“I don’t want your money,” he replied. “I just want you to be happy.”
At the heart of Fes el-Bali is the Kairaouine Mosque, one of the largest in Africa. As is true of nearly every other mosque in Morocco, non-Muslims cannot enter it, but you can glance in through open doorways.
I began to see the infrequent tiny squares such as the Place es-Seffarine as places of respite. Here we paused under the plane tree and listened to the metalsmiths beating their brass and copper cauldrons and kettles into shape.
The medina is home to small-scale capitalism, and any transaction generates a commission for a number of salesmen and touts. An urchin escorted us to a showroom in a dark alley where we half-heartedly haggled for a small kilim. We finally agreed on a price — probably paying too much.
Where we didn’t go were the tanneries. As Rough Guide publisher Mark Ellingham warns: “The tanneries, with their medieval vats filled with urine (and modern chemicals) for treating leather, are not for everyone.” Enough said.
We escaped the hustle by climbing several flights of stairs to a restaurant with a rooftop terrace. We’re vegetarians, and I was prepared for the fact that Morocco isn’t the easiest place to be one. Luckily, about half the menu at the Cafe Clock, just inside the beautiful blue-tiled gate called Bab Boujeloud, is meatless.
The thick harira soup served with a side of dates and shebbakiya (sesame cookies fried and then drenched in honey) was deeply satisfying after our hectic time below. I watched a large orange tabby cat cajole the diner at the next table into giving him part of his camel burger, the cafe’s signature dish.
Awash in blue
Marrakesh and Fes are just two of the four traditional capitals of Morocco, the others being Rabat and Meknes, and those and many other cities have their old medinas. On this trip we visited Tangier by the sea, Taroudant in the far south, and a place we hadn’t heard of — Chefchaouen.
Wharton didn’t visit Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains, because Christians were banned from it until the Spanish occupied it in 1920. But now you can get there by bus from Tangier or Tetouan. The bus leaves a valley to climb a mountainside and drops you in the newer part of the town, which climbs up to gates through the wall into the medina, which continues climbing; and on the skyline above is the double peak that gives Chefchaouen its name, which means “two goat-horns.”
Moorish refugees from Spain founded Chefchaouen in the 1470s, and Andalusian influences are everywhere. The medina, like others, is dense and throbbing with life and color — but especially the color blue. The plaster on the tumbled architecture isn’t just blue but intense blue; sometimes several shades of blue close together.
You can’t get seriously lost in this medina, because it’s only half a mile long. And you soon learn that it’s threaded by a main way that runs along the upper wall, from which smaller openings twist down to the tree-shaded public space along the lower wall above the river. This has to be one of the most pleasant of all “squares” (and it is nearly rectangular, very unlike Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fna). One side is bounded by the mosque, to which the congregation climbs up a long staircase. On the other sides are open-air restaurants, where you may be entertained at your table by a musician with tribal garb and a native fiddle. Chefchaouen’s people cross paths in this square, and while we were there, a circle gathered and chanted slogans called out by a leader. Then they marched off carrying signs about Palestine.
The riad in which we stayed was another little domestic maze. Our room on the roof had a wooden ceiling worthy of a church. Outside it, we had breakfast on a blue-washed balcony, from which we looked down across the jumble of the medina as the sun began to climb over the two-horned mountain and touch it.
Lavenas is a freelance writer based in Lyme Regis, England.