Fes..We have been really looking forward to exploring the streets of Fes. Almost everyone we have met, that has been here, as loved it.
We decided to start the day with the famous Medersa. After a quick stop for take away breakfast (Pancake with cheese or honey) and a standing only coffee, we made it there. Medersa means “Place of Study”. They were basically schools with dormitories. Country boys would come to the cities and spend some time at school for the basics and Koran study.
Medersa’s are all over this country, but the one we are at, Medersa Bou Inania, is supposed to be the most beautiful. It was built by Sultan Abou Inan around 1350. He wanted the medersa to be the most important religious building in the city and went into competition with the main mosque. He lost, but this is the only medersa that is also recognised as a Grand Mosque and the only religious building that is still in use that can be visited by non-muslims in Morocco.
It has been partially renovated and is stunning. We start taking photos before we even bought our tickets. Immediately the carved woodwork and stucco stands out. We have seen many buildings with the same materials, but the quality of the work here is extraordinary. Every bit off every surface is covered in decoration. The main courtyard has a not-working fountain in the middle. Off it is the oratory. (With it being such an important building, you would think they might be more sensitive on where they attached the sound system speakers and the aircon fans..) Cats linger about and tour groups speed in and out with their guides. We take our time and study the details. Unfortunately we are not allowed to go up to see the student cells, but (as Andrew put it) it was nice.
Outside across the street are the remains of the Water Clock. Built by the same Sultan, it was probably another of his attempts for power, as clocks back then had great importance. Signalling the time of prayer. Only the elaborate woodwork remains, as the copper was removed for repairs, but has never been returned. Nobody seems to know how the clock actually worked, but they think water was responsible for lowering the copper basins and then opening or closing one of the thirteen windows. (Windows 1 to 9 closed but 10 and 12 open means it is 13.45??)
From here we wandered deeper into the Medina. The streets are narrow and busy. No cars or scooters, but plenty of carts and mules. They yell out when you are in their way, but with all the other noise it is a small wonder nobody got run over. The stores sell a mix of things, a lot of touristy crap, but also beautiful pieces of pottery, antique silverware and off course carpets. They are mixed in with clothes shops, shoes, spices, fish and nougat. As we pass by one of the many carpetshops, our friendly German speaking salesman jumps out. A quick chat on where we have been and a promise to stop by for tea later.
We make it to be big Mosque, the Karouine Mosque. It is supposed to be a beautiful building, but we can only catch glimpses walking around it. The city is so build up around, that there is no room to step back for a better view. Amazing doors and gates along the walls though.
All through the streets are little fountains and tiled spaces that look like fountains, but without taps. These are little shires that people can visit when they don’t have time to visit the tomb of Moulay Idriss II. We do not visit the tomb, as non-muslims are not allowed in anyway.
We end up at the Seffarine Square. The centre of the metal workers in Fes el Bali. It is a nice little square with an old tree. A little breathing space. Around the place are little workshops, where they make the most amazingly big steel and copper pots and cauldrons. Also smaller items, teapots, serving plates and wedding decorations.
One of the alleyways leading of the square is dedicated to wedding chairs. Gold and silver sparkles. These are the chairs the bride and groom sit in when they get lifted above the shoulders by the wedding guests. Weddings are a big thing in this country and people seem to go all out. The chairs are overly decorated as are the treasure chests used for gifts to the family. Usually a lot of sweets wrapped in bright pink and green lacy plastic. Extreme kitsch!
We meet a nice man, dressed in yellow babouches and a yellow Berber Kaftan, therefore Sophia’s nickname for him is “the Banana man”. He is willing to show us a terrace with a view over the Medina and we will not have to pay for it. (We had met people before, with the same offer, but they wanted to charge us 10 Dirham each.) We accept and follow him to a …carpetshop.. But all seems ok. He passes us on to a new man, who leads us straight up the stairs to the roof, with no time to admire the carpets or even the old building we are going through. The view is great. The terrace is surrounded by high walls, so we take turns standing on a little wooden stool, to peer over.
After we are taken to a room where two ladies are working on a carpet. They are hand-knotting a big carpet and it is amazing to see how fast they work. There is no pattern guiding them, as they have the pattern memorised. Anna is invited to do a few knots, but gives up quickly, not wanting to ruin the carpet with bad knotting.
The woman where lovely, but did not speak English or French.
Back down we were invited for tea, by yet another man and he explained that we were in a carpet co-op. All the carpets are made by widowed or divorced ladies and some of the wool is donated by the Australian government.
We are welcomed to have tea and learn about carpets, with no obligation to buy, as everybody that works for the co-op is on fixed wages. Sounds good, we’ll hang out for a bit. This man is very friendly, and he tells us a bit about the pricing structure here. As it is government owned, al the prices are set, except for old carpets from before 1942 when the co-op was set up. The carpets start rolling out and there are some beautiful pieces there, as always. He explains to us how many tourists buy multiple carpets and then sell some of them back home for high, high prices. “A good way to make money.”
He makes it sound attractive, but we are not interested in making such a gamble. One carpet did catch our eye though, and as the buying pressure was raised, we mistakenly asked about the price. 20.000 Dirhams. Way to much for us and besides, it is totally unpractical for us to buy a carpet. Nonetheless negotiations were now under way. The price quite quickly came down to 500 euro (5.000 Dirhams) which was really not a bad price for it. We did not want it though and finally our “friendly” salesman got the point. Also thanks to Sophia, who was in process of negotiating her own carpet. Attention quickly passed to her, but she also managed to escape without a purchase. It was time for us to move on and we fled.
Back down we ran into Banana man again, and as he was of to buy some mint, he would point us in the right direction for the tanneries. These are the big famous Chouwara tanneries. Going there we passed the river and saw people washing sheepskins in the water. Pretty soon after the house roofs were covered in skins hanging out to dry. The best view was from a terrace a top a leathershop, and again we are passed on to someone new, and follow him up all the stairs to the top. The view is good. On one side we see the skins drying, yellow and brown mostly today. In the middle are the basins where they remove the fats and hair for the skin. Using pidgeonpoo and ammonia it must be a smelly job. We had been given mint against the smells, but being so far up, we don’t notice it much. Further to the right are the colourbasins for the dyeing of the skins. Apparently most of the colours are now chemical and so we are surprised to see a man working with no protective clothing, dressed only in little shorts.
It is an amazing sight even though the basins are not as colourful as we had hoped and you see on the postcards.
On the way down we were shown through the leathershop, but prices were to high for us, and luckily they were not pushing us at all to buy anything.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so much..) we ran back into the Bananaman on the road, and once again he had something else to show us.
This time it was an argon and herbal shop. In Morocco they grow a lot of Argon nuts, that are mostly turned into oil. For cooking and for skincare. We got the whole explanation on the process, and although we had heard it all before, we stayed as David and Sophia had not seen it before. Demonstrations were given by a local woman working here, and our arms were rubbed in with the oil. Smells good.. but this shop was a bit pushier in selling and we ended up buying some soap. Made from the left overs after the oil is squeezed out. We needed some soap anyway, and it is really nice..
Luckily this was the last we saw of Bananaman, as we could not have taken more of his help. He was very nice, but did put us in three different shops and some situations got a bit stressy. Time to chill out and have a break.
We wanted to head back to the hotel, but first we needed to stop by the Dyers Souk. It was just around the corner. In Marrakesh we did not visit the dyers, so we could not pass this one up. Anna especially was looking forward to seeing the wool dyed and all the bundles of coloured wool hanging around. We were quite surprise to find out that they don’t dye wool here any more, but have shifted to dyeing garments. From the look of them mostly second hand ones, giving them a new lease on life. Steam all around from the boiling water, and colours streaming over the ground when the dyeing vats are emptied.
Only a quick little walk, but certainly worth it.
We had walked all over the Medina by now and decided to go back to the hotel for a bit. Going along the narrow alleys, David did not hear a mule man yell out, and was hid in the back by the animal. They just go straight, not stopping or swerving for anything or anybody. Quite painful for him, and he stopped for a 10 minute rest. We would meet up with him and Sophia later.
Andrew and Anna decided to go back a different route. How difficult can it be? Yes, we got lost… All these alleyways look alike, and even if you know for certain you are heading in the right direction, you still can get turned around. Andrew’s sense of direction got us back, with only about half an hour detour. It was actually nice to get of the touristy streets for a bit and see how the people here really live.