Fez, or Fes, is one of the Imperial cities of Morocco. It has the largest medina, or medieval Arab city, in the world and for some time now has been one of Lonely Planet’s destinations of choice. It ranked number 11th on the travel guides’ so called Ultimate Travel list of 2015.
The Ultimate Travel list.
And nothing is ever going to change that…
Besides the biggest medina in the world, the city also boasts the oldest continually operating (degree granting) university in the world. The University of Al Karaouine was founded in 859 CE, roughly two hundred years before the universities of Bologna and Oxford, by the daughter of a wealthy merchant. It still requires its aspiring students to have entirely memorised the Qu’ran before they can be admitted. The Qu’ran has roughly around 77,000 words and, even though it can be somewhat repetitive which reduces the sheer number of words to be learnt by heart, it’s still a mindboggling exercise of senseless brain whacking. It seems unfair to compel applicants to perform this feat of memorising the holy scriptures when all they want is to study Einstein’s field equations.
The Medina (or Fes el-Bali) is unquestionably the most entertaining part of Fez. It’s a maze of small, winding streets and I had lost my way in this labyrinth many times before because of my almost non-existent sense of direction. So it came hardly as a surprise that, when walking from Bab Boujloud to Place Rcif, following the Talaa Kebira, an ancient artery that bisects the city, I realised I had lost my way again. It was just then that I felt he need arise to use a toilet when I was still fairly far away from my hotel which was at the other end of the medina. I started to head back, anxiously trying to estimate how far I was removed from that safe haven, but soon getting hopelessly lost once more. Where was I? The GPS on my phone didn’t work, the blue dot stubbornly failed to light up and suddenly I felt an alarming activity in my digestive organs. This was not good. Sometimes I saw familiar signs I knew I had seen before but where and when and in which direction? Walking swiftly, I felt I was making good progress, but then I bumped into a large group of elderly Chinese tourists. They were slow and they were many. It was as if an entire old people’s home from Beijing was let loose into the old city. Resolutely I decided to bypass them and shot into an alley to the right. The alley curved out and I was determined to take the first lane forking back to the left. But there didn’t seem to come any turn to the left. It kept going and going, taking me further and further from my intended direction. I cursed under my breath: I couldn’t believe there could exist such a long alley running forever, never curving back to the main street. What was it to my left: a nuclear complex cunningly hidden in this medieval city? I looked at my compass (yes, I keep one) trying to stay the right course. Finally I came to a bridge over a foul smelling little stream. What was this? I had never seen that little stream before. I followed the little open sewer downstream. I had to go down and then right. My belly rumbled ominously. Oh my God…I frantically kept tapping on the map on my phone while I kept walking, I couldn’t afford to stop, there was a small river on the map not far from the south gate close to my hotel, I must be close then, but still no blue dot. Stupid satellites were orbiting in all the wrong parts of the sky. Then donkeys, or no, they must be mules, they were too big for donkeys. Normally my mind would go on a reverie about the nature of mules and what was that other one, not a mare crossed with a male donkey but a stallion crossed with a female donkey, or what was it and what was it called again, and is it okay to walk behind a mule. I know not to walk closely behind a horse because it might kick you with its hind legs. But mules? Better not to take any risks. Daft animals, go out of the way. I envied them for being able to just drop their, you know, whenever they felt the need for it, but I… well, I might have to, what could I do? Just barge in one of the little shops and demand a toilet? Not an option, I didn’t have the time to explain or to risk further delay, it had become an emergency, an emergency? it had become tantamount that, oh shit…The pressure became unrelenting. Now I thought I recognised a few shops. And then, finally, I knew I was getting close to my hotel. I had definitely, definitely, been here before, definitely, I was not far from my hotel. It started to get painful. I wanted to run, but that seemed to make things worse so I slowed down again but I walked fast. Faster and faster but not running, desperately trying to remember how much further it could be, not that much further, surely, but not running. Not a good idea. Not running. Cramps shot through my belly and I groaned, trying to keep it together. Don’t run. One corner, there was it, the entrance of my hotel, my glorious hotel. Joy sprouted up from my tormented body. Through the door, up the stairs. I was going to make it, I clenched my teeth, I was saved, I slammed the door and sat down. For about one whole minute I knew everything about happiness that there was to know.
The day after my ordeal I walked over to the Nouvelle Ville, the part of the city built by the French and I entered the mall where I walked up and down the aisles of the Carrefour which were pleasantly predictable and easy to negotiate, even for me. It was very nice to walk along the rows upon rows of jam without ever getting lost.
A new delicacy I have found out are so called prickly pears, or Indian figs (karmouss el-hindi in Arabic) which are the fruits of a cactus. They can hardly be regarded as traditional oriental food as they are, as all cactuses are, endemic to the New World.
For some reason it’s typical when paying to throw your coins (they usually cost one to two dirham) in a plastic receptacle filled with water. The water might have to do with the little spines that may get attached through the gloved hands of the vendor…
From Fez I took a grand taxi to Azrou in the Middle Atlas. These taxis leave when full, but to my surprise this meant comfortably full, not Africa full, so that was nice. According to Lonely Planet the town has a stunning view, but I found it not very ‘stunning’. Nevertheless, an amiable little town with many café terraces where it’s wonderful to drink coffee. It has some big rock in the middle of the town and that was it. No need for the word ‘stunning’.
It was Tuesday which meant souk day and so I strolled over to the northern part of town. It wasn’t a particularly colourful market but it was at least authentic. I was promised beaucoup de Ber-ber but I couldn’t see very well the difference between Moroccans and Berbers to be honest. There was a lot of junk but given the number of people walking around with junk on their back or junk tied on their donkeys, there must have been a market for it. Near the fringes of the market it became tricky to distinguish between discarded rubbish and something that could still be categorised as merchandise. Piles of rubbish lay around everywhere with no apparent owners hanging around. On an empty plot somebody had left a dead sheep. A doleful donkey was nibbling on some cardboard boxes.
On the way back to my hotel I bought a second hand paperback of Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet for 15 dirham. Honoré de Balzac seems to be a popular author. He was famous for the great quantities of coffee he imbibed.
One day it was raining. The temperature had dropped and I was wearing all my clothes. We love the rain, the hotelier said as I sat outside to watch the rain with a cup of coffee. Across the square people walked huddled in thick coats. They didn’t look exactly like they loved the rain.
Café au lait.