I’ve been to Morocco before – but never to Fes – and I was expecting a heady blast of noise and spice and sun. I wasn’t disappointed.
We arrived late, almost midnight, after catching a connecting flight at Casablanca. It was dark and I had no idea where we were going, twisting through the tiny alleys, up and down dozens of steps, flanked with high walls. It was like a maze. I knew I’d never be able to find the way out on my own. The alleys are lined with big, anonymous doors, each leading into a home or courtyard. To my inexperienced eye, they all looked the same. Dusty and mysterious.
I got the shock of my life at the hotel. The door opened and in we went. And of course, we’d entered paradise – a cool, green and peaceful courtyard, beautifully tiled and stunningly furnished. We were staying at the Palais Amani, a luxury riad in Medina. An even bigger shock was that it’s run by old friends of mine from way back. We’d kind of lost touch, but what a fabulous reunion.
You can really see the appeal of riad hotels in a place like Fes. When we ventured out the next day, the alleys and markets were heaving. You get everywhere by foot in the old town – the paths only a few feet wide, so we had to cart the stuff around with us, dodging donkeys and carts and traders and shoppers. If you don’t get out of the way fast enough, you get a bit bashed. Everyone is busy – including the police. We must have been asked for our filming licence at least four times. I don’t know if we looked especially suspicious. Dave the director is a bit shifty, I suppose.
We darted into little cafes every now and then to escape the havoc – and found ourselves routinely sprayed with cool orange water. It’s a lovely tradition – and it works for just as long as you’re sitting down!
We were there for Eid so the city was slower than normal – but it never quietens completely. The red river, stained by the blood of the lambs killed for the celebratory feast, took my breath away – and I was amazed to see the kids on the street corners, cooking the sheep heads and stripping the skin for the tannery. Once upon a time only the rich families could afford to slaughter their own meat, but nowadays, everyone’s at it.
And ahhh – that tannery. We were privileged to be allowed inside to film. It’s normally out of bounds to tourists in case they fall in. But they’ll certainly be aware of it when wind blows in a certain direction. It was fascinating and it is dangerous. Life expectancy for the workers is much lower than the national average.
We tended to eat and chill out at the hotel during the evening and I have to admit to making use of the Hamman there. Well – who wouldn’t after a busy day in the market?