Much like in Marrakech, the center of Fes is the Medina or the old city. There is a wall around the Medina that has been there for about 1,000 years. And in both cities, there are holes in the walls where wooden planks could have been placed to form scaffolding for building and repairs. But the two are by no means identical. The Medina of Fes is larger than that of Marrakech, and of course, has a longer wall. The wall in Fes has crenelations, whereas in Marrakech it is a flat top.
Tourists are warned that they can easily get lost in the Medina of Marrakech. But that of Fes is much larger with more twisting alleys. If you want to get lost because that is your style of exploration, well, you can easily do so in Fes. Another huge difference, Marrakech is basically level. There is a slight grade to some of the alleys, but not much. But Fes is built on top of hills. You are continually heading up or down stairs or hills.
|The staggered buildings of the Fes Medina|
Marrakech is much more tourist oriented than Fes. The main square, the Jema El Fnaa is large and filled with so many places selling juice, dry fruit, henna tattoos, and souks along the side selling everything else. Plus at night, the crowd doubles and the shops do too. Restaurants are built out of benches and metal shells. Carts appear selling snail soup. And men walk around with rolling carts/tables and selling pastries or candies or nuts or doughnuts.
Fes is certainly friendly to tourists, but it isn't built with the same atmosphere. In Fes, we saw many more family groups or groups of teens about in the streets of the Medina. People stopped and chatted as they bought their daily necessities. And there were far fewer tourists about.
Both cities have their artisans of various sorts. And it is amazing to see them work. But what is unique to Fes is the tannery. Here leather is tanned and dyed in giant pits. These tannery pits are not used in winter. That is the time for renovations to be done on them. So while we got to see them, no one was actively dyeing anything with them at the time. We could certainly see some pits that were tinged with pink or blue from the dyes that must be in them in the part of the year in which they are a going concern.
|Can you see some leftover color in some of the pits?|
|Another side of the tannery|
From what we are told and we read, what happens in other times of the year is that men work in the tannery. They pour the various chemical or stones in to make the colors they want. Then they climb into the pit (which is easily three feet or more deep) and they walk around in circles to mix the dye. It is also supposed to smell quite strongly.
|Pits stacked one atop the other|
In both Marrakech and Fes, that central Medina is surrounded by the New City. This is a much more modern city, similar to western cities, but with an Arabic or Moorish architectural style. In Marrakech, we stayed outside of New Town in an apartment, because we were staying for a month. In Fes, we stayed in a Riad in the Medina itself. It was one of the old houses of the Medina which had been converted into a hostel of sorts. Ours was called Riad Mikou and we loved it.
There is a large royal palace in Fes, and the King of Morocco does spend some of his time there. He apparently travels between palaces in Fes, Tangiers, and Rabat.
At one time, Fes was the capital of the kingdom, and the capital of trade and industry. It was the place for traveling merchants to trade in their goods. Those who traveled through Africa by camel or through Asia by foot, they all collected in Fes to sell their goods to those who would bring them to Europe or the Western Hemisphere.
Today, Casablanca is the center of trade. Travel by camel is sort of on the outs. People prefer planes and boats, so Casablanca, on the water, gets the business. This is partly why riads are forming in the Medina. The Medina at Fes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So they can't make radical changes and they don't want to. They want to preserve the heritage. But as business people left Fes for Casablanca, it left many of these ancient homes empty.
The government gives assistance to entrepreneurs who buy old homes in the Medina and turn them into hostels or restaurants. At one time, the Medina closed its gates at night. Now the gates are always open so people can come into the Medina at any time. They have learned that tourists like being in the Medina and seeing Fes how the locals see it. We certainly did.
We spent a lot more time in Marrakech. But in many ways, I preferred the atmosphere of Fes. It just felt more like Fes being Fes, as opposed to Marrakech putting on the show of being Marrakech for us. Maybe I'm crazy, but that was how it felt to me.