Today was…interesting. The morning started off well – we slept in a bit and had a wonderful breakfast in the garden of our hotel. Eggs cooked in a tomato sauce, three different kinds of bread with homemade jams, fruit salad, yogurt and muesli… it is by far the best breakfast we’ve had yet. The place as so quiet, too. Some of the other guests had already eaten, some were still sleeping, and the city around us was definitely taking the morning slowly due to Ramadan.
When we finished eating, one of the staff brought us a map of the medina and walked us through a route that would show us all the major sites. We watched her pen marked the narrow streets, nodding along and exclaiming over interesting sounding buildings. We packed up and ventured out into the street, confident with our map.
It didn’t take long for that confidence to disappear.
We were never lost, per se. But the atmosphere in the twisting alleys was oppressive. The medina must be based on Daedalus’ Labyrinth itself, each turn leading down a different alley, each alley looking similar enough to the last that you’re never quite sure if you’ve been there before, if you recognize where you are. The walls are so close that the streams of people are always brushing up against you as they hurry past, and you have to take care not to bump into any of the vendors’ stalls or knock any goods over. Often there are awnings covering the space between the buildings to block out the harsh sun, making the impression that you’re trapped even stronger.
And then there is the starting. There were not enough tourists meandering the medina to draw attention away from us, or to make us feel less out of place. Everyone stared at us as we walked around. And then, inevitably, the hassling began. Where are you going? The tanneries are this way, I’ll show you. Come into my shop, good prices on carpets. Come see this building, it’s so beautiful. Where are you going? Are you lost? I can lead you. Relentless, from all sides. It was impossible to think, it was impossible to stop and look at our map without being mobbed by men – always men – asking to help us. And how could we tell the difference between genuine offers of help and those just looking for a tip? We certainly weren’t about to pay anyone but after a while, the combination of the claustrophobic atmosphere, the harassment, and the difficulty in navigation drove us back to our hotel.
We had only been gone for an hour and hadn’t seen anything beyond the press of people and vendors’ stalls. We did realize, though, that most of the sites that had been recommended for us were closed to non-Muslims, so we wouldn’t have been able to go in anyway. So, as we calmed down (and cooled down) in our room, we came up with a new plan – go straight to the tanneries, then to a museum, then back to the hotel. I have to say that Chris was a rock star at navigating us, avoiding the men hassling us like a pro, and got us around really well. He really hates being so conspicuous, so I know he was having a hard time with all the staring and heckling. Anyway, we made it to the tanneries.
The tanneries in Fez still operate the way they have for centuries – vats full of solution for various parts of the process. In order to see the ones in Fez, you have to go through a shop (imagine that!) to a terrace that overlooks the area. We had a guide (one of those enterprising young gentlemen wanting very much to help the tourists) show us around and he was actually really knowledgeable about the whole thing. He explained the process: first the leather soaks in a limestone solution for a few days to remove the hair and fat; then it is washed in what looks like a huge rotating beer barrel; after the washing, the leather is dyed, then dried and scraped. The scraping process not only removes any leftover hair and fat, but also stretches and softens the leather. We got to see men washing, dying, scraping – the whole shebang. It smelled awful, though the guidebooks make it to be worse than it actually is. Also, we went in the afternoon; apparently the smell is worse in the morning. The whole area is a cooperative, with the families all working together. Most are born into the job, and their families have been tanners for generations. They also work closely with the artisans who fashion the handbags and slippers and book covers – all the money is shared among them.
It was pretty neat and definitely worth the unpleasantness of earlier. Our guide showed us around (what I presume was) his family’s shop, telling us about making different dyes and whatnot. I bought a little wallet and we tipped out guide well – he put up with all our questions really well.
After the tannery, we walked to the Nejjarine Museum, which is dedicated to woodworking. It was interesting, but the building itself really steals the show. It is a renovate founduk, which were buildings used by caravans to house goods, animals, and people while in town. The bottom floor was used as storage for goods and animals, while the people stayed in the rooms in the floor above. It was beautiful, decorated with carved railings, and the exhibits were interesting in their own right.
After the museum, we headed back to the hotel. We were navigating our way when who did we see but our friends John and Sally, the Australians we had met in Larache! Out of all the alleyways in all the world… It was such a funny coincidence made even crazier when we found out that they would be dining at our hotel’s restaurant that evening! We made plans to join them and continued on our way. What a small world!
Once back at the hotel, we relaxed for a bit before dinner. And this dinner – oh my goodness. Called mechoui – traditional slow cooked lamb – it might have been the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. We could smell it all afternoon; it cooks for seven hours! Parts of the lamb were crisp and juicy, while other parts were so tender they just melted in your mouth. It was incredible. And we again had a lovely time hanging out with John and Sally.
So, if you’re thinking about visiting Fez or Marrakesh or Tangier, definitely get a guide for the medina. Not only will a guide help you find your way around, but I suspect that it would help with all the hassling as well. And definitely stay at Riad Idrissy – I want to come back to Fez just so I can stay here!