Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in medieval times? Lucy Mullinger found out what it was like during a recent trip to Fes.
From donkeys and mules carrying copious amounts of bags, leather or food items, through to the sound of looms clanking out home-made rugs and scarves – the world of Fes is a million years away from Auckland, which is why I decided to visit the medieval town.
Founded in the ninth century, the city of Fes is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In order to get a taste of the ‘real Fes’, we visited what locals call the ‘old medina’ which houses the leather tanneries. The Chouara Tannery has been home to the production of leather goods for over a thousand years and is still going strong.
Tourists are given the opportunity to watch from above as the tanners work on the leather which is placed in vats of dye. On arrival at the tannery, every tourist is given a bunch of mint leaves to smell while standing over the tanning vats. This is in order to avoid the smell which emanates from beneath.
As I watched the back-breaking work going on beneath me, I felt very uncomfortable with sticking mint up my nose. The smell (and the accompanying back-breaking work) was something that every one of those tanners had to contend with every day of their working life.
In saying that, I also felt very uncomfortable paying the exorbitant prices that were attached to each leather accoutrement in the souvenir shop and I wondered just how much of the price was going to the labourers out in the tannery.
As I made my way out of the tannery, trying to work out whether the tourism trade was helping or hindering the Fes locals, we were soon assaulted by the smells and noises of the medina streets and it didn’t take long before the sales people found us and quickly pulled me out of my reverie.
In order to ensure that you are buying from the true artisans, it makes sense to organise a tour guide to take you around the medina as you are sure to be approached by local sales people at least twenty times on your travels throughout Morocco.
Unlike many other tourists we had come across throughout our travels, we managed to avoid being harassed too much because we chose the ‘completely ignore the sales people’ routine which worked well for a while. The other tried and true technique that seemed to work well was the habit of pretending to be a tourist that doesn’t speak any language that they might have come across.
After trialling English, French, German and Greek on us, the sales people would move on to a new ‘target’, and after a couple of days they began to realise that we weren’t biting and they left us alone. Although the sales people in Fes are pushy, this just added to the excitement and fun of travelling to a country which is so different to our own.
In keeping with our goal to find out as much as we could about the beautiful culture of Morocco, we chose to stay in a traditional Moroccan home (or dar) as opposed to a hotel.
Once you enter the door of a dar, you will find yourself in a hallway which will take you to the centre of the building. The centre courtyard is surrounded by the living quarters which can be up to four storeys high.
Another type of traditional home is known as a ‘riad’. It is similar to a dar, but includes a garden at the centre courtyard.
Thanks to many of the Fes inhabitants’ strict Islam faith, the buildings are made so that no one can see in, but the female inhabitants can still see out. One of the locals even ‘jokingly’ informed us that the doors were referred to as ‘jealousy doors’.
Many of the dars and riads that are available for tourists are homes that have been refurbished to their former glory and truly showcase the beauty of the inside of these homes.
One such dar is the Dar Roumana, a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture, run by a French chef and his Australian journalist wife.
Our time at the Dar Roumana was exquisite. As soon as we arrived at Fes airport, we were picked up by the hotel car and driven to the old medina.
A friendly local walked us through what seemed like a maze of streets to our front door and as soon as we entered the door, we realised that we had found a true gem.
The dar is a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture and is run by a couple who will treat you to a French/Moroccan fusion meal in the courtyard with a selection of fine African wines to choose from.
It is not hard to find yourself falling in love all over again as you gaze over the candlelit table situated in the beautiful courtyards of the various dars in Morocco and it was just as difficult for us two love birds to say goodbye to this beautiful town.
If you’re interested in following in our footsteps, check out the Dar Roumana website here.