I never imagined that our old, janky motorhome could ever possibly go fast enough to get a speeding ticket, but she did! As we traversed over the mountains from Chefchaouen to Fes, Chris got a 300 DH ($31) fine for speeding. Unlike American cops, the Moroccan traffic officers were laid back, friendly, and humorous. We’re fortunate that we were able to shrug off the fine and continue our journey to Fes.
Some cities are more fascinating than they are beautiful, and Fes is exactly that. The city as a whole is a giant, modern suburb with plenty of public transportation, students, and even big chain grocery stores. However, most tourists don’t even see suburban Fes. They all tend to linger within or near the district and ancient medina city of Fes el Bali, the most complete medieval city of the Arab world with a population of 150,000 people.
Fes and Fes el Bali are night and day from each other, with Fes resembling a modern, clean city with plenty of car traffic, while Fes el Bali continues to be…well, medieval. Not only is the congested maze-like city dizzying and confusing, the slow-moving tourists, aggressive touts and scammers, hustling donkeys and wheeled carts, locals hurrying to the mosques, and the troublemaking children add to the stress. Some people probably love the vibe, finding it unique and exciting; however, Fes turned out to be the only city in Morocco we couldn’t wait to get the hell out of.
Luckily there was a giant parking lot suitable for RVs just outside the blue gate, Bab Boujloud, for 50 DH/night ($5.17), perfect as a base for exploring Fes el Bali. Locals even used the extra space as a market by day, football field by night.
Shortly past the blue gate was the crazy hectic world of the medina city. Shops, markets, and food galore. Markets included not just chickens and eggs, but also exotic meats such as camel heads, sheep heads, animal hooves, and more.
Every now and then in the cramped quarter, an exquisite mosque would appear from around the corner.
The mosaic Nejjarine Fountain:
Outside but nearby Fes el Bali was the Royal Palace, not open to tourists.
And Mellah, the Jewish quarter:
The worst thing about Fes el Bali? The incredibly aggressive, twisted touts and their dirty tricks. Common tricks included telling us info we already knew such as directions, and then demanding money for it. Sometimes two, or even three touts, child or adult, would stalk us, pretending to be helpful when they weren’t. We quickly got creative with our responses.
When people asked me where I was from, I’d shrug my shoulders. Disengagement and zero communication was effective. A child told us, “Don’t go down that street. It is dangerous.” I told him that my country was more dangerous than his and everyone had guns. He didn’t know how to respond to that, and then tried to charge us for his advice. I thought Vietnam and Cuba were bad. They’ve got nothing on Fes. The scammers got so aggressive that they would argue with each other about which one of them could rip us off.
Our worst experience in all of Morocco was the simple task of viewing the tanneries of Fes, the pre-industrial sites where animal skin is cured and tanned. Apparently the tanneries are a major tourist attraction in Fes, and albeit a free attraction, numerous shops have opened rooftop terraces with overlooks of the tanneries. As we walked up and down the maze of streets, hoards of touts competed for our attention, telling us, “Tannery view. Over here. Very nice! Free!” When dozens of touts told us this, we knew something was fishy. We’d be set on turning onto a street, but be completely turned off when three touts stood at the corner, pointing in the direction we needed to go in. We walked in circles because touts stood at each corner, greedy and hungry to scam us. No matter how much we told them we didn’t want or need their help, they didn’t care. It was constant harassment.
Finally, I overheard a private guide tell his two patrons, “Follow me. We will see the tanneries.” We ended up following him discretely, swatting away all the touts like flies. Two touts still followed us into the tannery and demanded money on our way out. The guide scolded the touts to leave us alone, and even then, they continued to bicker over us.
We only lingered in the tannery for a few minutes, not because of the stench and rotting animal hide, but because of the stares from the touts burning into our backs. They were so delusional that they actually felt entitled to a tip. All of them. It’s one thing in Vietnam or Cuba to be ripped off when bargaining over an item of interest, but in Fes, we were constantly chased by outstretched hands, not even asking, but demanding money for “helping” us.
Even then, we consider ourselves to have thick skin. I’ve visited countries poorer than Morocco (Myanmar, Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam, Bolivia) and their touts are angels compared to Moroccan touts. Shit, even my own heritage is from Vietnam, and I was appalled by what we experienced in Fes. Because independent travel in Fes meant constant harassment, we knew it wasn’t the place for us. Leaving Fes was a joyful escape.