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Monday, May 3, 2010

Fès 101

From Spain Chris and I caught a Ryan Air flight across the channel to Morocco, for a whopping 5 euros each! Upon landing, we immediately caught a bus to the train station, then shared a taxi to the Medina. I detest taxis. What a waste of gas! They’ve monopolized the transportation system here in Fès, an army of tiny red cars, but at least the majority of the drivers aren’t trying to rip off tourists.

Bab Bou Jeloud, the main entrance into the Medina

We found ourselves at the gates of Fès’ Medina, properly called Fès el-Bali, in the height of the dinner rush, pushing past the bustling street stalls and restaurants, each packed with patio diners. With the slightly unwelcomed “help” from a young boy, Muhammad, we found a cheap hotel just along one of the walled city’s two main roads, up a winding staircase and in the back of a narrow strip of rooms. Oddly enough, our double room was set back behind a single room, meaning that we could lock our door, but the person in the front room could also lock us out. On the plus side, our room had a window.

Chris outside one of many decorative doorways

Families hang around city fountains, a cool place to rest and rehydrate

We spent our days in Fès wandering the labyrinth of winding alleyways, peeking into forbidden mosques, admiring the once-grandiose city block sized palaces, and recreating the cultural and architectural history of the country. Patjeter, Chris filled his sketchbook while I distractedly snapped photos, anxiously attempting to discretely capture people.

Men and women can often be seen wearing the traditional djellaba

Admiring the restored splendor of the Mokri Palace

Of course, we made routine trips through the markets, ogling wooden stalls piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, sacks of dried grains/ macaronis/ couscous, and a plethora of various dates. For whatever reason, the word for date in Shqip is Arabian persimmon, don’t ask me why. I sampled, haggled for, and savored a tiny baggie of dates each day. We also splurged on strawberries and avocados, something we do not have access to in Shqiperia, and found they go surprisingly well together in between layers of a fresh, hot pita.

Bountiful green beans piled high in the markets

Fresh guava for sale! We dyed our teeth and mouths a scarlet red while munching away on them...

Loaves of pita bread are sold just about every 10 feet

Fowl run wild in the meat markets

One of the prominent palaces we stopped by is Palais Mnebhi, an early 20th century residence of the King’s defense minister. Now fully restored as a café/restaurant, tourists typically stop in for a drink and to admire the opulent décor. We milked our sweet mint teas as long as possible while trying to absorb the kaleidoscope of colored tiles covering every square inch of space from floor to ceiling.

Dizzying interior, but nice place to pretend you are royalty

Super sweet mint tea-- not for the die-hard tea connoisseurs, but if you have a sweet tooth its a good fix

Beautiful tilework, similar to what we saw in Spain

Fès’ high-walled, narrow streets inside the Medina are mainly filled with shops, mostly for tourists. Its outer rings are packed full of workshops, crowded and busy rooms where locals construct the merchandise; metal smiths pattering away at lanterns, inlaid mirrors, and kitchenware, etc., leatherworkers cutting and sewing the popular slippers, and woodworkers carving intricate lattices and doors. Of course there were cheap Chinese imports mixed in, but a refreshingly high percentage of goods were being made right there, by real people, in full view.

Men would never be caught sewing in Shqiperia!

Goods are transported through the narrow alleyways via donkey or horse

And the rugs! Can’t forget to mention the enormous rug shops, mostly former palaces, that are now dripping with elaborately designed Berber and Moroccan carpets. At every street corner there are men and boys insisting that you come in “only to look, not to buy”. Chris and I conceded to enter a few of them, mainly to get to the rooftop view of the city, but made it very clear we would not be leaving rug-in-toe. Except once, when we wanted the schmoozing, tea-drinking experience, and almost accidentally dropped 150 euros on a Berber-motif fire-proof cactus carpet. Ouch!

Fireproof carpets would make for an excellent hookah lounge...

Alleys dripping with carpets

One of the unique things about Morocco is that non-Muslims are strictly forbidden from entering the mosques. Perhaps that’s a common rule across the Middle East, I’ve simply never encountered it before. My experiences with Islamic countries have been limited to Turkey, Malaysia, Kenya, and certain parts of the US, all of which have welcomed me inside to observe and sometimes take part in the rituals. It’s a compromise—they tolerate my presence as long as I cover my head and momentarily pretend to not be Kafir.

Rushing for the call to prayer at Kairaouine Mosque

C’est la vie! Moroccan mosques will remain a mystery to us. While a little insulted for being banned based on my Anglo origins, I respect them for preserving the masjid as sacred spaces. The way the ancient Medina is set up doesn’t allow for open park space, so the inner sanctions of the mosques also serve as a relaxing family place, free from hassles. I’m cool with that.

This should be the cover for the next Morocco Lonely Planet

Fès has many souks scattered throughout the Medina. These clusters of stalls, shops, or sometimes funduqs (former caravansaries) can specialize in almost anything. In the mood for some henna, powders, and perfumes? Make your way to the Henna Souk. Or do you fancy smen (rancid butter), khlia (preserved meat) and honey? We found plenty at Funduq Kaat Smen.

Shopping inside Derb Fez El-Jdid, one of the many souks

Women buying powders in the Henna Souk

Former caravansaries are now spaces to store supplies

Chicks for sale! Red, blue, pink anyone?

Another iconic spot in Fès is the Chouwara Tannery. Men are constantly rushing through the alleys with armloads of sheep skins, en route to be dyed, or taken post-bath to the shoe makers. Compelled by our mini guidebook, we decided to at least take a peek. What is all the fuss over? We wandered down a long string of alleys, trying our best to lose the young men who insisted on "leading" us down the street, however, upon arrival I could hardly bear the smell more than a few nauseating moments. We ducked inside the tannery compound, I took a quick photo of the dying vats, then hurriedly about-faced in a rush to get away.

Dyeing vats inside the odoriferous Chouwara Tannery

The leather eventually becomes lovely slippers

Somewhere in the mess of souks and workshops sits Seffarine Square, a large open courtyard crowded with coppersmiths and their shops. We sat on the edge, watching endless streams of passersby and listening to the constant clunk clunk clunk of the men pounding away at their metal bowls. For awhile I convinced myself that the harmonized tappings were all a show, but then after a long time finalized kettles and pots emerged, and, without skipping a beat, the men continued on with the next bowl.

Small break from tedious work in the coppersmiths' courtyard

Nearby the coppersmiths is Nejjarine Square. At the edge sits one of the city’s many beautifully tiled fountains, where locals come to draw water and wash before entering the mosques. The square’s main building is the Nejjarine Wood Museum, an 18th century funduk that has been restored to display the history and culture of woodworking in Morocco. Chris and I wandered the 3 floors, in and out of the exhibition rooms full of wood products, then took a look out at the city from the rooftop terrace.

Somewhat Escher-like interiors of the Nejjarine Wood Museum

Venturing outside the Medina, we visited the Dar Batha Museum. Once a summer palace for Sultan Abdelaziz, it consists of two buildings connected by a lengthy Andalusian garden and courtyard, with a riyad (inn) for housing and entertaining important guests. The gardens are lush with plants from around the world, a bonafied melting pot of fit for a King (and it was). I suppose the museum rooms full of artifacts are the main attraction, but Chris and I were more taken by the cool garden oasis.

Strolling around the gardens of the Dar Batha Museum

Chris and I ended up couchsurfing for our last nights, staying in a spacious apartment with a Math teacher from North Carolina. Our host, Ethan, engaged with us in long conversations about life as an expat in Morocco (not entirely unlike life as an expat in Albania as far as work frustrations and concepts of time). He also taught us quite a bit about the country’s historical/political situation involving the Western Sahara, which had only recently come to my attention with the activist Aminatou Haidar’s hunger strike. Ethan introduced us to some traditional tajines,typically consisting of couscous and vegetables, and tipped us off on the 3 dirham avocado milkshake stand. If I was on Twitter I would definitely spam my followers with endless messages like I *heart* CSing and Flight: 55 Dh, Avo shake: 3 Dh, Conversation and insight from a local: priceless!

Next stop: Marrakesh!

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