Wednesday 24 January 2018

Fes: Morocco's spiritual capital

Fes up...

Gateway to another world: The El-Chorfa gate of the Medina.
Gateway to another world: The El-Chorfa gate of the Medina.
Aben Danan Synagogue
Volubilis, Morocco

Judy Murray

Nothing beats the slap of hot air that hits your face when you first step out the door of an airplane, writes Judy Murray.

The bright blue glare of the flowering Jacaranda trees, the profusion of donkeys and mules dodging the traffic on the short drive from   airport to hotel, continued to build my excitement, and later that night when I sat on the hotel terrace sipping a cold glass of something, with crescent moon and glittering stars above my head, the last cry of the muezzin to prayer confirmed that yes indeed (as a Kerry friend would say) I was definitely out foreign.

I was not in Fez, which is a type of headgear originating in Turkey (and, for those of us old enough to remember, worn by Tommy Cooper) but in Fes, the spiritual capital of Morocco. Created at the crossroads of two caravan routes, from the Atlantic in the west, and the Mediterranean in the North, it was, and still is, an artistic and cultural city, with an abundance of music, good food , historic buildings and one of the oldest Medinas in the Arab world.

This was to be my base from which to explore Volubilis, the most important Roman site in Morocco, and the nearby pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss, named after a descendent of the Prophet, responsible for bringing Islam to Morocco. And, if this was not enough to keep me on my toes, I was also there to attend the annual Fes Festival of Sacred Music.

We entered the Fes el Bali (the old walled city) through the 12th century Bab(gate) Boujeloud, magnificently decorated with its blue and green mosaic. In the largest car-free urban area in the world, we resembled assorted ducklings as we sped after Hamid, our guide for the day, into and through the mysterious maze-like streets, a labyrinth of sloping, winding alleyways crammed full of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, live chickens and spices.

This is a full-on, busy, functioning living city, not the made-up streets of some tourist town, but a place where families live, children go to school, women step out their doors to buy their daily food, and if you are not keeping an eye out you can be run down by a speeding donkey. I often had to flatten myself against a wall as a fully laden donkey charged down the narrow street at breakneck speed, urged on by his owner, eager to deliver to the multitude of stall-holders whatever fresh produce was piled teeteringly high on the poor beast's back.

Aben Danan Synagogue

Aben Danan Synagogue

Each district in the Medina produces its own speciality goods, Seffarine is for metalwork, Attarine for spices, perfume, cosmetics and ancient herbal remedies; Nejjarine for woodwork, and, of course, the world famous Tanneries.

We visited the Madersa Bouanania Mosque, built in the 1350s and now beautifully restored, the carved cedar wood and colourful tilework are magnificent. There are no statues or images as such allowed in Mosques, so all symbolism is done through the colours of the mosaic, blue for Fes, green and white for Islam, pink or red is for Marrakesh, the gateway to the Sahara and yellow and black is the evil eye. At this stage we were running out of steam, so a quiet stroll in the peaceful gardens of Jnan Sbil, a beautifully maintained oasis of calm and shade right on the edge of the Medina was a delight. Then it was time to recharge our batteries, and where better than the Dar Saada restaurant, right in the heart of the Medina, for a wonderful lunch. Refreshed and revived we headed back out into the Medina, and spent a wonderful hour in Allal's Art Gallery, a treasure trove of fabulous bronze and copper metalwork, and Berber camel bone inlay and jewellery. We learned that you can tell good bronze by the work, weight and sound, and that lemon juice is the choice de jour for cleaning.

Later that evening, we dined in the Palais Faraj, a recently restored 19th century palace. It is worth a visit alone for the tastefully crafted restoration work, and for the views over the medina, but as we looked out over the twinkling lights of the old town we dined on the most delicious Mrouzia (chicken, raisins and honey) followed by a sweet Pastilla (layers of wafer thin pastry, filled with crème anglais and fresh fruit). We were very happy to discover that Morocco has an international wine culture, producing great quality wines due to the high mountains and the cooling influence of the Atlantic.

Next morning, we drove to the ancient city of Volubilis. During the hour-long drive west of Fes, we climbed gradually up into the foothills of the Rif Mountains. Flocks of sheep and goats were herded by men on donkeys, and the small towns we passed through were busy with small markets and men sipping mint tea in the shade of streetside cafes. There is a very well-designed visitor centre, hidden from view, and our excellent guide, brought us out among the exceptionally well preserved ruins of a large Roman colonial town. It is possible to see the evidence of many public and private buildings, homes, latrines, bathing areas, vomatoriums, and a remarkable olive press. Across the wild flower meadows in the foothills of the Rif Mountains we could see the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. Later, we climbed up though the busy streets of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, and spent some time in Dar Zerhoune, a boutique guest house on the tip top of the town, which with its small shaded terraces and great views would be a lovely base to explore the local area including the holy city of Meknes.

That night was the opening celebration of the Festival of Sacred Music. In its 21st year, the festival highlights the centuries of close ties between Morocco and the rest of Africa, celebrating the values of tolerance and openness which lead to peace and understanding between different religions and cultures. In the present climate of international conflict, the aims and philosophy behind this festival could not be more relevant.

I am a great fan of Ali Farka Toure, Youssou N'Dour and kora players supreme Toumani and Sidiki Diabate, and was really looking forward to hearing similar music from a variety of African countries. Unsure what to expect, we were excited to be sitting in the Bab al Makina, an open air parade ground beside the Royal Palace. With darkness falling, all the well coiffed great and good of Morocco sat waiting patiently for the arrival of the much loved local girl, Princess Consort of Morocco, Lalla Salma, wife of King Mohammed VI.

Once she was seated the concert began and before we knew it we were on the edge of our seats, completely engrossed in the onstage action, the musical, cultural and spiritual journey of Hassan Al Wazan (Leo Africanus) and Ahmed Tijani, fabled heroes of Morocco, travelling with them from Fes to Andalucia and throughout sub Saharan Africa, each country represented by musicians and dancers performing their native music and dance.

We were swept along by Andalusian vocals, by Ballake Sissoko and the Koras of Bamako (10 kora players on stage at once, I died and went to heaven) and the spine-tingling singing of Saharawi women. We saw lions dance in Senegal and the unforgettable Masks of the Moon from Burkina Faso. And we were brought right up to date with the stunning dancing of Tamango (no, not the Dublin nightclub), a young man from French Guyana who has taken the US by storm with his Afro-Urban tap.

Produced and directed by Alain Weber, the performance had incredible lighting effects designed by Christophe Olivier. Projected against the gate and walls, the imagery was in perfect symmetry with the music and dance on the stage, spellbinding the audience.

The next day we took a break from the music and visited the extraordinary Chouara Tannery, where a friend got a custom-made leather jacket which was at least half the price of something similar in Ireland.

That night we returned to the festival, to the nightly Sufi concert, this time the Marifat Sufi Band from Pakistan. The music is mesmeric, Sufis believing that it is possible to get close to God in our present lives and that music plays a central role in doing this.

I loved my too-short time in Fes, the friendly people, the Medina, the haggling, the food, the music. I will definitely return to enjoy the delights of a Riad in the Medina, take a bath in a Hammam, travel to Meknes, and maybe spend time at the sea in Rabat but there is no doubt in my mind that very soon, as Bob Hope used to sing, I will be Morocco-bound.

Take three

Karaouine Mosque

Karaouine Mosque, founded in 859 by Tunisian woman Fatima Al-Fihri, is considered by Unesco to be the oldest university in the world. Still a place of learning today, its iconic green-tiled roof can be seen from every vantage point in Fes. Constant development means you can see the differences in architectural and decorative styles down through the centuries. Today it can cater to as many as 20,000 worshipers.

Tagine Cuisine

A typical Moroccan meal includes a tagine - a type of stew often made with chicken and preserved lemons - and Khobz, the lovely nutty Moroccan flatbread, all of which is washed down with sweet minty tea. Another delicious dish is Mrouzia which is made of chicken, raisins and honey. Dessert is often thinly sliced oranges taken from a local tree and which are sprinkled with cinnamon.

The Jewish Quarter

Throughout the Mellah or Jewish Quarter, ornate balconies and wrought iron windows adorn buildings. There have been Jews in Morocco from the 6th century BC, with Jewish traders travelling across the Atlas Mountains to trade with the Berbers. The second influx of Jews came in the l5th and 16th centuries escaping from the Spanish Inquisition. We visited Aben Danan Synagogue which has an underground bathing area for rituals.

Getting there

Abercrombie & Kent offers a three-night package to Fes, from £799/€1,148pp per person. The price includes international flights from Dublin, accommodation at Riad Fes based on two people sharing a deluxe room, hotel transfers and half a day's tour of the medina with a local guide. 

For more, call +44 (0)1242 855 127 or visit

For more information on Morocco:

And for the Fes Festival 2016:

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