Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fes: first impressions

Fes (alternative spelling Fez) is by far my favourite city in Morocco. While i do love the white-washed walls of Chefchaouen or the windy waves of Essaouira, Fes has kind of a special place in my heart. Probably it’s because Fes was the first city in Morocco that i visited. Or maybe it’s because Fes has the coolest and craziest medina (old town) where it’s totally intoxicating to get lost in. Fes’s medina is the world’s biggest and best preserved medieval town in all Maghreb (Arabic world). While Marrakech’s medina is full of motorollers and bikers, the streets in Fes are so narrow that nothing wider that an occasional donkey doesn’t fit there. This medina is like a living organism, it changes every day. Some years back they were trying to map the medina, but new walls, houses, passages were being built every day while some others were torn down or shut, so by the time the mapping reached from one side to another, some of the streets weren’t no longer there and new ones were created. So as far as i know, there’s no proper map of medina, not like it’s really necessary anyway. It’s totally wicked to go walking for a half a day, starting from side, taking random turns and getting swept away to the heart of it. You pass some really local and interesting neighbourhoods which are burried so deep in the maze that even the most extensive tourist walking tour would never cover them. I’m sure there are areas where i wouldn’t want to find myself after sundown, but i’ve never felt unsafe in medina during the day, it’s just local people going about their lives. The deeper you get, the less attention, they just don’t care. There’s no tourist shops, no souks, nobody tries to sell you anything, you walk in peace.

One of the beauties of Fes is fewer tourists. Of course there are some, but nothing like Marrakech, which is downright infested. In Fes’s medina you can encounter tourists mostly on an outer rim where majority of riads locate, but it seems that they almost never go to deeper areas. A lot of foreigners i’ve talked to just don’t dare to walk too far, they’re afraid to be away from the streets with names and roads with cars. Understandably it might be scary to suddenly depend only off the help and kindness of locals, specially if there's a sizable language barrier. When you’re walking in medina and you notice less and less tourists around you, it’s time to turn back (if you’re spooked that is). You can also ask to be pointed to the „Blue Gate“, which is one the most known landmarks in the old town. For few dirhams kids will run along with you and show you out of the maze. Or you can do like i do – you walk and walk. Medina is like a bowl, the deeper part of it is lower than the outside parts. So all you have to do when you want get back out, is climb higher. You’re bound to reach some edge sooner or later. It usually takes me about 3-4 hours, but i also take it very slow – photographing, trying to talk to locals, eating in some local joint etc. When you re-surface and you don’t recognize the place, just grab a random taxi and tell him to take you to some landmark or establishment you do recognize or orient by. It shouldn’t cost you more than 10-20 DH. The only catch is to figure out on which side of the road you should stand before flagging one down. I’ve had few times a situation that i’m hailing a taxi, a car stops, i ask the driver to take me to the Blue Gate, they say i’m standing on the wrong side of the road and before i can say anything else, they drive away. Nobody hasn’t so far thought about turning the car around and picking me up anyway :).

Fes is much more conservative city than Marrakech or Essaouira. More tourists means more freedoms. Fes isn't as fun, dazzling or exciting as Marrakech. It's a historical city of education and old culture. Fes still has it’s imperial aura accompanied by stiffer lifestyle. Being respectful towards local people and their customs will get you further than flaunting a new miny skirt or a tank top, specially if you want to avoid the excessive attention from local men. You don’t have to wear a jellaba, rules for tourists are of course more liberal, but respect for local culture is still the basis of everything. In the old town - you won’t easily find a local woman  wearing something that leaves her knees or elbows bare. Cafeterias are for men, women and children gather in the park. Taxi drivers are about 70% more honest. If you are a (young) woman, you’re bound to get few passing marriage proposals from guys trying out their luck and so on. Fes just IS different. 
I remember me and Ylle's first visit to Fes. We were sitting on a park bench with the rest of the locals. Suddenly an old hooded man comes and stands in front of us. And though we were decently dressed and behaving extremely low-key, you just cannot imagine the look on that guy’s face – it was the mixture of utter disapproval and condemnation. He just stood there, silently staring down at us for a good 20 seconds or so. And all this time he was annoyingly tapping the ground with his cane. Everything would’ve been quite unmemorable, except the tip of the cane was needle sharp and it really felt that he is pondering if to strike us and banish us for good. And then just like that he turned away and left. We saw him later once more on some street, this time we knowingly kept out of his cane reach.

I've heard a lot of warnings about touts and hustlers in Fes. Before my first visit i read that around the Blue Gate you will be bombarded with agression and sales-pitch. Walking in medina will be torture because of all the people pressing themselves to be your guides, offering to tale you to a "very good carpet shop" or to an excursion to the tanneries. It leads me to think that some people are very easily persuaded and even more easily scammed. Because i think that Fes is musch calmer and mellower than Marrakech. Fes is like a comatosed brother of an ADD symptomatic Marrakech on sugar rush.

Funnily, the very first lesson in "being blond is bad for budget" i got exactly in Fes. Me and Ylle took a taxi from the airport, agreed upon a price and drove to the city. When we arrived, we didn’t have the exact money, so we paid with bigger bills. The driver could of course smell the rosy scent of European innocence on us, eager and wide-eyed as we were, so he decided not to give us the change back and told us some BS about “entering the medina” tax. It reminded us both India right away – you always had to give the shop guys, waiters, taxi drivers etc the very exact money, otherwise you would spend the next 10 minutes trying to get your change back. It became very annoying and unpleasant after about 5th time. So we were both like: “Great, India all over again”, but at least for me, this was the only occasion when somebody muscled me into paying more. Or maybe I just grew a pair after that lesson and it showed.


1 comment:

  1. hehhe, so funny to see how tourists write about the cities and the local people's behaviour, So funny and interesting.
    I must tell you girl, bravo, Eventhough you don't understand that language so Me to, you get a wide and a general Idea about the country and its people.
    thanks, for sharing what' matters fes and Its people, Please come to us, In north of morocco, No one talking about us, But you have to discover, see, have a trip to those places that non of you have a knowledge about it. I bet, you travelled to chafchaouan, that blue town with its berber (amazigh) people. nice, but please, come to other cities such as, alhoceima.
    thanks, and have a good day, If you come let me know, Besides, people In the country are not the same, So if you found some scammers, stalkers, bad boys In fez, You'll not going to see the same thing In alhoceima, Thanks again, And please I am not one of those bad guys.
    peace from alhoceima city.


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