Today we are exploring the 9th century city of Fèz. The city began as a caravan staging post and soon became an important meeting point and the spiritual and intellectual capital of Morocco. We begin our tour at the Jnan Palace in the Jewish quarter — three massive bronze doors set into an ornate wall of intricately carved plaster and mosaics.
The bus takes us up a hill lined with olive groves. The fort at the top dates from the 17th century, and from there we are able to see out over the whole of the old part of the town. Houses and shops are so densely packed together that the alleys between them can barely be discerned. On the way back down, we stop at a ceramics factory. Black smoke billows up from the kilns — black from the pressed olive residue used to fire them. We see men turning out pots on hand-driven wheels and putting together mosaics — pieces are slotted in upside down and the gaps are filled with fresh clay. Then the whole thing is turned over to reveal the bright geometric pattern. The women are employed painting designs onto the ceramics, which are then stacked in the beehive-shaped kilns. The factory shop is filled with colourful bowls, pots, jugs, plates, vases, etc. Our first shopping frenzy begins.
Back in the medina, we enter the very heart of Fèz as we are virtually frog-marched by our local guide through a labyrinth of alleys and souks. As we become totally disoriented by the confusing twists and turns and junctions of the passages and alleys, we are assaulted on all sides by salesmen, jostled by passers by, and frequently have to leap out of the way of donkeys stacked with goods or hand-carts that squeeze by in the confined space. Staying with the group becomes a major preoccupation as we try to take in all the sights, sounds, and smells.
It would have been easy to walk straight past the city’s most important sight — the tomb of Idriss, the founder of Fèz. The dark alley outside is scarcely wide enough for a donkey and the wall is unbroken, save by a dark carved cedar door marking the entrance. Inside, we see a few pilgrims in a cool courtyard, though we ourselves may not enter.
Just before lunch we call in at a clothes shop where we learn about the various traditional costumes of the area. Our guide asks for a volunteer to model an outfit, and soon we are all dragged in. I decide that the djellaba (basically a cloak with a pointy hood, à la Obi-Wan Kenobi) isn’t quite my thing, but Clare looks magnificent in a blue dress made from a double-length piece of cloth wrapped down and up. After photographs have been taken, the exposition transmutes seamlessly into a sales-pitch. The prospect of walking through Nottingham in a djellaba doesn’t appeal though and we move on.
Another foray into the mad alleys and then passing through an insignificant doorway quite suddenly we enter an oasis of tranquillity where lunch awaits. We arrange ourselves on cushioned benches around the edges of a long narrow room, the walls of which are hung with carpets. Lunch when it arrives is superb and the perfect antidote to the frenzied activity outside.
Our tour continues to the tannery, which we observe from a roof-top vantage point. Bright yellow dyed skins are laid out on every available flat rooftop space to dry in the sun. In the centre is a honeycomb pattern of brick and tile vats containing foul-looking liquid of various hues in which the hides are washed, tanned, and dyed. Workers step from vat to vat across the narrow rims. Inside the shop, Nick begins haggling for a large leather sports bag, which starts at the somewhat unreasonable price of 1600 Dh. After much effort, the price finally comes down to 300. But somewhere along the way it seems that the salesman has decided to switch currency to Deutchmarks, and Nick abandons the deal. The prices here all seem to be rather steep, and no one buys much.
Most of us return to the hotel on the bus, but a few intrepid souls dare to venture unchaperoned back into the medina. We wonder if we will ever see them again, or whether they will be condemned to wonder forever through the warren of alleys, finally becoming resigned to their fate, joining the locals and setting up their own alley-side stall.
We have a ‘free’ evening and decide that something beyond the standard brochette/kefta/tagine/couscous choice is required. Happily the medina expedition has returned unscathed and we split into two groups. Half of us end up at a small pizza restaurant, and then finish the evening in a coffee bar, where we are thrown out at 9 pm so they can close up.