Today is our last day in Fes. Marry, the Dutch woman we have met in the Riad suggests we hire a guide to explore the medina. Joelle, the Riad owner knows an excellent guide. The guide is called Abdullah. He is in his sixties and looks very handsome in his black djellaba. There is a strong Omar Sharif resemblance, I tell Rohan and Fazilah. They both give me a blank stare! Now, I feel old.
Abdullah grew up in the medina and knows it like the back of his hand. He has amazing facts to share: in the medina, there are 10000 streets, 350 mosques, 225 fountains, 18 gates and a population of 160,000. It is the biggest medina in the Islamic world and the third most important religious center. It is home to El Quaraniya, the oldest university in the world, dating to the ninth century.
We start walking in the medina. Everything is at a miniature scale. A street may be a few feet wide and run for less than 30 feet. There are no straight lines, everything is a twisty, turning maze. Some streets are loosely covered with wooden planks, some are like tunnels, ducking under houses. Some are quiet, some are bustling with shops and shoppers. We enter a market street. It is lined with shops selling fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, fish, dates, olives, sweets. There are lots of shoppers, all local, we rarely do we see any tourists.
Abruptly, the food market ends and we turn sharply into a different market, selling clothing, kitchen stuff, etc. it goes on and on… We see metal workers’ street, wood workers’ street, leather workers’ street, it is an endlessly fascinating maze.
Every now and then, there a small square filled with sunlight, which provides a respite from the chaos and congestion of the streets.
Abdullah takes us to the Blue Gate, the most important and the most beautiful of the 18 gates of the Medina. Like everything else, it is gazillion years old and has lots of history. It is spectacular with intricate calligraphy in green on the inside and blue on the outside. Just inside, there is a beautiful fountain, covered in a colorful mosaic of tiles. There is also an important religious building, with a large entrance, lined with intricately carved marble and cedar.
We keep walking to different parts of the Medina. We end up in a food street. There are lots of little food stalls. I see a stall where there is a large pot of what looks like a bean soup. There are people outside eating the soup from earthenware bowls with bread. I think I know what this is. I have read about this in my Moroccan food book. It is “bisara”, a thick soup made from white beans, a specialty of Fes. The aroma is very enticing. The guy in the shop smiles as he hears me say “bisara” and invites us to sit down. Soon, Rohan, Fazilah and I are looking at steaming bowls of bisara, topped with dash of olive oil and sprinkled with cumin and paprika. There is fresh round flatbread to go with it. It is deeply satisfying.
Abdullah shows us what used to be a caravanserai, where travelers used to stay, way back in the 12th century:
Then we see climb us some steps to leather goods shop, to see a view of the famous tanneries of Fes:
Our tour ends with a visit to the mausoleum of Molay Idriss II, the founder of Fes, It is under restoration, but we can see the outside. Abdullah poses next to a kind of wishing well, an opening where one is supposed to drop a coin and make a wish, something people have been doing for centuries. Abdullah gets nostalgic, as he tells the story of growing up poor in Fes and as a teenager, dropping a coin in the shrine and wishing for a motorcycle, and magically, getting one.
We drop a coin in the little hole, wishing for another trip to this fascinating city.