Not so fast in Fes
Fes is the ancient capital of Morocco, justly famed for the winding streets and tiny alleyways of its medieval old city, where even the most humble buildings are works of art, covered in intricate mosaics and carved stonework. It is also very, very hilly. Built in the valley and stretching up the slopes on every side, you are always going either up or down perpendicularly.
I’ve a half marathon coming up and am still carrying all that Christmas trifle with me, so the thought of trogging it up those hills, was great in terms of training but grim in terms of effort. My running mate, Serena, and I were there for three days to explore the town, and were staying in the heart of the medina. Our host at Dar Roumana, Vanessa, gave us directions to the best running route, which we could in fact see, from the top of this gorgeous Riad.
I was a bit troubled about what to wear in this very traditional place, as we had to start off going past people’s houses and then up one of the main thoroughfares in the old town. Shock and Awe, I decided. No good pretending I wasn’t in lycra which is a million miles away from the modest and warm hooded kaftan ( Jelaba) and head scarf that women wear here, so it was the lime green nike leggings and top for me, set off with some stripey armwarmers.
The first drag up the hill was a killer, and made worse by the embarrassment of running in a totally non-running environment. But, the Moroccans, were unfazed, merely, shouting, ” Bravo” and “Gazelles” as we went past.
We left the old part of the city by one of the gates and were out in the open in time to see the sun rising up as a red disc through the clouds, lighting up the minarets that punctuate the city and silhouetting the flocks of birds wheeling around them.
All this beauty was offset by a beast of a hill and Serena and I could only pant “Wow, wow” at each other. Filled with a desire for more pain, we headed further up and off road into the graveyard. The Merenid Tombs back to the 1200s but just beneath them is a cemetery that is still in use. A mixture of steps and steep track left me panting. This turned out to be a bad thing as almost immediately, the most pungent, horrible smell assailed us. It was as though someone had peed on a dead, wet dog and left it lying there.
In fact, it was animal skins which had started going through the curing process, laid out to dry on the side of the hill. Little convoys of men with donkeys were ferrying the new ones up and bringing the old ones down. Fes is famous for its leather – all cured the old-fashioned way!
We started going down and followed the path till it gave out. It left us at the top of a horrible steep drop down onto the main road. A small path, covered with the slipperiest dirt and gravel was the only way. Out of nowhere, one of the leather and donkey men appeared. “Wait, wait,” he shouted in Arabic, ” I’ll help you.” He was tiny and skinny but extremely strong and grabbed my hand so I could lean my, not inconsiderable, weight on him and scramble down. As Serena started her descent, another man appeared, so she had a double escort. Salaam Alaykums and smiles all round as we set off again. Such kindness and goodwill from complete strangers.
Virtually all down hill to Dar Roumana for breakfast, and as we ran through the medina, we felt like we owned it and sprinted our way towards the fresh fruit salad and creamy scrambled eggs to the echoes of, “Bravo, Gazelles, Bravo Flowers!”.
For our few days in Fes we stayed at the wonderful Dar Roumana Riad which is run by a great husband and wife team. The husband is the chef and does a fantastic Mediterranean menu, healthy and delicious. We also spent a night at the charming Dar El Ma. It too is in the old town, fun and with bags of character. The food in Fes, is the best I have had in Morocco. My top tips are the octopus at Dar Roumana, the meatballs with courgettes and egg in a tomato sauce at The Ruined Garden, the Thai green curry at Moi Anan and the boiled sheep’s heads at the top of Talaat Sagheera……