World’s best supermarket

“Now, we go to the supermarket”, says Abdullah, with a smile. We know the smile is ironic and that we are not about to walk into a Safeway. My son Rohan, our Malaysian friend Fazila, and I have hired Abdullah to guide us through the labyrinthine streets of Medina El Bali, the ancient quarter in the city of Fes, our last stop in Morocco.

Walking in the medina is like stepping back into medieval times. Everything is at a miniature scale. Streets are narrow, some barely wide enough for one person to squeeze through. There are no motorized vehicles in sight, everything is transported by mules.

medina of Fes

There are no straight lines; everything is a twisty, turning maze. Some streets are loosely covered with wooden planks, some like tunnels, ducking under houses. Some are quiet, others bustling with people and activity. Every now and then, a small square filled with sunlight appears, providing respite from the chaos and congestion of the streets.

Abdullah grew up in the medina. He has mind-boggling facts to share: the medina has 10,000 streets, 350 mosques, 225 fountains, 18 gates and a population of 160,000. It is the biggest medina in the Islamic world. It is home to El Quaraniya, the oldest university in the world.

We enter the “supermarket”: a street lined with dozens of tiny shops, selling fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, live chickens, fish, dates, olives, sweets, an endless variety of things. There are lots of shoppers, mostly locals, men in the traditional Moroccan djellaba, women wearing the traditional kaftan.

Non-stop action in the medina

Abruptly, the grocery market ends and we turn into a different market, selling clothing and kitchenware. The “supermarket” goes on and on… we see metal workers’ street, leather workers’ street, brocade workers’ street. Abdullah tells us that Fes has been the center of Moroccan handicrafts for centuries.

Abdullah takes us to Bab Bou Jeloud, the Blue Gate, the most beautiful of the 18 gates of the medina. It is spectacular, with intricate calligraphy in green on the inside and blue on the outside. Just inside, there is a beautiful fountain, covered in a colorful mosaic of tiles.

After exploring the medina, we arrive at a street bustling with little food stalls. I see a stall where there is a large pot of what looks like a bean soup, with people outside eating the soup from earthenware bowls with bread. I think I know what this is; I have read about this in my Moroccan food book! It is “bisara”, a thick soup made from fava beans, a Fes specialty. The aroma is enticing. The shopkeeper smiles as he hears me say “bisara” and invites us to sit down. Soon, we are looking at steaming bowls of bisara, topped with a generous dash of olive oil, sprinkled with cumin and paprika, accompanied by fresh round flatbread. Hmmm….deeply satisfying.

Bisara, a fava bean soup, a specialty of Fes.

Afterwards, we climb up some steps at a leather goods shop to get a view of the famous tanneries of Fes, where hides of camels, sheep and cows are cured and dyed.

Soon, it is lunch time and Abdullah wants us to sample Bastilla, an iconic Moroccan dish. He knocks on an old wooden door. A jovial man invites us into a beautiful courtyard. The man and his wife run a side business, serving traditional home cooking. Soon, we are feasting on a variety of appetizers. There is roasted eggplant with tomatoes and garlic, stewed potatoes, roasted fava beans and a yogurt salad. And then, the bastilla arrives, a sweet-savory pie made with chicken, powdered sugar and spices.

followed by basilla

It is rich and delectable. After the meal, the lady of the house invites us to the terrace to see the view. She speaks a little English and Fazila has a little Arabic, so we talk, as we take in the panoramic view of the medina. She tells us about life in the medina, her desire to travel and how much she enjoys meeting travelers from around the world.

Our tour ends at the wishing well near the mausoleum of Molay Idriss II, the founder of Morocco. For centuries, people have been dropping a coin into the well and making a wish. Abdullah gets nostalgic as he poses next to the well, just an opening in a window. He tells of growing up poor in Fes, and as a teenager, dropping a coin in the shrine, wishing for a motorcycle, and magically, getting one.

One of 250 public water fountains in the medina

We drop a few dirhams in the little hole, wishing for another trip to this fascinating city.

~ Rahul Vora is a world traveler, adventurer and culinary explorer. He teaches world cuisines in his home in Portland, Oregon and  blogs about his travels here. Rahul also has a real job as a software engineer.

Fes Express

Fes or Fez is the oldest imperial city in Morocco and its old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site. While it was not in our original itinerary of touring Morocco, Leslie, Cheryl and I made an impromptu decision to make a day trip to Fes, which is about 3 hours each way by train and usually done on a weekend. It was a crazy idea, but doable! At least, we wanted to test it if it was attainable or not.

The same evening we went and purchased three first class tickets for the following afternoon. After working in the morning at our respective sites, we reached the train station at 12:30pm and grabbed some food there. I got a BBQ chicken pizza and a Miranda from Pizza Hut to go. It was actually better than I expected. The train left at 1pm and was quite comfortable. Only later we realized we were sitting in the second class cabins having paid for a first class fare.
The views on the way were spectacular! There were tiny villages, open grasslands, factories, mountains and bare desert. The train made a lot of stops. At times we felt jolted by another train passing by, giving the impression that there is an impending collision.

We also had an interesting incident. While Cheryl was waiting for the toilet by the door, a guy started talking to her about what she was doing, where she was going (normal chit chat), etc. He said that he worked for a tour company and could get us a guide in Fes who would pick us up from the train station, take us to the Medina and the major attractions and drop us back in time for our train in the evening. He stated that he was taking some Australian tourists in the same train and that his guide would be wearing an official batch. It sounded the ideal thing to do since we were short on time and people had warned us that it was easy to get lost in the Medina of Fes which boasts 9000 streets! We analyzed his business card and discussed it over. He made me talk to the guide on his cell phone, who spoke good English and asked for 120 Dirhams ($15) for his services. It was reasonable. We decided to go with it.


But then we contemplated with the idea some more. We never saw the Australian tourists and he was insisting on the batch a bit too much. We thought to ourselves “What is the worst that could happen if we go with this guide and he turns out to be a con?” Well, we had been warned of con artists and fake guides by many tourist books and people who have visited Morocco before. My personal experience from watching a lot of movies said that we could be driven to the desert instead of the Medina and asked to surrender our money, and maybe abandoned in the middle of nowhere. So I suggested to the other girls that we hide our money in our shoes, keep a cell phone securely and tie a whistle around my wrist. If something like that were to happen, at least we would have some money to go back home!
During the next two hours of our ride, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. We would rather get lost, miss our train and spend the night in a hotel if we have to. When we got out of the station 30 minutes late, the guide was there calling “Leslie, Leslie” while she walked right past him nodding her head that she wasn’t Leslie.

We took a taxi from the train station to the north side of the Medina, got off and started walking, absorbing the sights and smells, taking a lot of pictures and following “Sucheta, the unofficial, unpaid guide” reaching all the way to the south end within 45 minutes, without getting lost! We actually had an hour to kill before our departure, so we walked around the neighborhoods. Then we hired a taxi and got an unofficial drive-by tour of the major attractions. The taxi driver did not speak English and we don’t speak Arabic. He was trying to explain to us what we were looking at and I was playing charades, making reasonable sense and translating it back to English. We made it to our 6:50pm train well ahead of time, so we had gelato and crepes for dinner. The ride back was smooth, uneventful and in first class. We got back home around 10:30pm and lived to tell the rest of the group that a visit to Fes can actually be done in half a day!