It’s not everyday that you can walk through a gate and walk back more than 1,000 years in time.
To a city with thousands of alleys, way too narrow for its residents — nearly 1 million of them — to drive.
So donkeys are the main means of moving things from place to place.
Such is life in the medina, or old section of Fes, Morocco, as it’s been from the very beginning.
That’s the mind-boggling part. To get a sense of just how long that’s been, consider this: The U.S. supposedly was discovered in 1492.
By that time, things in Fes had been rolling for 600 years. It’s been the heart, mind and soul of Morocco for a very long time.
What is so special about this place? I would’ve been so busy getting lost and worrying about potential hucksters (I’d heard stories from those that had been that you’d be hassled you until you broke down and bought at least one carpet) I wouldn’t have been able to fully grasp it on my own in my short time here.
That’s why I broke my own rules and splurged on a guide from Heritage Tours Private Travel, a company founded by a well-traveled architect who loves Morocco and has a fabulous rep when it comes to this part of the world.
Pricey, but well worth it, IMO. This time, I wanted someone to lead the way.
Our guide, Driss, (a well-rounded Fes native who studied American literature, among many other things), had his work cut out for him. (Looks a little like Scottish actor John Hannah from Four Weddings and a Funeral, don’t ya think?)
Anyway, Prior to this odyssey, all I knew was that Morocco was on the northern coast of Africa, across the Mediterranean from Spain.
The sense I’ve been getting from him is: You want to really know Morocco? Fes is the place.
Moroccans are a little bit of a lot of things. They wandered in from the Middle East and Spain.
And then mixed it up with the indigenous people — the Berbers — who find that term derogatory. They prefer to be known as the Amazigh — the free people.
Though it’s a Muslim country …
… Jews have also been around from the very beginning.
It was a French colony until it gained its independence.
Fes had been the capital off and on from the start until the French moved it. So this pulse of the nation is the best place to see Morocco in all its spiritual and intellectual glory. Just as it’s been since the Middle Ages. Small wonder Fes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As always, craftsmen ply their numerous trades, making bronze …
… for royal palaces, of which there are many. (I’m told Morocco has a pretty forward-thinking king.)
Fes is traditionally known for its phenomenally beautiful ceramic tiles.
You can see them made at the source.
And watch cloth spun from silk painstakingly made from cactus.
The tanneries are said to be among the oldest in the world — a holdover from Medieval times. The hides are softened in some pretty caustic stuff like pigeon droppings. Then they’re dyed by hand in the giant vats.
So the air, as you can imagine, doesn’t smell too great. I was given a sprig of mint to sniff to take off the edge, though it wasn’t all that bad.
Though I wasn’t crazy about this either, it’s another fact of life. I didn’t see any animal parts attached to the hides, thank goodness.
In other animal-related guilt, I also felt bad for the donkeys, who have to do all the brutal lifting, but that’s unfortunately also life.
For more information about Fes, click here.