The souks of Fes is what I always imagined Morocco to be: a frontal assault on the nose, the eyes, and the ears. Fes was where I had the closest thing to a culture shock. The people were dressed differently, the architecture was different; the smells, the sounds, the stuff hanging from the shops were all different. All of these new sensations were found inside claustrophobic alleys that seem to go nowhere and everywhere at once.
I particularly enjoyed the artesans’ sections of the market: the leather craftsmen cutting and stitching in their tiny stalls, the tannery where they dye the leather that would become the hundreds of slippers and handbags sold in the market, and the metal smiths banging on their pots.
Here are some notes on Fes that I jotted down during our stay there.
- In general, I found the touts in Fes to be benign. Maybe it’s a matter of managing your expectations. I half expected to be pestered by touts and swarmed by carpet sellers waving their carpets in front of my face as soon as I step past Bab Bojloud gate. That did NOT happen. I’m not saying they don’t exist. They sure do and they make their presence known when they’re around but they give up pretty easily when told ‘no’.
- The only person who tried to sell carpets to me did this half-heartedly. He didn’t even offer tea! Do I really look like someone who can’t afford carpets? (I can’t – but do I really look like it?)
- I’m thinking of making T-shirts with ‘I’m not Japan. And no, I’m not China either’. What do they expect one does with ‘Are you Japan?’ greetings? Do they expect people go ‘Oh yeeeees, I am Japan. Let me buy your carpets’?
On Stray Cats
- They’re everywhere. I suspect the whole country is run by an underground kitty organization
- The thing that gave me the warmest fuzzy feeling in Fes was coming across this makeshift cat shelter with boxes and a shelf. And a feeding station with a pile of fish on it. There are those who care.
On Getting Lost
- I discovered that I liked the idea of getting lost in Fes more than getting lost itself. The one time I did accidentally get lost in Fes’ medina, I was not a happy camper. Some of these alleys were deserted. And narrow. And dark. And dead-ended. I felt so trapped.
- The teenager I ended up paying to get me out of there was not happy with the 5 Dirham tip I gave him. He kept yelling, ‘What is this? This is for a kid! Give me 10 more!’ I hope that he’ll never learn that if he wants to extort money from a lost tourist, do it before you take him to a public place.
- Those signs the government puts up to help tourists, with color coded signs to show you where to go? Very helpful. The blue signs take you past palaces and plazas, and the pink ones take you through the artesans’ workshops. This way you can explore the highlights of Fes’ medina without getting lost.
On Fes’ Highlights
- Definitely get yourself to the tannery. Ignore the kids offering you their guiding service and simply follow the route shown by the pink signs. When you start smelling leather and piss, you know you’re getting close.
- Stall #10 and upwards offer the best view points. Keep walking past the main entrance to the tannery. The alley is lined with leather stores and the ones facing the tannery have a viewing balcony where you can get a nice view of the multi-colored pits.
On the souk (the market)
- Assault on the senses? Absolutely. The smell of the tannery, the sound of hammer hitting brass, the multiple colors of sandals and fabric, the overload on details of carvings and mosaics was just absolutely wonderful. I wasn’t prepared for anything quite like it and definitely wasn’t prepared to enjoy it as much as I did.
On The People
- Not just in Fes, I found that Moroccans are genuinely friendly and helpful. It’s just a matter discovering them among the leeches and the scammers. People who have jobs (shop owners, restaurant workers, etc) are your best bet.
- Some of these salesman can be so charming I started to look for things to buy. That was how I ended up with a rose flavored soap which gave me the itchies. And I don’t even like the smell.
- How would you call people who live in Fes anyway? Fes-ians? Fes-ish?
We came to Morocco with feeling a little bit apprehensive. We’ve heard many horror stories about Fes’ infamous touts and carpet sellers with aggressive sales tactic – but our fear didn’t come true and we found ourselves enjoying Fes so much more than Marrakesh that we visited later.
Try to find a hotel close to Bab Boujloud, the main gate. It’s the most recognizable gate and where the two main roads start/end from. It’s also where all the restaurants are.