Famous for the best preserved Medina in the world, Fez-el-Bali, as well as the first University in the world. 9500 alleyways weave through 2.8 sq km of Medina. An area which many residents never leave and which is a world unto itself.
Our day long exploration of Fes began with a walk though the Mellah or Jewish Quarter. Established in the 16th C in the newer part of the Medina – the Jewish quarter once held a population of 250,000 – a fraction of whom remain. Residences are located over shops with balconies overhanging the street – contrary to Arab style but similar to new Orleans. Shops were just opening for the day as we wandered through the narrow alleys past cafes, hair salons, hotels and markets.
A spectacular view of the Jewish cemetery with its white headstones
was visible from our vantage point overlooking Fes and the surrounding valley, the road climbed effortlessly by our transport van.
Following the photo op, we descended into the city and plunged on foot into the ancient Medina. It is difficult to describe the narrow streets – some barely accommodating a person and with no daylight from above. Narrow rabbit warrens of alleys open up suddenly into restaurants or shops. Windows are non-existent – all light comes from above (if there is any) My sense is that you could walk for days in the maze and never follow the same route twice. Organization of the superficial chaos became slowly apparent – butchers in one area, fruit and vegetables in another, leather, weaving, metal work – all with their own areas.
Our local guide navigated it seamlessly and kept the vendors at bay. If you venture in, hire a reputable guide for your first visit – do not grab a guide outside the Medina as they will take you to the nearest shop owned by a relative and things can get ugly if you are not interested in buying anything. A highlight of the tour was the tannery area which allowed some spectacular photo ops. If you are interested in leather there are some gorgeous items there. Be prepared to bargain – one of our group members bargained the price down a couple of hundred dollars for a spectacular jacket. What seems to work is starting at about 60% of the asking price and you meet in the middle – having said that, it is not an amount set in stone. Bargaining is expected here and part of the enjoyment of the purchase – saying give me your best price is vaguely insulting to merchants – it is fun to haggle and the purchase generally ends with good spirits all around.
The tanning process starts with lime and ends with cow poop and pigeon guano – i knew all those pigeons are around for a reason…. Men work in the vats daily – some getting right in there with the hides. The smell was interesting 😑 – sprigs of peppermint supplied by the facility’s owner were given to us to use to ward off the worst.
Following a few hours of a bewildering walk though just about everything you can imagine (and some stuff you probably cannot – the camel head story will have to wait until I get home) and following a quick lunch we exited the Medina and headed for our calligraphy class.
Islamic calligraphy is not what I expected but a rigorous academic pursuit that requires years of training and includes many different styles. My experiments with a calligraphy pen were unremarkable 🙃 but at the end of the session our instructor did something very unexpected. We each gave him our name or something we wanted him to write on a piece of decorative paper to take home. Here is mine.
The translation “Travel widely and the crescent will become a full moon”
Tomorrow we travel to Marrakech.