We arrived in Fes late in the evening after 6 hours of driving. iMaps did get us to our destination which included driving around the outskirts of the amazing and majestic walls of Fes in heavy evening traffic.
We drove into a carpark with blank walls facing us in all directions and it was only that our guide, Khalid, saw us and waved us down did we realise we had, in fact, found the right destination. Where was the beautiful hotel which we had seen on the website? Here was Khalid in an outdoor car park outside the city walls. Just where was the hotel? Our first question was, ‘Where can we park our car?’. ‘Here’, the answer, as Khald waved his arm to the surrounding area and parked cars. ‘No’, was the response! Khalid did recognise that Goldie was a bit unusual and he then arranged for us to move the car right next to where the 24 hour car park attendants were sitting under an umbrella. Both Khalid and the hotel assured us all will be well. Let’s hope Goldie is still here in 4 days time!
Our hotel, Palais Amani is inside the city walls and this city is one of numerous laneways with no room for any cars at all. The only vehicles you will see are donkey carts, hand drawn carts and the occasional motorbike in the wider ‘streets’. Although the thoroughfares are referred to as streets, all 9,672 of them, most are narrow laneways with residential doors opening straight into the street or tiny shops whose presence is completely hidden when the shops are closed.
The hotel is a rehabilitated house (or small palace) built around a central uncovered courtyard, filled with orange trees and flowerbeds and a beautiful pool and fountain, with rooms on two floors facing inwards (except our room on a corner has exterior windows overlooking roofs and satellite dishes!)
We asked about dinner and were met with one answer only – here in the hotel. I did look outside and realised that this was a closed door city: many doors bolted and barred with no indication of what lay behind. So we gave in and sat in the delightful courtyard under orange trees in the candle light with the tinkering of the fountain while enjoying Moroccan shiraz and delicacies. Perhaps not so bad after all!
The next day we started on our tour of Fes Medina. The city has about 80,000 residents and 9,672 streets / alleyways / short cuts / dead ends. Our first stop was on a hill overlooking the city which highlighted its compactness, particularly that of the medina. Nevertheless, it’s big and bewildering: we are usually able to find our way around towns and even ‘old towns’ but as of today this one has us beat!
Our tour covered a ceramics and tile factory. The ceramics reminded us of other such factories we had visited in Turkey and Uzbekistan where skilled potters and artists created beautiful plates, cups of all shapes, tagines, bowls etc etc.
And then of course there are those fabulous tables and fountains with intricate mosaic patterns made up of tiny interlocking tiles. The tiles are all baked in squares of about 200mm x 200mm and then cut up into the shapes needed to create the pattern. The skills here are extraordinary as the sheer cutting up of the tiles into tiny shapes requires extraordinary finesse (the cutters are paid by the piece, so you don’t want to break one while cutting).
Then of course the artesian builds the pattern, which he does have on a small sheet of paper, upside down by placing the tiles face down on the ground so that they can then be cemented together! All the tiles are to be found in small plastic bags along the edge of the work area. A fountain for Smiths Lake was discussed but abandoned (by John) due to boot constraints! (It could have been shipped home!)
We then visited the Bou Inania Medersa with its restored and beautiful wooden carvings. The carving and painting of wood in Morocco is of a startling beauty and intricacy. Look up in any of these beautiful buildings and you will see a magnificent ceiling. And, the ceiling in each room will be different.
And then the tanneries we hear so much about. Because the old city is divided by Wadi Fes (river) water is available for the tanners. The process is quite complex: first, strip the hide of wool or hair in vats containing pigeon droppings, limestone and salt (the white vats), then rinse before tanning in vats containing pomegranate seeds, cedar and something else (the dark vats). All hides come out tan in colour (hence the expression tanning), are dried in the sun and then placed in vats with different colours.
The vats are surrounded by buildings with viewing platforms and numerous rooms packed with leather goods: rooms of shoes, jackets, bags, poofs and anything else that can be made with leather. And then came the hard sell. We left.
Unfortunately we were here on a Friday and consequently 90% of the shops in the souk were closed.
A few stalls an shops were open and Khalid said these would be mostly for tourists. However, I do not think there would be too many tourists lined up for fresh chicken, slaughtered and plucked on the spot! Pick your chicken from the rack at the rear of the shop and have it slaughtered in front of you, or choose from the pre prepared meat in the front cabinet. You can also bring along your home grown chicken and have it slaughtered and plucked for you, for a price. More appealing was the fruit and veg for sale, regardless of the religious holiday.
We called an end to the day early and made plans, with Khalid, to repeat the exercise on Sunday when things were happening.
We ventured out at night to a local restaurant. Well, we really did not venture. The hotel called ahead, a family member was sent to collect us and lead us to the restaurant and at the end we were escorted back to our hotel – such is the nature of Fes that we would surely have gotten lost without a guide. (I think you would need to spend at least three dedicated days here to start to become familiar with finding your way around.)
This restaurant did give us an insight into how a more traditional few house would be decorated. Here were beautiful carpets adorning the walls of a truely family run establishment. We have arrived early and the family is gathering next door for a casual family get together, however we are very well looked after by the daughter of the owners.
The meal of a vegetable tajine, a (spicy) lamb tajine and then sweets. Being Muslim, no alcohol was served, however we had been told by the hotel we were welcome to take our own and so took a bottle purchased in the Rioja. We did, however have to open it and pour it ourselves as the family were not allowed to even touch it.
We are learning to look up! Half the beauty of Morocco is on the ceiling. (It is interesting in that when people ask to see over our ‘old’ house in Mosman, the first thing I say to them is, ‘look up’, as each pressed metal ceiling in our home is different. Now I have to repeat this mantra to myself.) To truly appreciate the magnificent craftsmanship of the Moroccan home you must ‘look up’. This ceiling is all wood, carved and then painted.
The ceiling of the dining room, and detail of the ‘cornice’.
Pictures do not do this justice!
We were escorted to and from the restaurant by Omar, a young man whose sole occupation was to ‘escort’ people around the town. He was very proud of the fact that he knew every street in the Medina, one which has 9,672 streets!
Talking to people you meet is the best way of learning, and Omar, after some hesitation was eager to talk with us. He began his working career as a public parking area attendant then, because he had worked hard at learning English from TV and talking with people, he had graduated to the position of official ‘Escort’, a job which is legalised by the city. Where to next? was my question to Omar. Hopefully a tourist guide. How old was this young man, who looked no more than 16 to 18? Well, he had worked for 16 years as a parking attendant and then 3 years as an Escort.
There is no social service payment here, as we know it in Australia and yes, you do see beggars. (As you do in Sydney.) Here, if you want to earn a living you simply have to work. Omar was an example of a young man committed to ‘working his way up’ in his world. He was polite, interesting to talk with and a credit to himself.