Change of plan

Our new Aussie neighbours in Marina Boureg, Craig and Julie, came over to say hello after returning from a couple of days in Fes. Their enthusiastic description of their time there conjured up images of an ancient city unspoilt over hundreds of years, steeped in living history. So we decided to switch our travel plans from Marrakesh to Fes.

Whereas Marrakesh has the Djemaa el-Fna, its nightly carnival acts and snake charmers, Fes has the largest car-free medina in the world, and it’s home to the iconic Chaouwara Tanneries, where they make leather same way as in medieval times. It’s also a Unesco world heritage fave. It ain’t carnival, but Fes we had to see.

From a search of Expedia, Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor, a lovely riad emerged located bang in the heart of the old medina, with glowing reviews from ex-visitors. After booking the Riad Larroussa, I emailed to ask that someone meet us at the train station. And within a few minutes received a response confirming that a driver will be waiting for us, sign in hand, to take us to the medina gates where a porter will take our bags and show us to the riad. Good start.

Next morning found us sticky and drooping on platform one of Salé railway station, waiting for the delayed train to Fes (rail works at Casablanca). When the train rolled in half an hour late, and the first class carriage rolled way past us, we discovered that some comedian had switched the location of the carriage from the rear of the train to the front. This resulted in Maria and I performing a sweaty sprint to the opposite end of the train – encouraged by the train guards who I think saw this as a bit of fun sport.

The reward for our efforts was to relax in comfort. Unlike the open first-class carriages in the UK, these are old classics with compartments leading off a corridor, each with six seats; think steam trains and black and white films, and you’ll get the picture. The seats feel that you are sinking into a large comfortable armchair. And the air conditioning works well enough to turn your heat-reddened head back to a shade less frightening to children. So we were able to relax, cool down, and read our way to Fes.

Arrival in Fes

As promised, on arrival at Fes station three and a half hours later, although a bit hard to find amongst the hoards of folks pouring into the station concourse, our driver was waiting.

Our driver filled our journey to the riad by highlighting some of the sites along the way: the renovation works on the walls and the new part of Fes where some are choosing to live in apartments rather than traditional houses. The latter might appear a minor observation, but it represents a major change in attitude. The riad, as an example, bears nothing of its riches. In other words, you can’t tell how small or large, or rich or poor, a person’s house is from the outside. Apartment living does expose some of that to the outside world. So, things are changing – although I suspect very slowly.

Arriving at the medina gates, Laarbi, our porter, took our bags from the car and took us on a five-minute stroll through the labyrinthine streets before stopping at a very unassuming door. To the left of the door is nothing more than a modest sign for the Riad Larroussa, and to the right nothing but grey walls. Stepping through the door gives nothing away either, more grey walls, but when the second door opens, the beauty of the riad is exposed. Stepping through that door delivers you into a different world: a quiet, serene courtyard, in the middle of which stands a small fountain and around that a host of orange trees. Colourful seating all around. Art works everywhere – including intricate mosaics and carvings. It’s just stunning, and it’s impossible to imagine this exists from the outside.

After an effortless check-in and a complimentary glass of homemade lemonade, we made arrangements for a guide to meet us at the riad the next day, and Karim showed us to our room on the first floor. The room didn’t disappoint. Nor did the pool, the restaurant for dinner, or the breakfast. 

On recommendation from the riad, we carefully navigated our way to the Ruined Garden restaurant for lunch. Although only a few streets away it’s easy to get lost, so we left the riad with some trepidation, an offline Google map, and a lot of focus. The map shows it’s possible to get to the restaurant two ways, but that ‘ain’t the case – turn left at the riad, and you are doomed to eternally walk the streets slowly wasting away. Fortunately, by carefully following the directions given us, we avoided that fate – and managed to find our way back. For anyone visiting Fes, this little cafe is a gem. The food is excellent, the prices keen, and the service hotter than the chilli paste served as an appetiser.

Streets of Fes

Our guide, Farida, arrived the next morning. Before setting off, we talked about what we wanted to see, and she married that with the itinerary she had in mind for us. And off we went.

As a native of Fes, she knows the city streets like the back of her hand. And people know her. Immediately we noticed the difference in attitude from the folks around us. People with brothers/cousins/others with carpet shops stayed away as she cleared a path left and right through the confusion of narrow streets and alleyways, weaving her way towards the first sight she wanted us to see.

Owned by someone who left the medina years ago to move to a new house in the new part of Fes, this old riad is slowly falling apart. A small tip to the caretaker, who is holding the place together as best he can, permitted us to take a look round. Despite the obvious need for a major overhaul, the place is still magnificent. In terms of size, it’s probably four times that of Larroussa – palatial in fact – and would make a beautiful home or hotel if restored. Unfortunately, the owner has no incentive to sell, so it’s likely to slowly give itself back to the earth. Such a shame.

Continuing through the myriad of copper, wood and various other artisanal souks, where goods are still meticulously hand crafted, we eventually arrived at a taxi rank, where Farida arranged for a car to take us to a disused hilltop fort for us to see the medina from above. Because of its tactical position, previously for the military to watch the people, the fort now provides a perfect vantage point for the people to see the whole medina.

Our next stop was a ceramic factory, doubling as a school, where craftsmen create pottery and mosaics in much the same way as they did centuries ago.

The staff retention statistics here would make any HR manager green with envy. The younger fella on the left of the photograph has worked here for 25 years, starting as an apprentice to the chap on the right of the picture who has been here for 35 years.

Watching all the trades at work is fascinating. There’s none of this diamond wheel cutting malarkey here; the mosaic pieces are cut to shape using something resembling an adze. Delicate work for a hefty instrument. But these folks can trim ceramic pieces down to a fraction of a millimetre with it – seemingly with little effort.

Our guide took us to each of the trades and then to the showroom and an opportunity to buy from a selection of products made in the factory. We didn’t buy anything simply because there is nowhere to store it safely on the boat, so it’s likely to have a very short life span. We felt no pressure to buy, however, and left with handshakes, good memories and a few photos of the place.

Chaouwara Tanneries

Next, it was back to the medina and the leather souk… the home of the Chaouwara Tanneries.

The only way to see the tannery is from one of the shops. So, Farida took us to one, handing us into the care of one of the staff who gave us a sprig of mint leaves each to mask the smell of the vats, before leading us up the narrow stairs to the upstairs gallery with its perfect view of the whole tannery area.

On the left of the top photograph is where the hardcore work happens. The white pits are the start of the process to prepare the animal hide for receiving colour. The white is a combination of lime and pigeon poo. As I understand it, the latter is to help to open up the structure of the leather to make it softer. It certainly opens up your nostrils, so the mint sprigs come in very handy. To the right are the various dying vats, and to the right of these, shown on the other photographs, is the transport system to get the hides out of the tannery.

All of the dyes used are natural, and that includes the use of saffron to create yellow leather. You can see in the photographs that this is non-existent in the vats. The price of saffron means that it needs to be done in a more secure area upstairs close to the shops – and in much smaller quantities.

The whole enterprise runs as a cooperative between the tanners, the shopkeepers, and the people making the end product. And the products are sold in a cluster of shops around the tannery vats. The craftsmanship is, as expected, excellent. And if you are in the market for high-quality leather, this is the place to go.

In the distant past the tannery workers had high status, but not so much now. It’s proving difficult to encourage people to work here. Perhaps understandably the new generation wants to do something more pleasant than spending a morning in a vat of lime and pigeon poo, but it’ll be a shame if this piece of living history disappears into memory.

Farida’s tour then took us to a restaurant for lunch (you wouldn’t think is down a narrow side street). And back to the hotel via the university and a fragrance shop to buy some Argan oil and natural air fresheners to stop the boat from smelling too boaty.

After parting with some cash and exchanging contact details back at the hotel, we said goodbye to Farida and spent the rest of the day lounging around by the pool. Occasionally lifting our heads to speak with the other guests: two American women – childhood friends who found each other again on Facebook and now holiday together each year – and a couple from Australia: Bernadette and Scott who we later joined for united nations drink up on the roof terrace after dinner.

Back towards Salé

Our time at Larroussa went all too quickly, and soon we were back on the train, but this time our reserved seats placed us in separate carriages. Maria had the international continent in hers, and I had the locals. And here’s another thing you don’t find on the 0745 from Basingstoke to Waterloo, no matter what class you are travelling. Sat on my own in the carriage, hoping that the ticketing system had cocked up and things would stay that way, the door opened and in came a young fella quickly followed by an even younger one (about six years old) and his father. The dad said bonjour and shook my hand, and so did the young fella. A while later, dad left the carriage and came back with a pack of chewing gum – offering it to everyone in our small community, including me. A simple act of sharing, but something I have never experienced on a train in the UK. In fact, the only thing I have received on the trains in England is abuse.

And that – the warmth and openness of the people – is the abiding memory I have of this beautiful country and its lovely people.

Contact information 

If you ever find in Fes and need an excellent guide to steer you through the streets, Farida can be contacted by email (replace the at with @ and dot with .): faridachaaibi at hotmail dot fr.

And here’s a link to Riad Larrroussa: