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7/10/09 Fes Medina

Disclaimer: I haven’t spent any time in the Ville Nouvelle of Fes, so really can’t speak about it. It’s a modern city, complete with McDonald’s and office buildings. Whoopdy-doo. If you come to Fes, head straight for the medina. It’s cooler than the New City in the summer, because the cramped alleys prevent much sunlight from penetrating down to street level, and warmer than the City in winter, because the close press of bodies traps lots of human warmth in the streets.

So you want to visit the north, or else you’re interested in the cultural heart of Morocco – or both. Fes feels to me like the intersection of New York City with Williamsburg. You can buy nearly anything in the cramped streets of the medina, from artisans who are practicing crafts identically to the way their great-great-grandfathers did. Skills and trade secrets have been handed down from father to son (no, sadly, almost never to a daughter) for countless generations. Countless millennia, quite likely.

Fes served as Morocco’s capital hundreds of years ago, and remains its cultural and artisanal capital today. No matter how resolved you are not to buy anything, you’ll likely find yourself seduced by the jewelry, the herbalists’ wares, the woodcrafts, or especially the leather.

Moroccan leather is internationally renowned, and with excellent reason. The tanneries of Fes have been treating and dyeing sheep, goat, kid, cow, and camel skins for thousands and thousands of years. You can get leather shoes, purses, pappasans (cushion seat things, sometimes called ottomans), and leather jackets for a fraction of what you’d pay in the US. And the quality…you can’t fake that kind of quality. We watched our eager seller threaten a scrumptious leather jacket with water and fire. No kidding. First he poured a glass of water onto it, to show that it simply beads up and runs right off (and he neatly caught it back in the glass, to show the next batch of wide-eyed shoppers). Then he struck up a lighter and held it up to a leather jacket. I wanted to throw myself between this gorgeous coat and the clearly insane man who wanted to torch it…but the leather was impervious to the flame. These guys know what they’re doing, and they guarantee your leather product – jacket, bag, etc – will last fifteen years. (Of course, I doubt anyone travels *back* to Morocco in the event her purse sustains water damage, so that guarantee might not be quite as impressive as he wanted it to sound.)

Navigating the maze-like medina is easier than it first appears. There are two major streets running almost parallel to each other – Talaa Kebira and Talaa Saghira. The Big Street and The Little Street. They run at a steady incline down from the Bab Bu Jeloud, the most common entry point to the medina, where you’ll find lots of inexpensive hostel-style hotels (my favorite is Hotel Cascade, 0635638442) and some moderately priced restaurants. Because Talaa Kebira and Talaa Saghira run steadily downhill, if you find yourself lost, all you need to do is walk out of whatever alley you’re in and find a street running uphill-downhill, then keep walking back uphill until you’re back at the Bab Bu Jeloud.

One famous Fes landmark is the Medersa Bou Inania, one of the few mosques in the country (or, for that matter, in the world) that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. For a modest entrance fee (10dh/adult), you can come in and see the gorgeous architecture and breathtaking design elements of this Merenid masterpiece. It’s easy to find – it’s at the uphill end of the Talaa Kebira and Talaa Saghira, which run along two of its outer walls. It’s also next to Fes’s famous Water Clock, an engineering marvel that functioned for centuries before grinding to a halt; modern engineers are trying to get it going again, but the technology is long lost.

Down a well-marked alley from the Water Clock is my favorite Fes restaurant/café, Café Clock (0535637855). Its owner, a delightfully peripatetic Brit named Mike, will cheerfully chat up any and all customers about Fes, his latest project, or the café’s upcoming events – their social calender might even surpass the menu in its array of interesting offerings. The food (and prices!) are European, which makes it a huge splurge on a Peace Corps budget, but the 90dh camel burger and 25dh smoothies are absolutely worth it. And always get the dessert special of the day – you’ll thank me later. :)

For the museum-minded and history buffs, the Armory is Fes’s must-visit. (Follow signs for the Borj Nord.) Overlooking Fes from a hill to the north - and therefore offering unparalleled panoramas - this rebuilt architectural masterpiece (inspired by Leonardo de Vinci) once defend the walled city from attackers, and now houses arms and armaments from the past millenium. It’s the most sophisticated/modern museum I’ve visited in Morocco, with the one minor drawback that all the exhibit information is in French and Arabic. But even if you can’t read either language, the swords, daggers, muskets, flintlock rifles, pistols, modern rifles, and cannons (some several meters long) make for an impressive visual display.

Because Fes is home to so many m3lims (artisans/craftsmen), some city guides will err on the side of showing you storeroom after storeroom, where these gifted craftsmen silkly turn into gifted salesmen, and suddenly this delightful city feels like an overpriced mall. Be straightforward with your guide about whether your interest is in crafts/shopping or landmarks/history (or a combination). He’s almost certainly getting a cut from every store he takes you to, so his interests and yours may not align perfectly. If you get a licensed vrai guide (pronounced vray geed, and featuring ID cards around their necks), you’ll likely get more of what you want than if you go with a faux guide (foh geed), who could be anybody trying to make money off tourists. (Didn’t you see Slumdog Millionaire?)

In short: I’ve spent more time in Fes than in any of the other Big Six cities, for the simple reason that it’s my favorite. Ancient and modern blend beautifully in this city, where you can find the oldest university on Earth and farmer’s market produce fresh-picked this morning, and everything inbetween.

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