Days 97, 98, 99 Fes
19.08.2016 - 21.08.2016 33 °C
The night we arrived in Fes was a whirl wind. Mohammed first dropped us at the bus station so we could pop in and buy our tickets for the remaining portions of our trip and then transported us to the the edge of the Medina.
We bid goodbye with heartfelt thanks and were immediately handed over to the custody our Riad host, also Mohammed, who met us at the car and guided us to our accommodation. Instantly, we are struck with how different Fes Medina is to Marrakesh.
We walk a mere 150 m of narrow lanes 2 m wide, through a crowded lane of shops 4 m wide and finally down a darker lane to Riad Taryana. Once inside its like stepping through a portal to an alternate reality. We take a moment to absorb the beautiful mosaic tiled courtyard, with three floors and with internal facing balconies. It's so quiet and we hear absolutely no noise of the bustling turmoil outside on the streets of the Medina.
Mohammed gave us the 10 minute briefing of all things Fes plus making arrangements for a one day walking tour with a guide from the Fes Tourist Board assuring us, because its endorsed by the Tourist Board, there's absolutely no obligation to buy anything...yeah right!
The next day, after a delicious breakfast, our guide, Fouad takes us for a walk around the Medina. We booked the 3 hour option (rather than the whole day) but very quickly realised 3 hours was an illusion and we weren't getting home until the end of the day.
The Medina is built on a hill and we are staying near the top at the famous Blue Gate.
Unlike Marrakesh, most of the restaurants are centred at the top of the Medina, near the Blue Gate. But, like Marrakesh, the spruckers are equally skilled at "encouraging" us to dine with them. One fellow feigned huge dishonour when we declined to dine with him, instead having tea at another restaurant, so we were "obliged" to dine with him on our final night.
It's a couple of kms to get to the other end. As it is Friday so a significant amount of shops are closed and it is easier for us to walk around. Some of the laneways are only shoulder width and we wander the quiet streets chatting with Fouad.
Whilst there are many wonderful things about Morocco, it is a developing nation, where poverty and social welfare are constant challenges. People with disabilities or those unable to work, are forced to beg, relying on Alms from good Muslims, as pensions or government help is minimal. What is most heartbreaking, especially for Jen, are the street cats. We know that they love cats and dogs, but unfortunately lack of desexing means there are way too many kittens and cats on the street. We regularly see dishes of water and food scraps left out, they are all too thin and likely need worming. Jen struggles to resist trying to feed them all as it only exacerbates the issue. We hope that, with time and development, the people will have enough for their own necessities and pet care should follow.
Fouad gives us a quick history lesson of Morocco and in particular its French history.
In the 19th Century the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire. As the world became more mobile, the Ottomans struggled to manage the area from Istanbul. Pirates roamed the coastline and with various European states holding small regions, English in Tangier, Spanish elsewhere and the French wanting a bit too, based on the strategic location of the Mediterranean but the Berber and Bedouin tribes still independent. After a number of conflicts with France (based on French occupation of Algeria), Spain and Germany, the Treaty of Fes was signed in 1912 making Morocco a Protectorate of France. Dissent grew until World War II with nationalist movement gaining momentum. They believed an Allied victory would pave the way for Moroccan Independence. In January 1944, the Istiqlal (Independence) Party released a manifesto demanding full independence, national reunification, and a democratic constitution. Unfortunately, the French refused to accept the manifesto and continued colonial rule. Nearly 9 years later, in December 1952, riots brought a watershed to tensions between Morocco and France. France exiled the Sultan to Madagascar and outlawed the political party. Active opposition to French control escalated and the French were forced to negotiate their exit from Morocco. So, whilst full independence wasn't achieved until 1956, the Manifeste De L'Independence, is still celebrated.
We walk to Al Quaraouiyino University, approximately a 1000 years old and the oldest continually operating University, the first to award educational degrees in the world. It was a university for the education of theology and philosophy (which in centuries past captured all doctrines of medicine, mathematics, astronomy etc). But now it is exclusively for the studies of Islamic religion. It is listed as a UNESCO site and currently being extensively restored. It also sits beside the main river to flow through the Medina.
The river retreated underground a long time ago, and is heavily polluted. As we learn throughout Morocco, there is considerable investment in infrastructure and improvements. The river has been reinstated above ground and the next step is to address the pollution to restore the glory of the river.
We take a walk through Bou Inania Medersa one of the oldest theological colleges in all of Morocco.
Like Ben Yousseff in Marrakesh, there is a quiet calmness and a respectful solitude to this place.
Next stop nestled in amongst the riads and shops is the leather tannery. This place is where the raw hides of sheep, cow, camel and goat come to be cleaned, washed, coloured and dried and then ready to be made into everything leather. The conditions for the workers are pretty bad as most of the process is manual and they have to step inside vats of tanning chemicals and colours to soak the leather with their feet. Today the smell is tolerable but they still give us some fresh mint leaves to mask the smell.
We are taken down from the roof top into 2 floors of leather goods ranging from jackets, bags, shoes, sandals, slippers, belts, all in numerous styles and colours. They do look beautiful but leather products are something we don't need to buy. We thank the guide there and we get away from the assistants very polite but still a sell job. Looking at an entire wall of every type of leather jacket imaginable, the guide assures us that if we can't find one we like, one can be custom made in three hours! As we have travelled now for about 8 days we have heard all the typical ways the locals try and entice you to buy something. It's very subtle and always starts off "Moroccans want to talk and just chat, please come in and have a mint tea...if you don't like then you don't buy....I will not pressure you!", "oh you are Australian, we love Australians". Its quite an art form.
We walk near the largest mosque in Fes, Kairouine, which holds about 22,000 people and has 14 exits. We take a peak inside the the beautiful archways, white and tiled walls, and rugs. The mosques are a haven for people to sit, wash and get out of the heat. As its Friday, 1 pm prayers are the main session of the week with the mosque filling almost to capacity.
After, we get caught at an exit as hundreds leave after prayers and its like being in a Beijing subway human traffic jam. The lanes have specific sections that they make and sell local products, e.g. Copper, timber furniture.
This is Place Seffarine, named for its coppersmith shops, now closed following Friday prayers, for the rest of the day.
Fountains are a lifeblood of the towns. The water is not safe for tourists but locals are accustomed to the mineral content. Many shops host a container of water out front for any local to pause and quench their thirst.
This place was a historic trading post and hostel where caravans could dock, tether their camels and refresh.
After managing to successfully evade buying leather goods earlier, we thought we had sussed out Moroccan shop keepers, but our next stop was the artisan co-op rug palace. The owner first takes us upstairs for a 360 degree view of the city, pointing out landmarks.
He draws our attention to the University and its tower which was used by philosophy students centuries ago to gaze to the heavens to try to figure out the world, much like Galileo did and diligently carry out their studies in the rooms below the green roofs.
We knew he was softening us up, but it was nice to talk to him about the history of Fes and also current issues - his sadness at the pain in the world wrongly committed in the name of Islam, experiencing the world through satellite dishes and modern day issues.
Once back downstairs, the mint tea magically appears, we are invited to sit for a moment, and very quickly beautiful rugs are laid out, layer upon layer in front of us, we're happily caught in the Web. He is working on Jen and the "women always picks the colour" and " it's something for life", "she is a beautiful woman" "the woman is the head of the home, you can't be successful in the world if you don't have a happy home" . Quickly the carpets are being flung in front of us and Jen and I know we are in trouble. Fortunately the night before we agreed that we will buy a rug to complete our collection of rugs at home so we select two carpets and enter the game of bargaining. Fortunately these rugs are better quality than the ones in the Merzouga Coop.
The negotiations are fairly quick and we have our carpet rolled up, and money exchanged (including an escort to the ATM), and everyone is happy. The carpet we bought will go perfectly with the other Persian rugs we have at home and it's a great memory for us of our time in Morocco.
Lunch is down a small laneway that we would have never found ourselves and we enter a beautiful Riad style courtyard made into a restaurant. The decor is stunning, the tiles vibrant and food delicious, and plentiful - this was just one entree (we shared).
And every meal is followed with Moroccan Whiskey (Mint Tea) which is perfect.
We agreed with our guide to grab a petit taxi and go to sites outside the Medina. First stop is on top of the hill, with ancient Kasbah ruins, adjacent to the Medina to get a full view of the vastness of the Medina. We get an appreciation of how packed in are the buildings and how far the old city wall goes.
We drive to the Royal Palace and wander through the the main street of the Jewish quarter. Contrasting Moroccan Islamic architecture, the buildings here have the balcony on the outside. No Jewish people live here anymore, having moved to a new region of Fes. Unlike the Middle East and other parts of North Africa, Muslims, Jews and Christians are able to live in harmony and without conflict.
One thing the Moroccans we meet are very quick to emphasise on how tolerant they are of other religions especially Jewish and Christianity. They want us to know the ISIS Muslims and the ones in Nice and Paris are not real Muslims, they are just crazy people. From what we have seen to date and heard we believe this is the case. Jen and I think it is definitely not extremist and the current King Mohammed VI has made significant changes to the rights of women, education, dress codes, empowering women to positions in parliament and professional life. He is well educated and enlightened about the future - subsidising solar panel farms and investment in irrigation and water reticulation, and has even forced the closure of the manufacture of plastic bags to address rubbish.
It's back into the taxi and we take a ride up the hill to the co-op ceramic and tile factory. This place was amazing. It is where they make all the Moroccan style plates, bowls, cups, tiles, fountains, table etc.
First stop is the pottery wheel and Jen is asked to have a go. She jumps at the chance especially as a 6 ft young good looking Moroccan with strong hands was about to give her a lesson on how to use the wheel. I instantly think of Unchanged Melody, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost and roll my eyes. Jen is just grinning.....what!
We are taken to the kilns and learn the interesting fact the ovens are actually fuelled by burning olive pits and hay and get to required 1200 degrees C.
It's onto the painter who has numerous pieces in front of him. Everything is painted by hand with precision accuracy. We learn about the dyes and that this purple dye turns blue when fired.
The painter grabs Jen's hand and paints a henna style design and her name in Arabic. This guy probably does this to very pretty girl that comes by but it still has Jen grinning from ear to ear with her signature smile.
The assistant shows us where the workers chip all the tiles into pieces for all the mosaics for walls, fountains, tables and ponds.
These guys spend all day with a small pick and chip the tiles to various shapes and sizes, beside a guy assembling a mosaic fountain - all done in reverse and then grouted.
Its now into the show rooms and see all the various products and the fountains capture our eyes. The colours are so vibrant and we think how good would that look mounted some how on the wall next to our pool at home. Quickly reality kicks back, there is no hope we get in our backpack. The assistant assures us they can deliver!
We resist but take plenty of photos of the styles and make mental note of the idea for when we redo the tiles at home. We have to buy something - two little bowls carefully wrapped hopefully make it home in one piece.
On our way back, at this fountain in the roundabout, amongst peak hour traffic, this darling fellow was gleefully splashing about enjoying the cool water in the heat.
Well that was the a full day of great sites, loads of facts and something very unique. Jen and I loved the whole day, our guide Fouad was fantastic and we have fallen in love with Fes.
Unfortunately we've succumbed to gastro so we don't venture too far. We wandered nearby streets and look for some small souvenirs for home. My mate Mike has requested a Fes from Fes. We stroll down one of the two main lanes that have the general stuff you can buy but the thing that surprises us is that virtually nobody wears the fes and its hard to find a shop that even sells them. We find the things to buy and go have lunch to develop a shopping strategy. As most of you know I am the introvert and Jen is the extrovert but somehow I got to be the designated negotiator, even though Jen does this stuff for a living, go figure! We go back out for dinner and shopping and successfully mange to bargain on one set of gifts. However, we were up against a seasoned pro - a 12 year old boy and I knew I needed all my years of bargaining experience to say I got a good deal but he was highly accomplished and tried all his best tricks. I used the old method of leaving the shop as the price was too high. After about 30 minutes we beat him down from approximately $90 to a more realistic $28. Success!
We have finished with Fes and loved every minute of it. It is a fun place, few tourists, very traditional and again super friendly. Next morning we do some final photo shots from the roof of our Riad. Time to say goodbye.
The next day is a travel day by bus from Fes to Chefchaouen, a four hours trip. The trip was uneventful other than it was 45 minutes late leaving Fes and got later as we went due in part to a comfort stop right beside an open air BBQ. Tried as we could, we were bewildered as to how it worked. You buy a portion of mince or cuts of meat at the butcher, pay by weight, then hand it to the BBQ guys you press it into wire racks and cook it over hot coals, then proceeding to turn and shuffle through the cooking process, along with at least a dozen other racks, without tags or labels and then shoving them in loaves of bread and handing over to the owner. How on earth do they keep track of who's meat is whose. Minimal delays were encountered at the next comfort stop, again for reasons unknown, the bus driver refused to allow a grandmother board and ignoring her as she proceeded to follow the bus banging on the side as he eased out of the chaotic car park. We don't speak Arabic but it didn't take much to understand the abuse she was hurling at him.
As we come in the hot and windy bus station we realised the town is perched uphill and the Medina is straight up from the bus station and we need to walk up a road at 20% gradient.
Our Riad is above the square and we settle into our three days in Chefchaouen.