On our last night, we went up to the rooftop which gives a 360 view of the city and waited for the evening call to prayer as the last bit of the sun sank below the horizon. You know it is coming, but it is still a magical moment when the first muezzin gives voice to the words, “ Allahu Akbar,” and then all the others join in from minaret to minaret.
This blog was written by Alice Morrison, an adventurer and writer based in Morocco, for more please visit her website www.alicemorrison.co.uk
Dar Roumana http://www.darroumana.com/Dar_Roumana/Home.html
Dar El Ma http://www.darelma.com/
Ruined Garden http://ruinedgarden.com/
Maison Moi Anan https://www.facebook.com/pages/Maison-Moi-Anan/566013710198369
Café Clock http://cafeclock.com/
Alice Morrison http://alicemorrison.co.uk