We left the camping with the sun shining to move into town. Our next stop, in a carpark in Fez so that we could be near the action. The carpark isn’t the most salubrious of places, next to the temporary rubbish dump where little motorised front end loaders drive up and down all night filling tipper trucks to remove the grotty goods from the medina. We’re also quite thankful that it’s cold during the night really as the smell isn’t really apparent or worrying us. With 365 mosques in the surrounding area, a (according to the gorgeous Mr T) mosque-ophany at call to prayer fills in any potential peaceful moments! But our view is the medina walls on one side and the Marinid Tombs on the other, so it’s not all bad!
Yesterday at Diamante Verte camping site, a local registered guide had popped his head in to introduce himself. Wafi (like Wifi, the French pronunciation, he said!) could do a 1 on 1 tour for us for MAD250. We took his details, looked him up on various websites, and decided that we would book with him. So several texts later we had a guide for the Fez Medina. Like all guides, he does have a connection to the shops with a definite kick back so he does take you to places where you are captive audience for about 20 minutes of fairly rigorous selling. But they are also philosophical if you tell them firmly that you are not interested. He has excellent English and is extremely knowledgeable about the medina and the things to see.
So here’s the lowdown: The medina, now over 1200 years old (!!!), is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The medina is made up of over 9500 passages and streets and it is completely pedestrianised except for hand carts, horses and donkeys that traverse the passages at high speed with the drivers crying “Balak, Balak” (watch out or mind), which, when you hear this, you immediately squash yourself against the passage wall and make yourself as thin as possible …..easier for some than others.
Interesting fact number 3 is that the passageways and alleyways have been built like the ribs of Allah from the centre outwards and this structure allows the medina to breathe. This ensures a breeze and air circulation through the structure and maintains the medina at a cool and fairly constant 18-20degC regardless of the season or weather.
Interesting fact number 4 is that the horses and donkeys all wear rubber horseshoes – this is seemingly an innocuous fact but…. hold on! The passageways can be really steep and as slick as a skating rink in the rain so it stops any of them from slipping. Good plan! It also means that they can silently creep up on you and you are totally oblivious until you hear the handler’s voice shout in your ear!! BALAK! I think it might be a bit of a game for them too … 👀
Interesting fact number 5 is that, going in on your own, you will get lost (otherwise you’re not trying hard enough!) but we followed some sage advice from our friend Richi & Sassi from 4xEverywhere, either walk up the hill or down the hill and you’ll pop out…and we did!
The route with Wafi through the medina is circuitous so we don’t really have a definite route of things we saw. Needless to say he is so interesting to listen to as he is a mine of information on the sights & history of Fez. As you enter the enter the medina, the cool, fresh air envelopes you along with the voices and noise and chaos and bartering, the smells and sights of cats staring up at the butcher as he dispatches chickens, dips them in hot water, runs them through a plucking machine and discards the entrails for them to fight over. Sunlight flashes through gaps and as you pass under them feeling the temporary warmth on your skin, you can smell bread baking, goats heads steaming over double cauldrons and vats of besara (broad bean soup) being stirred.
Through the melange we see the Al-Attarine Madrasa, the Quranic School no longer in use so we can explore it ourselves.
It has the most amazingly intricate architecture, a mix of Moorish & Moroccan styles. You can almost feel the ages of learning as you trace the words of the ancient Arabic language chiselled into tiles on the walls, and feel the words in sharp relief under your fingertips as thousands of others have felt before.
Looking up at the fret work (I promised you this link and here it is) it is made from chalk & limestone from Seville and Cordoba in Spain and mixed with egg white to create such beautiful artwork, one that has lasted through the ages and will continue to do so.
Another fun fact: The school was built by the Marinid sultan, Uthman II Abu Said in 1323-5. The Marinid sultanate ruled the current day Morocco and parts of southern Spain, hence the Spanish connection. We did not know that!
The University of al-Qarawiyyin also knows as the Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin, is the oldest continuously functioning place of learning in the world! Created by (drum roll please) a woman, Fatima al-Fihri in 859. No wonder it is still going strong and a pillar of learning of Arabic Language & Law in Morocco and indeed the world.
Then onto the R’cif Mosque – such beautiful architecture again and a place of calm and tranquility that seeps into you even though you are not permitted to enter (as a non-Muslim or beast of burden).
Finally then it was onto Chouwara Tannery where the stink of pigeon poop and animal urine is not masked at all by the bunch of fresh mint that they give you to crush and breath in as you look down on the cesspools and colour pools at hides being tossed, smashed and swirled by people who wade through the muck in bare feet.
But this creates the famous soft leather in a mind-blowing range of colours and styles that no longer smells of shit and wee but the deep smell of leather that I remember as I stuck my head into my first school satchel when I was 5 and took in a huge breath. It has imprinted itself into my brain and stayed with me to this day.
The range and colours of the leather goods are spectacular and well worth a purchase if this is your thing. Ours is a carpet as we hold out for the next visit to the Dar Zarbia Co-Op. We were dropped off by Wafi and invited upstairs to watch a local woman weaving a double knot wool carpet.
We’ve never seen such speed and dexterity in a person before. Each pattern is memorised and her hands blur as she knots the different colours for the weft & weave.
We were told that Dar Zarbia is a co-operative of widowed women making carpets, that share in the profits to support their families with there being no state support in Morocco. From our research before we went, we can’t find any information to confirm or deny this nor can we, after even more research, determine if it is true or not. What we hoped when we went in was that the story had some truth or at least some merit. What we do know is that somewhere, there are some men making money and definitely sharing this with the guides who bring people in. We are capitalists and understand that this is going to happen. There are also so many stories of people feeling ripped off and unhappy and equally people happy with their purchases although there are more of the former as is always when you are looking for information on the internet. People are more than happy to blatantly call it a rip-off and to proffer grand warnings to avoid. But we have always wanted a silk carpet and to be able to get one from Fez, in Morocco, would be a keepsake that we could look at and pass on to our children to remind us of a wonderful time, in a magical land.
We have also always been of the opinion that a good deal is one where all parties are happy and if we don’t feel ripped off, that we feel we have paid a fair amount, that we absolutely love (in this case) our carpet, that we got a small wool Berber prayer mat that works perfectly in Kaya thrown in as part of the deal, that the salesman and guide are happy with their cuts, and hopefully the women see their cut, then how can it be a ripoff and how can we complain? People tend to feel ripped off when they are unhappy with their purchase and suffer from buyers guilt wishing after the fact that they had paid less, sometimes much less!
But here’s our word of warning and advice: we were actually ripped off although not by a hugely significant amount and this is something you need to be well aware of throughout Morocco …..and not just when buying a carpet.
When using your plastic to pay for a purchase, the business whoever they are, are charged a 3.5% commission by Mastercard/Visa. In Morocco they do not like to absorb this from their profits as most businesses we deal with on a daily basis do. We were told by Dar Zarbia when we used our card that we wouldn’t pay the commission and asked us if we wished to pay in Dirhams or GBP. We are very definite about this and always pay in local currency otherwise the currency exchange rate is awful. The gorgeous Mr T said “Dirhams please”. Turns out at supermarkets when choosing to pay by Dirhams, we complete the purchase ourselves and no problems, but in petrol stations and in Dar Zarbia, after we chose Dirhams and handed back the card machine, they go back one step, choose GBP and finish the transaction for you and, here’s the critical bit, if you don’t check the slip on completion, Mr T, you’ve just paid commission and got an awful exchange rate…. which to his chagrin he found out 2 days later when I was inputting this into our accounts. There were a few tense moments. But we still have our beautiful carpets that we love.
Our final big visit was to the copper section or Place Seffarine where the sound of industrious apprentices and masters banging on copper surrounds you and magical pieces of art & crafts appear before your eyes along with functional pots ranging from those that can fit in your hand to masive cauldrons for cooking vats of Khilea.
I had asked Wafi to take us to the spice market during our tour but where we ended up was a spice emporium where they give you the schpiel on how Argan is used, how it is crushed and made into oil, what an amazing product it is, why it is so precious and expensive (more about this later in our trip when we’ll see the real industry of Argan oil), how they mix spices into Ras Al Hanout (Morocco’s version of curry powder), how amazing nigella seeds are and will cure the world of all sickness blah blah blah blah. Not what we wanted at all, so we begged off, and with darkness falling and lights switching on in the medina, Wafi took us back to Kaya.
We opened our prayer mat, spread it out on the floor and wriggled our exhausted bare feet on it just to remind ourselves that we were actually in Fez.