The Communal Baker of Fes

As we wound our way through the dark and forbidding passages of the ancient Medina in Fes, our guide repeatedly pushed us poor goggle-eyed westerners through doors. Almost invariably, once inside, we would be transported into an alternative world, wonderfully light and colourful and brimming with human joy and energy.

This doorway was different.

It was low and, as far as I recall, there was no door to open. I had to stoop to pass through the arch and step down into the smokey and blackened cave of a room. My eyes could not make out very much in the enveloping darkness. Our guide chatted to a dismembered voice that emanated from a raging fire set part way up a wall.

As my eyes adjusted, I was able to discern a wiry man crouched low on his haunches, on a grey, dust carpeted floor. He was wielding a very long handled peel, in front of a simple, gaping, wood fired oven. He deftly removed several flat round loaves of bread from the furnace, and placed them in a small number of baskets and trays that were on the floor behind him. Then he turned his attention back to the oven and began to move the embers about, making sure the base of the fire was clear of debris and ready to receive the next batch of bread. Our guide babbled on, explaining exactly what we were seeing. He need not have bothered. I knew what this was and I was transfixed. If I had ever bothered to write a bucket list, I now realised that this moment would have been right at the top.

Eventually I managed to tear my gaze away from the flames and take in the rest of the tiny room. Deep shelves lined a couple of the walls and a mess of wood, much of it broken furniture and twiggy bits, was piled, floor to ceiling, against another wall. The shelves had a number of trays, boxes and baskets on them; bread awaiting baking, or collection. The wood, I was told, is purchased by the baker and not, as I had assumed, donated by the community members in part exchange for this service. This man runs a business.

A very blurred (!) picture of the bread oven: even the camera had trouble adjusting to the darkness.

The bake house works like this; local residents bring their home made, shaped, proving, but un-risen loaves, that have been carefully covered in spotless cloths. The job of the baker is not only to bake the bread, but also to make sure that every batch in his charge is allowed to rise to the perfect point for baking. Once baked, at this precise moment, he must make sure that everyone receives their own loaves when they call to collect them. He must never muddle up his customers’ breads.

If you know me, you know I have a bit of a bread fetish. I eat it, I make it, I love it. It is such a simple thing that can keep your gut biome so healthy and, when fresh and warm can bring a group of strangers into friendship, as they rip off lumps, dunk them into a simple unctuous sauce and eat. There is nothing like it, that costs so little and yet offers so much. Knowing this about me, you can imagine my gushing, girly, response to the realisation that I was in a communal bake house. I still come over a bit wobbly at the very, heavenly, thought of that moment.

As a sideline, this hard grafter also bakes daily trays of nuts to sell in the Medina and he will bake almost any food for a fee. People here do not have ovens, preferring to cook on simple burners using bottled gas. The communal Baker comes from an ancient tradition that still, to this day, suits everyone.

I have to admit that I nearly did my Captain Oates impression that afternoon, “I’m just going outside and may be some time.” Only Wally and our guide could go outside and leave me for some time. I was such a happy bunny.


Fes, 3 cities in 1

From the high ground to the north of the medina the three cities of Fes can be seen. The University area with its’ rash of cranes and building projects, modern football stadium and new, free access, teaching hospital. The ultra modern business zone, a glass and concrete crenelated skyline. Finally the old city, with it’s Medina, like a dull pimple, barely rising from the sprawling town, looking like the contents of an enormous bag of so many white and earthy coloured Lego bricks dropped onto the valley floor by a careless child. The boundaries between dwellings are indistinct; the narrow passages separating them indiscernible from this distance.

Every city has it’s own colour for it’s Petite Taxis: todays’ taxi is red, so we must be in FES.

As with most cities the dominant sound is that of the traffic, a constant drone punctuated by the horns of ‘Petite Taxis’, scooters and 3 wheel delivery pick-ups, each demanding right of passage through the tight streets surrounding the medina. Several times during the day an indistinct hum may be heard a sound that slowly builds until the chants of individual performers can be divined. Each voice, distorted by crude electronics, and by ageing vocal powers, joins a cacophony of chanting. These 5 or 10 second wailing phrases, each snapped at the end, are followed shortly after, by the next mournful cry. The effect, heard from a distance, is quite powerful, almost threatening, it commands your attention and draws you to it.

This monumental gate, built in AD 1204, leads into Al Andalus Mosque, built in AD859.

Like other Moroccan cities, Fes has a heart bounded by gates and walls, the limits of the Medina, that powered vehicles do not transgress.

A gateway into the Medina. No powered vehicles beyond this point.

Handcarts and donkeys are the trucks of the Medina, steadfastly moving through the tightly crowded alleyways, stoically unfazed by the oppressive crush that is their daily lot.

This is the domain of the artisan and the retailer. Nobody is still. Any person entering the ancient Medina is preordained to make, sell or buy something. If you are not there for one of these functions, then you will be out of place. No matter why any person thinks they are coming to the Medina, if they are not earning their living there, then they will be there to spend their money.

Every nook and cranny, within the Medina, uninvolved in direct selling, is taken by people who are turning raw materials into sellable items. There are chickens kept on the upper floors of an old ‘inn’, which was used in ancient times by camel caravans. Originally the downstairs was used to stable the camels and is now used for the sale of animal feed, much of which is bought by the chicken ‘farmers’ and the donkey truckers. The upstairs bedrooms, once occupied by the camel drivers, is where the chickens now roost. They are sold in the Medina as live meat, once their egg production has dropped off.

The finished brass lamps.

Another ‘inn’ is now used by artisans as light and sunny workshops, where the ubiquitous pierced brass lamps were being made in every shape and size by men sitting on the floor and using the simplest of hand tools. These inns are accessed through uncompromising narrow arches in otherwise blank walls. To poke your head through one of these entrances takes a certain amount of nerve; it feels like a transgression into a private area.

Passing from the alleyways into an ‘inn’ where peirced brassware was being made.

Once through the portal, a large semi-circular courtyard fans out, open to the sky, enclosed by a curved two story wreck of a building. There were a good number of these old ‘inns’ in the Medina and it was not difficult to imagine a long, heavily laden caravan of camels forcing its way between the dark, restrictive, walls to reach their stabling. Here the camels could rest and feed, whilst their drivers haggled for the best prices for the goods they had brought to the market.

All life can be found beyond the doors in the walls.

In the Medina every wall presented doors and behind every door, you could bet that there was a surprise in store. This miserable, dirty, crowded, shadowy place is, in fact, a sham. There is light to be found but, you need to know where to look for it; in the homes, ‘inns’ and mosques. The light is reserved for ordinary lives lived behind the doors that punctuate the dun coloured walls. People toil in the relative cool of the Medinas’ lanes, with the buying, selling and making all taking place in the intensely cool shade. People live and pray in the intense glare of sun light, which pours in through once open and now glazed roofs,. 

Looking through the open doors of a Mosque in the Medina. A haven of spotless space and light.

Fes is three cities in one and the Medina is two cities in one. Having visited both, Chefchaouen and Fes, the I could reflect on the age difference between the two cities, which is nearly 700 years, with Fes being the oldest. I cannot say that I liked ancient, darkly tanned, weather beaten Fes, shored up by it’s many wooden crutches with walls spragged by stout timbers.

No matter where you look in the Medina, buildings are propped.

I can say it was interesting and a world apart from the young, bright and undeniably pretty Chefchaouen, with it’s colourful buildings and much wider lanes and it’s youthful ability to stand up unaided. 

Traditional dress, worn by men, over their clothes. Underneath, often a smart suit and tie, other times … it was hard to tell; maybe nothing underneath.

Morocco Trek (part 1)

Port Tangier Med to Fes

We finally crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, after a long delay, and landed in Morocco in late afternoon. Next the dreaded customs formalities, endless queueing for the inevitable paperchase…..or maybe not? We breezed through in half an hour, including exchanging money and arranging motor insurance (900 dirham or about £75). We felt our luck had just changed.

Waiting for the ferry in Algeciras

The original plan was to ride to Chefchaouen, about 2½ hrs from the port, and find a campsite. It was however, already 4 p.m. and we didn’t want to arrive in the dark. We decided to wing it and stop as soon as we saw something suitable. Apart from Jen getting blown off her bike, we arrived at an hotel about an hour later without a major problem.

Time for a tea break

Up early the next day, or as early as Jen could cope with, we packed and set off towards Chefchaouen, about 50 miles away. We were feeling quite smug that we had survived our first day in Morocco. Too smug, too soon I think. The next town, Tetouan, was meant to be a dot on the route; a dot that we hadn’t planned to visit. We had momentarily got off route and pulled over to check the map. A motor scooter pulled up alongside. The spiel is generic, someone must have written a guide for Moroccan touts.

“Hello my friend, I have a brother/sister/cousin/son who lives in London/New York/Paris.”

Insert the relative and capital city of your choice.

“You are in luck my friend, it is a special Berber market in Tetouan today, only once a month.”

I faltered and was easily hooked.

“Follow me, safe parking”

King Mohammed VI’s summer palace.

We didn’t buy a ‘one of a kind’ Berber carpet or a white metal teapot, nor did we get away scot-free. We just about left with our dignity intact, our guide less friendly and decidedly grumpier than when we first met. His tip was a bit lower than he had hoped for and he had no sales commission either.

The citadel Chefchaouen

We had pre-booked an Hotel in Chefchaouen, the Dar Dalia. When we arrived, probably looking lost and confused, we were again accosted by another chancer. Mohammed directed us to a secure parking and after some explanation, offered to show us to our hotel. Mohammed was a much less pushy and a more endearing character than Abdul in Tetouan. We wandered through passageways and climbed numerous steps and were eventually deposited in front of a small and unprepossessing, blue painted building, sporting a sign announcing the Dar Dalia Hotel.

A typical Chefchaouen street

We were a little earlier than had been planned and a knock on the door produced no response from within. Miraculously a tall, imposing man with an official looking ‘maillot jaune’ appeared and proceeded to phone the hotel manager. He handed the phone to me. The voice on the other end said,

“You’re a little early, I’ll be there in 9 minutes.”

The hotel was a gem, 5 minutes from the medina and beautifully appointed. For the duration of our stay, the ‘maillot jaune’ guarded the bikes around the clock and even disguised them with local drapery.

Stealth bike covers

Chefchaouen, ‘The Blue City’ was, possibly, the best of introductions to Marocco. The town was both tranquil and busily welcoming. Simple food could be found throughout, with a variety of small restaurants clustered around the main square of the medina. To the east the mountains reared up a thousand metres above the city. In celebration of the Chinese New Year bright red lanterns decked the palace walls.

Naive street art

After 2 restful days, in Chefchaouen it was time to move on, to Fes. We had coordinates logged into the phone, the route mapped out and fuel in the tanks.

The north of Morocco is verdant with crop production everywhere and a seemingly endless supply of water. The road was in a good state, mostly, which meant that we could relax and enjoy the ride in sunshine and perfect temperatures.

When we arrived at the Fes campsite, we were in for a disappointment, ‘closed for the winter’, we were informed by a young man guarding the entrance. A quick search on found the ‘Hotel Agapanthe’ some ten minutes away. About an hour later, after some too-ing and fro-ing we found it. At the end of an unpromising dirt road a modern hotel presented itself. Tired and aching we were relieved and grateful and, after an acceptable meal, we slid between the sheets of a king sized bed.

Hotel Agapanthe

The plan for the following day was to find another campsite, this turned out to be the simplest of tasks. At the end of the dirt road from Agapanthe turn right and then turn right again, voilla, the Camping International, Fes and it was only 10.30 in the morning.

Camping International, Fes

The guy running the campsite organised a guide for us for 1.00 p.m.. At the appointed time he arrived; by scooter. Abbi flagged down a ‘Petite Taxi’ and we were off. Fes is difficult to describe and for this part of the blog a short vignette will suffice. The centre (medina) is an innumerable series of tight lanes and passageways bounded by brown plastered walls rising vertically. The walls often stretched three or four stories above our heads, blocking out all direct light. Reach out your arms and your hands are able to touch the buildings on either side of the street. The walls are punctuated by stout doors, wooden for the grand entrances, metal for the kitchens, and few windows to be seen. The view from any window would be muddy brown, due to the proximity of the walls of adjacent buildings and would afford little light to the interior, rendering them redundant. Most buildings have an inner courtyard open to the sky, letting light flood the interior.

Gloomy canyonised street in Fes

The medina is a place of numerous artisanal activities. Raw materials are brought in on donkey carts or small wheeled push carts. Carpets, leatherwork, metal household goods and numerous other products are created within the secretive walls of Fes. The smallest nook would house a tiny workshop, large courtyards within a building may contain a complete production line. All done by hand, without the aid of powered machinery.

The best saucepan maker in Fes

After two nights at the Campsite International Fes, we finally turned toward the coast and the capital city of Rabat.

The road to Rabat

To be continued