Sailing with Balvenie: Fascinating ancient Fés - Morocco

Balvenie - Transport in the souk (market)
Yacht Balvenie
Balvenie is a 47foot fractional rigged, centre cockpit sloop ,being sailed by Amanda Church and Mark Farrell, who have so far sailed her 26,263 miles. Currently they are in Morocco...

Balvenie - Sampling traditional bean soup
Yacht Balvenie
Our first inland excursion from Rabat was to the ancient imperial city of Fés. It sits just north west of the Middle Atlas mountains, around 3 1/2 hours by train from Rabat so we decided on an overnight trip, travelling in first class luxury by train with Australian cruisers Andrew and Clare from Eye Candy and Arnie and Jo from Just Jane.

Fés is the oldest of Morocco’s Imperial Cities, the old town medina area was expanded around 800AD and fully walled and the wall still stands to this day with just a few parts missing. It has been home to so many races, cultures and religions over the centuries, each leaving their mark on the city.

The main attraction for us was Fés el-Jdid (Old Fés), an absolute rabbit warren of dusty streets, tiny lanes, dead ends, overhanging buildings, tumbling ruins, hidden souqs and historical sites – what a challenging and interesting place to explore.

Balvenie - everywhere a different sight
Yacht Balvenie
We had prebooked our accommodation at Dar Fes Medina, a beautifully restored riad (traditional house) with a handful of tastefully decorated rooms, surrounding a central courtyard and topped off by a pleasant roof terrace. We were made extremely welcome by the helpful staff, and enjoyed mint tea and Moroccan cookies before deciding to go explore the medina.

We split into couples, with so many nooks and crannies to stop and explore, countless twists and turns, it was hard enough just the two of us not to lose each other. We spent a few hours getting lost and found again as we made our way through the never ending maze of lanes.

We discovered the produce market overflowing with freshly picked vegetables; smelt the live chicken market minutes before we were surrounded by feathers; got nudged out of the way by several donkey carts passing us in the impossibly narrow alleys; sampled dates, apricots and olives from an array of colourful stalls; resisted the temptation to slip into a carpet shop or three; mused at cats, chickens, ducks, rabbits and donkeys sharing the same piece of real estate; and stopped for a break in a local ‘hole in the wall’ eatery to try b’sara, a butterbean and garlic soup – yummy.

Getting lost on the way back to the riad was par for the course, but nothing a few dirham to some local lads couldn’t sort out, thought they were pushing it a bit when they wanted €10 for their efforts though – we weren’t as lost as THAT!! Actually, while we were lost we found a parade, in honour of the King.
Balvenie - just what cruisers get up to often
Yacht Balvenie
There were several groups of men in traditional regional dress, horses, bands, singing; then we spotted a sacrificial cow tethered to a post with a hood over it’s head – barbequed steak for dinner perhaps??

We, on the other hand, had decided to go with a recommendation from the riad to visit a traditional Moroccan home, with small adjoining restaurant for dinner, Restaurant Dar Hatim. A family member came and collected us and escorted us deep within the bowels of the medina down countless dusty, dark lanes.

Just as we were starting to doubt our judgement on whether this was a good idea we reached a beautifully carved door and stepped into another world. It is truly hard to describe the difference between the dusty, dirty, noisy, chaotic life lived outside these doors, compared to the peace, serenity, cleanliness and often luxurious life on the ‘other side’ , you could never guess from the outside what may lie within.

Balvenie - Restaurant views
Yacht Balvenie
We had a tour of their exquisitely renovated home, sat on the roof top terrace and sampled a vista of Fés by night, while sipping on an excellent Moroccan white wine, then enjoyed a wonderful meal in their 'tented restaurant'. What a finish to an excellent day.

With a mosque as our neighbour the familiar call to prayer woke us on Day 2 in Fés, however at 4.30am I think it is quite reasonable to roll over and try to snatch a couple more hours sleep! After breakfast the six of us left on a walking tour with an official Tourist Office guide – he took us back into the medina and shared his local insiders knowledge.

So it was another assault on our senses as we wove our way through even tinier lanes than we had dared to venture down the previous day. Tucked away behind what could only be described as derelict looking buildings, we experienced firstly a weaving business, the looms, threads and finished products were located under the shaky, bowing eaves, while the centre courtyard was completely open to the elements – somewhat hard to heat in winter I expect.

Balvenie - There were two more floors above this
Yacht Balvenie
The next Aladdins Cave was the Carpet Co-operative, it seems even on a Tourist Office tour you can not escape being taken to a carpet shop. But it was worth seeing, if only for the beauty of the building, 3 stories high, fully tiled and truly magnificent. The 360 degrees view from the rooftop was excellent then looking down into the atrium from the top floor, with carpets cascading over the banisters, well, it was hard to beat. The carpets, well they were somewhat impressive too, and I confess, we did make a purchase and now own a small Moroccan Cactus Silk carpet - we probably would all still be there if we hadn’t!

Next up was the leather tannery, just how to describe it leaves me lost for words. When you arrive (via a leathers products retail shop!) you are given a bunch of fresh mint, something to sniff on when the dreadful smells of the tannery processes just gets way overbearing. You can see livestock lined up over to one side, unawares of their plight. Luckily you don’t see what happens next, but then you can see all the skins hung around the place, drying out before going into the pits. The tanning pits are in two sections, the white ones are full of lime and pigeon pooh (truly), the men working in them almost up to their thighs – they did however wear rubber gloves, hardly much protection.

The other pits have natural dyes in them like indigo, saffron and poppy - the men designated to these pits must go home looking like a rainbow each night. The men are paid 'by piece', the faster they work the more they can earn, we understand the maximum daily wage to be around €30, I don’t know how many hours they work to achieve this.

Sons get the 'opportunity' to learn from their fathers then take over his pit when the time comes. When you next think you are having a bad day, not appreciated at work, need a pay rise etc ….. spare a thought for these guys, it looked like hell down there, and I can’t even imagine how bad it would be in the middle of winter.

Balvenie - skins, workers washing and the pits
Yacht Balvenie
We moved on to some historical sites, took a look at a Water Clock - an interesting piece of work with 12 windows and spouting that runs along, as the water fills up the window shutters move to indicate the time. It no longer works and is in desperate need of restoration but is seems nobody actually can work out just quite how it worked so restoration plans are on hold!!!

There were mosques, museums, markets and more – we saw it all – after nearly four hours it was time to call it a day before our brains went into total overload. We relaxed in a square drinking coffee as hundreds of men passed us having just finished Friday prayers. This is very much a lived in medina, 450,000 people live within it’s walls in buildings that have stood for centuries – most of them looking much the same as when they were built.

However time has not quite stood still - power cables run on the outside of the external walls, pavement levels have been risen to allow for pipes to be laid and when you get to a roof top vantage point the skyline is dominated by cheap Chinese satellite dishes, cellphone towers peek over the high walls, all to remind you it is the 21st century..

But overall the ancient imperial city of Fés still has a mystical medieval feel to it, and it was great to get the opportunity to spend a couple of days exploring it.

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