Saturday, 13 April 2013

The ancient city of Fes

Fes (or Fez) is the medieval capital of Morocco and was once its commercial and financial centre. It is situated in the north of Morocco and has the best preserved old city in the Arab world. Called the medina Fes el Bali, it is sprawled out over a huge area but its small streets are barely wide enough for pedestrians let alone cars, so everything is delivered by man drawn carts, motorbikes and donkeys.

The medina is contained inside high walls dating back centuries. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest commercial car-free area in the world.

One of the royal Palaces. The architecture typical of Fes with stone, plaster and painted wood elements. The doors are solid brass and beautifully carved.

The Chouwara tannery. Leather tanning and dyeing is done in this particular part of the medina of Fes. Men spend their days going from hole to hole dyeing the pelts. The smell of animal skin mixed with tanning brine is often overpowering and mint branches are offered by locals to tourists so they can stand the stench.

Pottery is the other main production of Fes. The dried pottery and tiles are hand painted and fired in special round kilns such as the one below.

The tiles or pots are stacked in the top part and the wood fire stoked at the bottom. It takes hours to fire up the kiln and even longer to cool it down.

We stayed at the "Riad des Vingt Jasmins" (The Twenty Jasmine Riad) named after these massive jasmine bushes. The delicious smell of jasmine was a joy after the strong odours of the tannery.

The Twenty Jasmine Riad is a typical Fes house with large rooms surrounding a central patio. This house, while very large, is attached to other houses on three sides ( the fourth being the small garden above) so it has almost no windows to the outside and all the light come from the glass ceiling of the patio onto which all rooms open. The Moroccan home is very private and strangers must not be able to see inside except by invitation.

Unlike Marrakech where it seldom rains and temperatures are clement, the central patios of Fes houses are often closed at the top with glass. This upward view of the indoor patio at "Les Vingt Jasmins" is a marvellous example of wood, plaster and wrought-iron work. The rooms and corridors get light from the windows opening onto the patio.

The intricate tile work and lovely detail of a hand carved radiator cover, a rather recent concession to modern comfort. Winters in Fes can be very harsh and these large house are not easily heated.

Magnificent brick, stone and carved wood facade in the medina. Originally the intricate transoms would have held a long thin roof to shelter the window from the rain and wind.

The entrance to the Al Qarawiyyin mosque, one of the oldest in Morocco. It was recently entirely renovated but non-muslims are not allowed in so we could only peek in from the alley. The floor tile colours are an antique Fes motif. Note the marble fountains, the chiselled plaster surround at the centre and the enamelled dark green roof tiles typical of Fes.

This small museum (as well as the jasmine plants) is in need of some attention but it has a rare collection of antique rugs, chests and leather goods on display. The open patio has fountains alternating with tiled flower beds. One can see what a splendid palace it must have been: the blue and white column capitals, the beautiful tile work, the high ceiling above the arched terrace.

Images: Joelle Desparmet, Riad des Vingt Jasmins, Linda de Volder

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