A warm and Fes-y feeling

Fes wouldn't appeal to everyone. But I liked it so much I felt sad to leave. As we bounced along on the bus out of town, heading to Chefchaouen, Steve and I agreed we've never experienced any place quite like the medina — in all our travels. The closest comparison we could make was with Venice, another ancient city that's a maze of twisty narrow passages and a sanctuary from all forms of motorized traffic. I've read that Fes's medina (where we spent almost all our time) is the largest pedestrian-only zone on Earth — home to something like half a million people. But unlike Barcelona's old quarter or Venice, the Fes medina isn't an enclave of monied professionals or trust-fund babies, but home to folks who sell live chickens and cure animals skins in reeking vats of urine and pigeon excrement and beat copper into beautiful bowls and drive donkeys laden with propane cannisters, eking out livings in those and a thousand other ways. It's not really medieval. Today the streets are (mostly) lined with cobblestones, and pipes deliver running water. There's electric light, and people use cell phones and ATM machines and wi-fi. But these things have arrived within just the past few decades, and the presence of the way life was for the thousand preceding years is palpable.

 

 

 
Part of the tanneries
If there's a travel article or guidebook to Fes that avoids using the phrase “sensory overload,” I haven't seen it. The cliche is understandable. In addition to all the mind-boggling sights, you have to process the five times daily calls to prayer issuing from the hundreds of mosques, the crowing roosters, barking dogs, clattering and banging and sawing of the artisans. Smells issue from the tanneries, from the sizzling donuts, from the hens and pigeons whose necks have just been wrung. As in Venice, there are things to buy for prices ranging from pennies to the equivalent of thousands of dollars. Some of it is beautiful; much interesting, and a thousand touts do their best to convince you to at least have a look.

Through our riad, Steve and I hired a guide Tuesday morning to help us get oriented. We regretted it. Rachid was a slick operator, one of the most manipulative people I've ever met, and I'm still fretting that he tricked us into paying too much for the ceiling lamps we never intended to buy (but which WILL look cool in our African-themed guest room, assuming they still work when we get them home.) After that, we wandered on our own, marveling at the chance to see full chains of production in the space of a short stroll: skins newly stripped from the goats on one block, the tanned and dyed hides on another, the pretty goat leather purses and wallets and soft slippers (by the thousands) a little further along the way. We loved watching weavers working at antique shuttle-fly looms and seeing their jewel-colored handiwork stacked up on the nearby shelves.

In two long days, we never got sick of it. But every time we returned to Dar Serrarine that brought a different kind of pleasure. At one point, we looked through an album full of photos of what the place looked like when Allah and Katie bought it back in the early 2000s. The walls were stained and dingy; tiles were missing, woodwork broken. Allah worked alongside the artisans whom he hired, and it took three years to make it presentable for the first guests. Seven years later, it occupies a very short list of the most sumptuous places we've ever slept in.

One of the rooms at Dar Seffarine

 

At the same time, it felt homey. The kitchen was a few steps from the grand inner courtyard, and several times I shuffled in to put a dirty glass in the sink. The high point came our first night, when Allah give a highly animated tour to us and the six middle-aged European pals (German, Polish, French) who were our fellow guests. Sometime after 8, when someone made a comment about being hungry, we all crammed into the kitchen to drink Moroccan beer and wine and smoke cigarettes (everyone except Steve and me). “In Iraq, you drink until 11 — and then you have dinner!” Allah exclaimed.

It wasn't quite that late when we all climbed up to the rooftop dining room, but our dining companions by then somehow felt like old friends. The beef and lamb tagines were tasty; the conversation hugely entertaining. Chances are I'll never get back to Fes or Dar Seffarine. (The world is big; there's so much else to see.) But after a night like that, I was fantasizing about returning to rent my own furnished apartment in the medina and study Arabic. Rachid told us we could find one for around $400 a month.

 

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