The Athens of Africa, Fes, Morocco

Fes is, according to Wikipedia, the world’s biggest car-free urban area. It’s a complete maze and labyrinth – streets so close to each other and all looking so similar that you wonder how on earth it’s possible to navigate through all of this.

My hostel was pretty good about providing activities, so I joined up with a group that was doing a Fes tour. Although I usually like exploring cities on my own, with everything in Arabic and the streets being such a maze I figured a tour would be a good way to orient myself first.

Because I’d got into Fes at 3AM the night before, I had no idea what Fes was like – so when I saw the overview of Fes from the top of one of its hills, I did a double-take to be sure of its sheer size.

It is a city very unlike any other I’ve been to. Sprawling but dense, and everything is just so old. Ancient and medieval.

I’d had the good fortune to befriend some of the people who were staying with me at my hostel (true hostel experience, making traveller-friends!), and we set out to explore all of Fes together, sightseeing and getting some good ol’ shopping in along the way.

Fes, which is the cultural capital of Morocco, maintains a strong tradition of handicraft. Even in the age of mechanisation, everything is still done by hand here.

In a ceramic and mosaic factory, intricate designs are hand-painted on clay that has been moulded by hand and fired in a kiln. I was amazed by how precise their hand movements are – with only a few pencil guidelines, all the designs were painted on so quickly and without any mistakes, too.

How many years would it take for someone to achieve that level of precision?!

Some of my new friends were doing study-abroads at the Florence University of the Arts – musicians, sculptors, painters and all. When they saw one of the sculptors for the factory, one of them commented that he’d probably do a pretty good job as a sculptor in her course!

Seriously though, these people are so practiced at what they do that they churn out pieces like it’s nothing. This guy churned out five tajines in something like three minutes!

But the real highlight of this factory is its mosaic – hundreds of thousands of tiles that are painted, glazed and fired, then chipped into tiny pieces and arranged around each other. Creating the mosaic takes a long time, needing to individually select the pieces that will go toward creating the final product so that they line up perfectly with one another.

One of the guys even offered to make a little turquoise heart tile for me! How cute is that?

It takes so much effort to produce every mosaic tile it’s really quite remarkable when you see just how much mosaic there is. Mosaic fountains, mosaic walls, mosaic vases, mosaic display pieces of all kinds. How long would it have taken to create all this?

The answer – a very long time. (And they’ve got a price tag to match too – damn, or I’d've taken one home.)

My friend Ryan was going crazy in the shop, trying to decide which pieces he should buy. There were selections of tajines, ash trays, teapots, tea cups, dish-ware, jewellery… Everything you could possibly ever want.

It was a case of even-if-you-don’t-want-to-buy-it, buy-it-anyway-because-it’s-so-pretty.

Me? I wound up being so spoilt for choice that I didn’t buy anything in the end.

Then we headed to a little look-out at the top of another hill, overlooking the old medina walls. Fes sure does look pretty from high above.

Our last stop on the tour was the Sultanate Palace, or Dar el-Makhzen. We weren’t allowed to go inside because it’s still a residential palace (and they have serious guards, to boot – we weren’t even allowed to take pictures of anything besides the fountains and doors) but the outside is pretty fancy.

Crazy gorgeous doors.

Joely and her cool headscarf.

All I could think about was how there might be a real-life Princess Jasmine behind those walls and we would never know.

  • Asik Sadayan

    okay i think i’ve just fallen in love with morocco after reading this

    • Cheryl Keit

      Hee hee, glad to know!