Freelance travel writer, Stephen Bayley, travelled to Fes with Lawrence of Morocco in April 2013, writing for the Independent.
I told a huge, high-living, rambunctious, world-travelling Irish friend that I was off to Fes. He said with a slightly worried tone : “Ah. You do know it is very real”. I soon found out that he meant it is not nearly so pretty nor anywhere like as easy as Marrakech. At least, not immediately so. Depending on your personal tastes and appetites, on first impressions Fes is grim and cheerless or a colourful folkloric adventure that would have tickled even Bruce Chatwin’s jaded appetite.
For two days I took the grim option, but by the third I was coming to understand that Fes reveals its considerable charm only slowly. And then your response is refreshed. Fes has not been smoothed to an easy-living sheen by vast waves of tourism. No-one has recruited the snake-charmers and water-sellers who satisfy the fairy-tale expectations of undemanding visitors to Marrakech. Fes has some very comfortable hotels, but this is not a city abandoned to the fey pleasures of frivolous European travellers. Instead, it teems and squirms with Moroccan life : urgent, but polite, and elegant while often rough.
The souk combines filth and mystery with the medieval authenticity which only a Satanic blacksmith and a man nextdoor specialising in severed goats’ hoofs can bring. It’s not always pretty and it’s often quite difficult. This is what my friend meant by “real”. I reflected on this atop my riad’s terrace with a large glass of Cellier de Meknes red in front of me and a view of the qasbah to the side. Real, I found, is a good thing.