In Fez Sept 19 to Sept 26, 2014
Fez was our last stop on our Moroccan visit. We took a bus from Chefchaouen to Fez, a relatively short 4 hour ride in comparison to our other grueling bus rides. To make our life easy we had arranged with the riad to have a driver pick us up at the bus station. The driver was promptly waiting for us when we got off the bus, greeting us with a big smile. Once our bags were loaded and we were all buckled in we headed to the riad. After driving just a few short blocks our driver, Aziz, stopped at a red light, asked where we had just arrived from. We told him we were in Chefchaouen for the past four days. He says, “Yes, I know. I saw you”. Len and I looked at each other a little confused. Our driver says, “Yes, I’ll show you.” He whips out his phone, while telling us he was there giving other tourists a tour, and that he had taken our picture. He passes his phone to me… I look at the pictures… sure enough, he was there, at the top of the hill overlooking Chefchaouen right beside us. As it turns out, we had asked him to take a family photo of us with Chefchaouen in the background. Now what are the chances? We knew at that moment, we were going to love Fez and the people of Fez.
Aziz dropped us off inside the medina, where Abdou, our riad host, was waiting for us. He quickly hired a man and his wagon to carry our bags, then we were off. We passed through RCIF Square and Bab RCIF (gate/entrance) then on through another square and through Bab Sid L’Aouad and then into the narrow streets that lead to our riad, The Riad El Bacha. We received some mint tea (traditional Moroccan hospitality), then we were shown to our room, Suite Mennana.
We love staying within the medina. The medina is like a city within a city. It has mosques, stores, museums, schools, universities, shops, craftsmen, artists, barbers, optometrists, dentists, pharmacists, restaurants, raids and homes. It has everything you would find in any city, except for street signs.
We had eight days in and around Fez before flying out. Our first few days were a little uneventful. The bus trips had worn us out, and we were happy just to hang out and relax. All the tour books tell you to hire a guide to take you through the medina, or risk getting lost. After being lost in the small medina in Chefchaouen, there was no doubt in my mind, that we would hire a guide. Fez has one of the largest medinas in Morocco and it would be easy to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets. We wanted a guide for two half days as opposed to one full day. Abdou, arranged for a guide who would break up the tour into two half days for us. This worked out perfectly.
It didn’t take long for us to notice the contrast of the Fez Medina from the other medinas we had been in. Here the streets are so narrow that vehicles and motorbikes are not permitted. Donkeys do all the carrying of the heavy loads. When a donkey is making his way down the narrow cobblestone street you have to jump out of the way quickly. We often found ourselves ducking into entryways or nooks.
As we made our way through the medina, passing the souks, our guide stopped up to give us some history on Morocco. He told us a little about the Moroccan Flag, which came about after Morocco gained independence from France in 1956. He said the flag was red because red represented both life (blood) and revolution. He explained that many believe the five pointed star of the Moroccan Flag represents the five pillars of Muslim belief: Belief in one true God, with Mohammed as his messenger; Ritual prayer (5 times/day); Charity (donation of 2.5% of income); Pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. The history of Morocco is full of conflict, dynasties, reigns and wars dating back hundreds even thousands of years. Currently, in Morocco there is much reverence for the Royal Family, the current King, Mohammed VI, because he has made Morocco better for Moroccans in general and he has the best interests of people and country at heart. As we traveled from city to city and during our pouf of town tours, we saw Arabic script on mountainsides often next to a Moroccan flag. The script boldly shows for kilometers and kilometers, “God, Country & King”. Moroccans are very happy and proud of their country.
You know you are getting closer to the tanneries when you can smell a really foul odor. We were so glad we weren’t there in July or August when the temperatures can reach +40C; the smell would have been unbearable. Now don’t get me wrong, it did smell. It was putrid. When we walked up the stairs to the third floor of the leather goods shop which had a spectacular view down on the terraces, we were handed a sprig of mint. We were to smell it when the odors got too strong. The mint was given to all the visitors to the tanneries.
The shopkeeper quickly took us out to the terrace and explained the process of dying the hides and then turning the colored hides into beautiful soft leather products. When looking down, all you could see were huge vats of dye of various colors and shades. Browns, reds, blues, and yellow. Men standing waist high in large vats of dye, stomping on the hides making them soft and pliable. Men carrying the huge piles of hides through the vats up to the rooftops for cleaning and drying. Hand dyed yellow hides (from Saffron) stretched out on the roof drying under the hot sun. The yellow hides are hand dyed because Saffron is very expensive and the workers need to get the maximum use of it. The other dyes are all organic based from a variety of sources, and give the leather incredible colors.
We knew we were not going to make it out of the shop without buying something, so we looked for something useful. We bought the kids each a leather stool, which they can use in their rooms. They fold down flat like a crushed can and you fill them up with anything soft and compressible. We thought they would be great for winter wear, or summer wear, each when out of season. Now I’m wishing I would have bought myself one too. I guess we’ll just have to go back.
We were the first ones into visit the Medersa Abu Inan the day we went. We had the whole building to ourselves (and the cleaning staff) to explore to our hearts content. The recently restored medersa (theological college) is one of the few Islamic religious buildings open to non-Muslims. It was constructed between 1350-1356 AD by the Merenid Sultan Bou Inan, and is considered to be the finest and most lavishly decorated medersa built by the Merenids. We had enough time to admire the beautifully carved cedar wood and the colorful tile work. We learned that it is the only medersa with a minaret and a minbar. No not the kind of minibar you’re thinking of. The minbar is a wooden pulpit from where the sermons are given by the religious leaders. The reason for the minaret and minbar is because the medersa was also used as mosque.
The second and third floors are the student dorm rooms. Rooms so small that it was hard to imagine a bed fitting in. There were a few larger rooms, we assume for two students. Each room was a different size and shape. Some had windows; some had little nooks in the wall. Walking through the rooms I could imagine theological students sitting on the window sill, looking out at the world. I imagined books stacked in the little nooks in the wall. I imagined students running through the halls and down the wood stairs on the way to class. The medersa sat quiet today, but I imagined it to be full of life hundreds of years ago.
It is rare that we get to enjoy such a beautiful building by ourselves. We enjoyed learning about the medersa and exploring the students quarters. If you get the chance to visit, make sure you go early in the morning.
We passed the University of Al-Qarrawiyyin which was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman of fled her country of Tunisia for Morocco in 859 AD. UNESCO considers it to be the oldest university in the world. The university also serves as a mosque, so we were only able to admire it from the outside looking in. I would have loved to step into the oldest university in the world.
I wonder what life is like on the other side of these doors?
We continued on our tour, stopping to take quick looks at woodworking shops, silver shops, pottery shops and silk shops. And at each shop we had a quick lesson in how the products were made. In the silver shop we watched the artisan making intricate designs on a platter by using the tip of a pin. In the silk shop we watched a weaver making a blanket and learned that some of the silk used comes from Aloe Vera plants. During our two days of touring we stopped to eat our lunch at rooftop restaurants that gave us the best bird’s eye view of the medina. We saw many different views of the medina and learned more and more about Morocco and its people. It was a great experience.
No tour would have been complete without a stop at a carpet shop. During our first day of the tour we got this opportunity and saw a carpet co-operative factory that employs widowed women, as a source of income for their families. We got to see many beautiful variations of carpets, including the famous Fez carpets. We came to understand the creation of and meaning of Moroccan carpets in a new way that we had not previously seen or understood. Now I understand a little more of the history and artisanship of African carpets and now appreciate how and why African carpets are so highly valued and sought after by so many people.
Our time in Fez was made more special by the people that went out of their way for us. Our Fez driver, Aziz, who was always there waiting for us when we returned from sightseeing, or stopping to let us see a chameleon alongside the road. Our tour guides, who patiently waited for us to take another picture or wait for the kids to catch up. Our riad host, Abdou, who was ALWAYS there to offer his help, for which we are so grateful. My new Moroccan friend, Majda, who I always enjoyed spending time with. We are sad our time with our Moroccan friends had to end, but I see a return trip to Fez in our future.