Reflections on a Journey: Morocco Days 2-4 (Fes)
We began our second day by making our way to the train station in Tangier and start the 6 hour journey to the ancient imperial city of Fes, I place I had been wanting to visit ever since I first heard about it.
We took a petite taxi, which are highly recommend when traveling around the cities of Morocco, as long as they use their meter, they are very cheap. Unfortunately most of them don’t speak English, but as we were in Tangier a helpful drug dealer is always on hand to offer assistance. (As well as some hashish, but never mind that).
If traveling by train in Morocco I would recommend going first class, the tickets are relatively cheap, and the fact that first class was quite modest in what it offered, I would hate to imagine what normal class was like. (The toilet is essentially a hole in the ground with a seat put over it. A group of travelers from Dubai later on in our journey said it best: “First class? My ass!”)
On most train journeys to Fes you are most likely to be greeted by a very friendly “fellow traveler” who claims he works for the official tourist board or whatever, and can offer you a guided tour of Fes as well as some added extras. You can play along with the charade and book a tour with him, be they official or unofficial they are all the same anyway. Our one cost as 120 Dhirhams, which wasn’t bad, but it comes with a price as I will mention later. They are not necessary however, you can make your own way around if you wish. Arriving in Fes our taxi driver told us the real gist of our fellow travelers intentions, and he offered us a “REAL” guided tour for 150. Sorry mate you were 30 over…
The old town of Fes is a real “blast from the past” (As they very cheesily say), it wholeheartedly embodies the term ‘medieval city’. Attempting to describe the environment to my father I told him if the bazaar of our small town in Pakistan were to suffer a explosion it would most likely turn out to become Fes. Wandering around the small and winding streets you will be lost 99% of the time. The key is try to stick to main streets, keep an eye out for landmarks, and if all else fails just follow the flow of people until you get to a point from which you can ascertain your direction. You can also ask stall and shop vendors who can point you on in the right direction, don’t ask passers by for help, as if they find out you are lost most of them will try to show you the way and then try to get a quick buck out of you. You will continuously be bombarded by merchants offering their wares and faux guides pestering you to show you around. It can be quite daunting and it can all add up to make your journey quite unpleasant. The best thing to do is just ignore them completely, or decline silently by shaking your head and raising your hand, this is what the Moroccans do. Even if you just say “Sorry, no thank you” they have got your attention and will continue with their efforts. This might take some time for well mannered westerners to get used to, but it will pay off.
The first place we visited in the city was the ancient university and mosque of al-Qarawayyn. A magnificent and serene building that is a sharp contrast to the chaos outside of it. It embodies the romanticised image that people have of the city. While there we met a fellow Pakistani traveler from Canada who had taken pretty much the same route we had from Spain to get there. I also brought out my extremely bad formal Arabic to talk to one of the locals whose own formal Arabic was extremely good given that most Moroccans hardly ever use it. We then prayed Maghrib and found they have very strange method of arranging their rows for prayer. Everybody stands in a straight line but at an angle facing Mecca, so you don’t actually stand shoulder to shoulder, which I thought was a unique peculiarity that added to special nature of the place. Afterwards the congregation gathers to recite Qur’an together. The rhythmic voices of the people reciting in the style of Warsh is truly hypnotic, and something that is replicated up and down the country. I took a video which you can find here (Apologies for the quality I took an old phone with me which is what I recorded it with):
The next day we had our ‘official’ tour which was quite good, but the problem with tours in Morocco is that they will keep taking you to shops that offer special Moroccan wares, who will take their time in showing you what they have for sale, and they processes they go through to make them. The reason why they insist on taking you to these shops is because the tour guides make a commission from whatever you buy. Best thing to do if you’re not interested in buying anything is just to say so and thank the shopkeeper for their time. If you are interested in buying something but it’s a bit out of your price range, go back later without the tour guide, and the seller should knock down the price as he doesn’t have to pay commission anymore.
There is quite a fair number of places to see in Fes, well worth it if you are interested in Islamic culture and history, as most of what there is to see are Madrassas and Mosques. But unfortunately for non-Muslims they are not allowed into most of them, so you will end up spending your time looking at buildings from the outside and not be able to appreciate their true beauty on the inside.
After finishing our two and a bit days in Fes, we set off the classical backpacker city of Marrakech…