Morocco, part three: learning to love a medina maze
13.02.2012 - 16.02.2012 18 °C
Before Nils and I went to Turkey in 1996, I read a great book titled A Fez of the Heart. It tells of author Jeremy Seal's adventures as he tries to find out more about the significance of this red, felt hat in Turkey's history.
Well, this entry has nothing to do with Turkey and in fact, the name of the city of Fes has nothing to do with the red, felt hats worn by Turkish men, but I love the title and loved our visit to Fes so, with thanks to Mr. Seal...
Our riad in Fes was located right on the edge of the medina but within the old city walls. As is typical in most riads, it has a large, plant-filled courtyard in the centre, high ceilings and multi-levelled terrace. Our host insisted on showing us the view of the city right away. The riad was on a slight hill so we had an impressive view of the tableau of minarets, mosques, fountains, and terracotta-coloured housing and market space before us. When she told us that there are over 10,000 narrow derbs (alleyways) in the medina, we quickly took her up on the offer of finding us a guide.
Adean is an older Moroccan gentleman who had grown up in the narrow passageways of the Fes medina, so he knew them quite literally like the back of his heand. Our first stop on the tour however was outside the medina in the Fassi poetry centre. Angus tried the pottery wheel and we watched craftsmen kneeling in a row cutting ceramic pieces to create mosaic tables, fountains, and chairs which are then shipped all over the world.
We drove from here to one of the massive doorways in the stone city walls. We quickly reviewed Stacy's rule #2 and #3 of travel (STAY TOGETHER and IF YOU ARE LOST, APPROACH A MUM TO HELP YOU) and ventured outside. (Rule #1 is EAT AND PEE WHEN YOU CAN, in case you are wondering). A few weeks earlier we had tackled the medina in Marrakech and Max said afterwards that it was not his favourite experience to fight the crowds to make it from one end to the other. Happily, this medina experience was of a completely different sort.
As a vivid example of a living crafts workshop and market, Fes has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are blacksmiths, keycutters, seamstresses, metalworkers, hard at work using in many case, traditional methods to make their wares. Of course, the products are for sale but there wasn't the hard sell that we encountered in Marrekech which made Max want to hide.
The highlight of the tour was the "Terrasse des Tanneurs". We were taken into a leather shop, up a flight of stairs and out on to an open balcony. Down below was a scene which took our breath away. In what looked like a set for a medieval movie, there was a spectacular view of a working tannery. There was a man pulling the fur from the hides by hand, barefoot workers in shorts dunking the hides in vats of brightly coloured dyes, a large water wheel in the centre onto which the hides are attached to be rinsed, and several areas on balconies where racks of coloured skins were drying. Natural materials are used in the dyes - poppies, saffron, indigo, and mint, and in one part of the process, men stomp on the material in a mixture of lye and pigeon poop. Nils and the boys each bought a pair of leather slippers to brighten up even the darkest Yukon days.
With the Fes medina conquered, we left the next morning by train for Tangier, the last stop of our Moroccan adventure. We arrived in the late afternoon and we left early the next morning for our crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar so I didn't take any pictures but we did have a couple of fun experiences.
We stayed in the Hotel Continental, the oldest hotel in Morocco and very, very colonial. We ate our breakfast in a huge room with high ceilings and mosaic walls and doors opeing to a large terrace looking over the harbour. It was not difficult to imagine hosting the jet setters and movie stars of the last century. You could have an amazing party, dance, wedding reception in and around the various multi-arched, well-lit common rooms. There were many black and white photos from days gone by which were evocative testimonials of many such gatherings - mainly pre and some post independence. You could almost hear the walls talking.
That evening we went to a small restaurant near the hotel and had one of our best Moroccan meals. When we sat down, a young man brought us large, steaming bowls of Harira soup, a spicy, bean-based Moroccan staple. All around us were young men with heads hungrily and appreciatively bent over bowls of soup which the man behind the counter had scooped out of a large soup pot. The main course that evening was fried fish with piquant tomato sauce, which was also delicious. When the soup pot was finished, the restaurant door was closed and chairs were stacked on tables. We were so very glad that we had made it in.
On the way back to the hotel, we were stopped by a Scottish man who heard us speaking English. When we told him we were Canadian, he told us of his interesting connection to Canada. His name was Randall MacDonald and his great-grandfather was Sir John A. MacDonald's first cousin. In fact, he did look quite a bit like Sir John...from a certain angle. Without taking a breathe in over 10 minutes, he told us all about his homes in Tangier and Prague, how reasonable the rents are and the sized of the ex-pat community in Tangier (around 500) most of whom, he admitted, find him quite eccentric. His lifestyle did sound attractive and affordable. Hmmmm.....
We were in Morocco for almost one month and covered much of the country. We are so glad that Lesley and Al chose Marrakech as the site of their first marathon so that we could enjoy this great experience in North Africa!