Leave the Crowded Medina Behind
The hustle and bustle of the central Fes El Bali districts can be overwhelming for many visitors to the ancient medina. Those looking for oasis of calm, away from the narrow, at times claustrophobic alleys, can find respite outside the towering walls of the old town. We had already explored the serene gardens at Batha Museum and on our wanders towards the candy coloured Jewish Quarter we strolled through the lush and airy Jnan Sbil Garden.
The Tranquil Jnan Sbil Gardens
The Gardens are a haven for locals, especially families with young children, offering an outside space where kids can run freely, surrounded by trees and plants. Entering through the south gate we could see the tranquil water of the lake and the prickly cacti garden to our right. The benches and low walls surrounding the flowerbeds were occupied by Moroccans enjoying the afternoon Winter sun.
It is easy to imagine the crowds Jnan Sbil Gardens attracts during the hot months of the year, when shade under the leafy canopy of trees might be the only relief from the oppressive African summer heat. Besides the large variety of plants, towering palms and prickly cacti, the park features beautiful fountains with star shaped basins set among fragrant roses.
History of Old Jewish Quater
Leaving this oasis of calm behind we headed towards the old Jewish Quarter, the Mellah. The Jewish sector in Fes was created by the sultan when large numbers of Jews, seeking refuge away from Europe emigrated to Morocco in the 15th century. Although they were never fully accepted by Moroccans, they were protected by the sultan and largely maintained their own laws inside the walls of the Mellah. Nowadays the Jewish population in Fes has dwindled down to a handful of families that have remained, much like the Jewish quarter in Marrakesh, the houses are now mostly occupied by Muslim families, migrating from the countryside.
Candy Hued Alleys of the Mellah
Once inside the Mellah we immediately noticed the contrast to the ancient medina Fes El Bali, the houses were lower, the streets cleaner and the walls painted in happy, candy coloured hues. The house owners seemed to have made an effort to improve the quality of their basic dwellings by placing flowers on the cobbled streets and windowsills. Artists had painted large-scale murals across the plastered walls, integrating doors and even fire extinguishers into their art works. Jerome loved the painting of the diver, while Charlie Chaplin peeking out from behind a door put a smile on our face.
Some of the buildings featured very untypical, wooden balconies, more reminiscent of Spanish architecture. While our stroll along the passages through the Mellah had been very quiet, we barely encountered anyone, the atmosphere changed immediately upon reaching the Grand Rue de Fes El Jdid, that runs the entire length of the Jewish Quarter from north to south. This artery of the Mellah was crowded with shops, like the souks in the medina, but filled with goods and wares for the locals.
Shopping for Locals
There were cheap, remakes of trainers and bags reeking of the stench from cheap plastic, glittering gowns that would have made any Disney movie look like a low budget student film. Warming fleeces appeared to be the rage and could be bought in any form, including slippers, possibly to keep everyone warm during the cool winter days. It was certainly interesting to watch the locals shop, the traditional souks in the medina are largely a tourist attraction and trap that Moroccans tend to avoid.
The Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery
Nestled in the bottom corner of the Mellah, lies the Jewish cemetery attached to the Ibn Danan Synagogue. Both can be visited against a small fee, however we found both of them to be closed during our visit. We had explored the Jewish Cemetery in Marrakesh and therefore were not too disappointed about missing out on this sight in Fes, although it is very impressive to see the vast sea of white graves, very different to other cemeteries.
Return to Riad Dar Gnaoua
Taking a last look at the candy coloured walls of the Mellah we returned to the contrasting bleaker, sandy Medina, where we enjoyed a hot tea on the roof terrace of our riad, catching the last of the suns rays before the ball of fire disappeared behind the hills.
Dinner at Daiori
We had thoroughly enjoyed our day exploring Fes, the tiny tannery Ain Aizliten had been the highlight. For dinner we splurged on the fine dining restaurant Darori, serving exquisite Moroccan food in a stunning riad. The following day we planned to head out of town to discover the ancient Roman ruins at Volubilis and get lost in the alleys of Moulay Idris, a sherbet hued hillside town.
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