So my guide Khalid arrived bright an early at the Riad. We mapped out a game plan for the day and set off through the much quieter alleys in the Medina. (Apparently the Medina does not really wake up until mid morning.) First stop for the day would be Musee Batha (museum) just inside the Medina walls.
Musee Batha was housed in a nineteenth century palace and featured a gorgeous outdoor courtyard as is typical in most Muslim residences. (It is typical for the outside of the home to be very plain with no particular identifying features, but once inside the home is elaborate and always features a courtyard in the middle of the residence. This courtyard was spectacular and offered a sharp contrast to the hustle and noise just outside the outer walls of the residence with citrus and myrtle trees and many, many flowers.
Each room in the palace featured elaborate entry doors and contained a different type of local craft including silverware, jewelry, calligraphy and pottery. The displays were gorgeous with many dating to the sixteenth century. We wandered around for about an hour as Khalid provided me with a history of Fez and the artisans work. Fez actually dares to the 8th century when the Medina was constructed under Moulay Idris I, but it was his son Moulay Idriss II who is really credited with building city by permitting refugees from what is now Spain and Tunisia to move to Fez and by making the city his capital.
The city of Fez is now divided into three areas: Fez the old (the Medina), Fez the new (areas constructed north of the Medina and Fez the modern which was constructed during the French protectorate between 1912 and 1956. (The use of the words French and protectorate are rather ironic. As Khalid noted … what could the French possible protect us from?”)
Anyway, with a little history behind us, Khalid and I headed off towards the Dar el Makhzen (Royal Palace) that was constructed in the 14thcentury. No one is permitted entry so the best it was gonna get was a picture of the ceremonial gateway with multiple size doors constructed with gorgeous tilework and brass door knockers. The entryway was quite spectacular, which left me wondering how beautiful the inside must be. However, unless the King was planning on sending me an invite, I had no shot at seeing the inside. Sooooo, we walked a couple blocks past the palace to the Mellah.
The Mellah is the former Jewish quarter of Fez, but is now home to Moroccan Muslims who moved in from the countryside when the Jews left en masse in the 1950s for Israel. The Mellah still retains a strong French influence with gorgeous wrought iron balconies built out from the second floor windows. Ironically, now that the area is inhabited by Muslims, the balconies are covered by blankets and boards in order to shield the women of the home from view.
We wandered around the quarter and passed through the souk where everything from soup to nuts (and bales of raw cottons and live chickens) were being sold. The souk was jammed with local folks doing their shopping and bartering thing, and as always, when I can be in market away from the tourist traps, I am a happy camper. It was absolutely fantastic.
We finally left the Mellah and had Karem bring the car around so we could drive up to the top of the hills overlooking Fez for a panorama shot. As we drove up the switchbacks to the top of the hillside, I realized we were going to have to do a little hiking because the car could only go so far. Karem let us off and we hiked the rest of the way to the top where there was a small abandoned fort at the top. The view was absolutely spectacular and I could see the entire city of Fez, including the Medina the Fez the new and Fez the modern. The best part was being able to all of the Medina and appreciate the enormity of its size. Gargantuan is a better word to describe it.
With the requisite pictures in hand, Karem drove us to a pottery workshop where I could see first hand how the traditional blue pottery of Morocco is made. A nice young man (no idea his name – it was far too hard to pronounce) showed me how they watered the clay and let it bake in the sun for a day. Then he took me to the artisan room where men were shaping the clay into pots and other earthenware. Next up was the wood fired kiln and finally the painters (who had the steadiest hands I had ever seen). After the paint was applied, the pottery was put back in the kiln to be fired. It was actually really interesting.
I was also able to watch the craftsman who make the large pottery and cement tables and counters. Chipped pottery is fashioned into a design upside down, a mold is place around the design and then covered in cement. Once the cement has hardened, the pottery is turned over and you have inlaid pottery be it a table, countertop or fountain.
We left the pottery workshop and it was now time to tackle the Medina. This was going to be fun!