Fès sees FAR more tourists than Meknes (lots of Germans, a few Asians) – but it still has a pleasantly relaxed feel to it. Naturally we stayed in a riad in the medina with its 9,400 alleys, known as the most complete medieval city in Africa, still with 160,000 Fassis resident here in the old town. It really is very easy to get lost, although after a while you do start to remember some waymarks – and you can always ask someone how to get home (they’ll probably send a boy to show you the way). Most of the medina’s dars (townhouses) are now occupied by multiple families and it’s amazingly diffcult to get agreement to do major repairs or indeed to sell them as a whole – but quite a few have now been bought and done up as delightful guesthouses.
In 2016 there has been a slump in the numbers of tourists visiting Fès, and Morocco as a whole, and so you won’t have to pay much for a lovely room – but this is really hurting the riad owners, their staff and the whole local economy. Meanwhile, accommodation owners have been told their pages will be removed from Booking.com unless they register according to a new grading system which has not yet been drawn up… It will all be sorted out in the end, no doubt.
The King, Mohammed VI, has been behind the restoration of many of the medina’s monuments – he was due to reopen the famous stinky tanneries a few weeks after our visit. Also newly refurbished are the Seffarine, Mesbahiya and Sbaiyyine medersas, built in the Merinid period, as well as the Mohammadia medersa, built by King Mohammed V, and the Dar Al Mouaqqit museum room in the minaret of the Al-Karaouine mosque (famous for its water clock) – it’s good to see him putting some of his money into the tourism industry, but I can’t help feeling he might be even richer if he put more in. In fact I gather more of the funding came from UNESCO. There are photos of him everywhere, feasting in food shops, in sports gear in sports shops, and so on; despite being a bit flashy and probably a bit repressive he’s doing a decent job of keeping Morocco safe for tourism, and is also building a huge new centre in Rabat to spread the message of moderate Islam. (It was the present king’s father who loved golf and is responsible for the country’s courses.)
We saw the other sights, of course, notably the Bou Inania medersa, supposedly ‘the most elaborate, extravagant and beautiful of all Merenid monuments’ and ‘close to perfection in every aspect of its construction’. Well, it was very striking, of course, but it’s not possible to go upstairs now and we felt that the stucco needed a good clean.
The palaces of Fès
There are some very grand palaces in Fès, built between the 18th and 20th centuries, but most of these are also now in multiple occupation and have the same problems as the townhouses. The most accessible is Dar Batha (closed on Tuesdays), which has been a museum since 1916 and displays local crafts such as carved wood, carpets and Fès’s distinctive cobalt-blue ceramics, and also has fine Andalusian-style gardens (not Spanish, of course, but Moorish, ie the style developed by the Arabs when they occupied southern Spain) – magical concerts are sometimes held in the gardens.
Others are hidden in the alleys of the Douh, Zerbatana and Ziat districts, east of the Batha, and have a little hand-painted sign or none at all; you’ll have to pay about 25 Dirhams to be shown around each one. This money helps the family survive and perhaps patch the building up a bit, so don’t haggle too hard. The Dar el Glaoui or Glaoui Palace (1 rue Hamia, Douh), now impressively run-down, was built for T’hami El Glaoui (1879-1956), a warlord who allied himself with the French and suppressed all his rivals with their help, becoming Pasha of Marrakesh from 1912 and commonly known as the Lord of the Atlas. It’s becoming known as an off-beat alternative to Dar Batha, due to the abstract painter Abdelkhalek (or Abdou) Boukhars who welcomes visitors to his studio and to some of the ground-floor rooms. (This is not Hassan El Glaoui, a son of T’hami and perhaps Morocco’s best-known figurative painter; he was discovered by Winston Churchill, who persuaded his parents to send him to art school.) Again, the palace complex is now divided between a dozen or so families and is now delightfully delapidated (but if you have a couple of million dollars you might be able to buy it – though you’d need another million or two to restore it to its former glory).
This is the painting by Abdelkhalek Boukhars that Katy bought:
Gavin Maxwell’s classic book Lords of the Atlas, about T’hami, is strong on the wild tribal life of the Atlas, but you wouldn’t know that he also had a life in Fès, the then capital of Morocco (and still its spiritual capital). You enter a huge courtyard and glimpse a few stately rooms, decorated with carved and painted woodwork and zellij mosaic tiles, the huge kitchen, and the first modern European-style bathroom in North Africa, still with its original plumbing; but the complex sprawls to the rear with gardens, a cemetery, stables, mills and baths, while roof terraces, if you can gain access, give views across the city.
While T’hami El Glaoui was Pasha of Marrakesh, Si Tayab El Mokri served as Pasha of Casablanca (from 1927 to 1949), and he too built a huge palace in Fès in 1906 (with some 1930s additions). In the southern part of the medina near the Bab Jdid gate, at 1 Rue Hamia, Douh, the Dar El Mokri has a more European feel with Oriental touches. As usual in Moroccan palaces there’s a large courtyard inside the entrance, for parades and grand receptions for dignitaries arriving on horseback (or even on camels); stairs lead to a terrace above, from where you can watch the comings and goings to the informal workshops that now occupy most of the rooms around the courtyard. The family still lives here and is keeping the place in good order; the grand drawing room with its pink walls and white stucco boasts a huge golden cupola and shell-shaped alcoves. The spacious gardens are rather run-down, alas. There’s a good chance that this palace will be refurbished for exhibitions, conferences and other events (and it has already been used as a film location).
The easiest to see, in fact, is the Palais Mnebhi, right on Talaâ Seghira at 15 Rue Souiket Ben Safi, which is now a restaurant catering mainly to tour groups. Built by a minister of war under Sultan Moulay Abd el Aziz, it was home to Maréchal Lyautey, first French résident-général. In addition the Palais Amani, at 12 Derb el Miter, Oued Zhoune, is now a luxury riad, and no doubt there will be accommodation in others too once the tourism business picks up again.
A couple of places to eat
Situated in a beautifully decorated, 250 year-old courtyard house, Cafe Clock is a contemporary cultural hub. Artists, tourists and musicians gather in the library, the terrace, the bar, the red room, the courtyard, and the balcony spaces. You’ll find story telling, music and cooking classes as well as a tiny cinema, where, if you happen to be the only one who shows up, you can watch whichever film you fancy, of those available. The weekly programme is set each Sunday night.
The food will give you a break from more traditional dishes (although these are also available and as vegetarian versions). You can also try their Camel Burger! We ate their delicious Aubergine and Goat’s Cheese Quiche and I recommend the Orange and Almond Sephardic Cake.
The Ruined Garden – not the easiest place to find, but worth it for the exquisite food! Once a merchant’s house, then a rubbish dump, now exactly as it says, adapted to create an atmospheric restaurant and bread-making school with an outdoor kitchen and lovely open fire inside. It’s opposite the pharmacy at Sidi Ahmed Chowi, 5 or 6 minutes walk downhill from Batha roundabout, and with a little notice they’ll even send someone to meet you there if you are nervous about finding it. We followed a lad of about nine who took us down a number of side alleys.
En route from Fes to Chefchaouen
We took the 11.00 bus (checking in our luggage for 5 drh each), which stopped for a lunch break at the Cafe Boucherie where, if you are on the mark, you can choose a portion of meat at the butchers and then have it grilled next door and ready to eat before departure 30 mins or so later.