The Medina: You Need a Camel Head With that Rug!.

Fes, Morocco


The tour of the Medina required a good game plan as there were so many things to see. Khalid suggested we start in the El Andalous area, in the eastern quarter of the Medina. This area is across the Oued Boukhrareb (river) and was the original home to Andalousis Arabs from Spain (as opposed to the Kairaouinis from Tunis who resided in the Medina on the opposite side of the river). Today it is the more residential area of the Medina, is less busy and and contains many shops providing the necessities of every day life. As a result, it is less visited by tourists. This area also happened to be the area of the Medina where my guide grew up.

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Camel meat anyone (come on you knew I would post this)

So we walked across through a gaggle of people up a slight incline and jumped right into the Medina. We passed a tailor’s shop and the gentleman showed me how he was weaving thread with a cool little machine that looked like a bicycle chain with a series of pullies attached. Next we saw the local bakery except this wasn’t a bakery that made the bread, it only baked the bread. We walked down a series of narrow allies and found ourselves in the equivalent of the Medina’s foodcourt. Men walked by two fisting live chickens by their fee (“organic”), women sold phyllo dough that was steamed before your eyes, rolled up and purchased by black cloaked women (I had a taste and it was yummy – even got an invitation for lunch from a woman buying the dough), and their were produce vendors everywhere. Then we reached the meat section where dead goats hung upside down and yes … camel heads were dangling from a rope to show that the vendor was selling fresh camel meat. (I am not making this up and have the picture to show for it.) Then there were the fish vendors with “fresh” fish laid out on the counters, with squid and shrimp. I purchased nothing, but had a good laugh with the fish vendors who were very friendly and tried to teach me the Arabic word for each of their products. (I failed miserably.)

From here we moved on to Souk Sabbaghine (the dyer’s souk) where men worked over buckets and caldrons dying yarn and cloth with every colour you can imagine. Yellow, blue, green and on and on. One guy with purple hands even shook my hand. Fortunately the colour did not transfer. As we walked up the narrow alleys, we were constantly jumping out of the way of mules loaded down with every kind of ware imaginable. These animals were the Medina’s moving vans and they were everywhere.

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Place Saffarine (metal workers in the Medina)

Next, we wandered around the back side of the Kairaouine Mosque past the Kairaouine Library that dates to the 9th century and on to Place Saffarine where metal workers hammered on extremely large metal pans (copper and iron), pots and assorted utensils. The din of the workers hammering the metal into pans, pots and other kitchen items began as something interesting and ended with me wanting to get the heck out of there. It became nothing short of obnoxious. I am certain, as I told Khalid, the works must have hearing loss.

From there we cut up through the Kissaria where people were selling local womens’ clothing and up past one of the every present mosques just as the midday call to prayer began. We stopped to briefly watch men washing and entering the men’s section to perform the ritua prayer four times as required. (It is almost like going to Catholic mass … up down, up down, up down, up down.)

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Medersa el Attarine (at the Medina)

We quickly moved on from here to the Medersa el Attarine, which was built in 1325 and was simply gorgeous. (A medersa is a Muslim school or university. This one was no longer in use.) The walls of the medersa were lined with gorgeous stucco and wood, intricately carved into circular patterns. The chandelier in the prayer hall was made of beautiful iron that include intricate lattice work, the floor had a unique black and white geometrical pattern and the hand carved door was superb (yes my door fetish continues). My guidebook opined that this madersa was second only in beauty to Madersa Bou Inania, also in the Medina. However, Khalid said he thought this madersa was far superior. In addition, Bou Inania was inundated with tourists. Whereas, I had Medersa el Attarine all to myself. Based on this alone, I opted to stay clear of Bou Inania.

Across the hall and down the alley from the medersa, we stopped briefly for a lesson in Morrocan rug making and styles. I have more rugs in my house than I know what do to with (I even have one in my office) from all my travels abroad: Turkey, Iran, India. Ah what the heck … I’ll add Morocco to the mix. So with an unexpected new rug in hand (actually being shipped) we moved on through the alleys past the local hamman, past Khalid’s old school and throught to the fabric market.

I decided to stop and ended up watch a weaver weave thread into cloth. I have seen this done before, but it never ceases to amaze how incredibly skilled these weavers can be. I looked at some cloth woven from cactus thread (yes you read that right) and the colours and quality of the material were fabulous. I decided to buy two different swaths of cloth to take home and have made into dresses. I had not planned to buy cloth (hell I hadn’t planned to buy a rug either), but I still kick myself for not buying more silk cloth at a weaving cooperative I visited in Laos, and I was not going to make the same mistake again.

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The tannery at the Medina

With cloth in hand, Khalid and I moved on to the one section of the Medina I did not want to miss: the tanneries. I could tell we were approaching the tanneries before we even arrived. The stench was horrific. As we walked into one of the shops above the tanneries, I was given a large bunch of mint to sniff as we climbed the stairs to the top to have a look over the tanneries where hides are turned into beautiful supple leather which Fez for which Fez is so famous. I learned that the process begins with a hides being in dunked in vats that are a mixture of pigeon poop, salt and wat which some poor guys rub onto the hides to remove the fur. Next the hides are spread on the rooftops to dry. Dies are mixed in other vats with water that pours from windows which were once residences. Then men dip the hides into the multitude of colours to die the hides. The hides are dipped into the dying vats in a very particular order: yellow, red, blue, green, black The dyes are made from natural products including tumeric, red poppy, indigo, mint and antimony. It was completely fascinating.

After watching the work in the tanneries, I spent some time looking at a variety of leather goods, made a couple purchases and off we set for the Kairaouine Mosque, which was founded in 859 AD and serves as the spiritual center for Morocco. The mosque’s location was also rather odd in that it was situated on a rather small alley surrounded by shops. Even more unfortuante was the fact that the mosque was covered in scaffolding and as an infidel, I could not get near the place. (Morocco is rather different than other Muslim countries I have visited in that this country does not permit non-Muslim persons to enter mosques.)

So after a quick look around the exterior, we walked in the direction of the Zaouia Moulay Idris II tomb, who was so influential in building Fez and the medina. Again, I was not permitted entry, but could peak through the women’s entrance for a look inside. Meh … nothing special so on we went.

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Place en Najjarine (at the Medina)

The next stop was Place en Nejjarine said to be the most beautiful mosaic covered fountain in the city. It actually was pretty special and appeared to be in good working order as numerous people stopped ot wash their hands.

It was ironic, then, that the square where the beautiful fountain is located was surrounded by shops where gaudy white and silver wedding chairs were being built. The chairs reminded me of something out of Bollywood. Jeesh … crass was putting it mildly. And get this … the shopkeepers do not allow photos. My guess is that so many westerners were taking pictures of these fugly chairs that they put an end to it. Once past the wedding horror, we entered the carpentry section. A little narrow walkway where carpenters on both sides were carving cedar blocks into everything from furniture to frames. One of the shopkeepers gave me a handful of cedar chips to smell. I took a wiff an it immediately brought me back to the days when I was ten years old and we had a guinea pig named Ernie whose cage was filled with cedar chips.

So after the wiff of nostalgia, we walked down a flight of stairs to the antique shops. We wandered around one shop,which was a converted mansion complete with courtyard and spectacular wood work. I found a nice antique Berber necklace made of silver and semi-precious stones and called it good.

By now we had come full circle and were back at the Kissaria. We wandered past rows of bundled thread, past a mosque and multiple shops where every TV was turned to the soccer game featuring FC Barcelona (the favorite team of the Medina) and down a series of narrow past all the residences and schools and the hamman (bathouse) that we had walked by earlier in the day. (Because the residences in the Medina do not have bathtubs or showers, public bathhouses or hammans are still in regular use.)

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Feeding the Hamman fires (at the Medina)

Anyway, the backside of the hamman was opened and down a series of stairs I could see a fellow shoving wood and animal bones (seriously) into a large oven. I quickly learned that this was how the water in the hamman was heated. Yikes. The guys shoveling the wood and goat feet – seriously I saw him throw one on the fire) into the oven had what I thought was a brutal job. However, he apparently liked the fact that he could sit there, listen to his music and have no one bother him (until me). He also informed me that he did his job in shifts. In the morning it was time for men to inhabit the hamman. In the afternoon, the ladies. I wondered how they prioritized hamman days for the residents, but figured I ‘d taken up enough of his time, so we left the hamman with the question unasked.

We walked down one last alley and found ourselves outside the maze of alleys in by the cafes. Now a little about Moroccan cafes. They look like like the cafes you find in Paris with one major exception … no women. Not a single one. As we wandered by this cafe we saw al the men turned towards the TV … FC Barcelona again. The men were watching the screens so intently, I think a bunch of women could have ventured in without a problem.

Anyway, we found Karem, jumped in the car and off we set for the Merenid tombs set high above the Muslim tombs atop the hillside dating to the early founding days of Fez. We were planning to go up to the top to watch the lights of the Medina come on and hear the call to prayer, but it had clouded over and the wind had come up making it downright chilly by the tombs. We stopped for a quick picture and jumped back in the car. Too cold to stick around.

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Gate at the Medina

We drove down the hillside, pulled up to the Bab Bouojeloud (the Western gate to the Medina), walked through the blue archway with the hordes for people, past the myriad of restaurants and tourist shops and onward for the six minute walk to my Riad. As we walked, we ran into an American couple I had met at breakfast who invited me to dinner with them at the Fez Cafe. They were going to wander around for a bit wand we would meet up for dinner at 8.

We reached my Riad, I thanked Khalid profusely for the fabulous day and said goodbye. One hour later I was sitting in the beautiful courtyard drinking a beer with Jeanine and Phil, a lovely couple from Oakland (and he from LA). They were on a self drive through Morocco and had already had a myriad of adventures.

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Courtyard inside Riad Laaroussa (where I stayed)

Anyway, two beer later, we had one of the hotel staff escort us to the Fez Cafe. (The alleys are so confusing it would be very difficult to navigate on your own. The Medina was still packed with people, but we noticed that some of the shops had already begun to close (and it was only 9).

We had a lovely dinner as the Fez Cafe (white fish in grape leaves with olives, tomatoes and rice). Very, very good! We left the restaurant around 11:00 and by the time we wandered outside the Medina was empty. No shops were open. No tourists were around. Just a lot of garbage and cats. Yuck. Not a very happening place.

We made it back to the Riad in short order and called it a night. Tomorrow we would begin the drive through the Atlas mountains to the Sahara.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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