Wed 22 Feb 2006 23:02
Tuesday, 21 February.    Arrival in Fes.
A faultless flight from Gatwick brought us to Fes by 18.15.  We dropped from 35,000ft through heavy cloud so that the approach was similar to that of Mordor. Greeted by rain as we crossed the apron, our luggage was on the carousel whilst we were still in passport control.  Latif was there to meet us as arranged, with Zouhir waiting with the car outside and we were soon near our riad on the edge of the Medina.  We were met by staff from Riad Mabrouka with a hand cart to take our luggage the 200yds up the narrow passage way. We were supposed to be in Riad |Al Pacha but had been bumped by an Explore group for one night.  Never mind, it was very nice but we walked back to Al Pacha for dinner - just around the corner.
Our first impression of Fes was of far fewer people around than in the Middle Eastern countries which we have visited.  The roads were almost deserted and only a few locals were braving the cold and wet.  The riads are all of similar design with large central courtyards now roofed over, with iwans opening onto them and rooms behind these. They have 2 or 3 stories so the upper rooms look down into the "atrium".  Floors and lower walls are tiled and then beautifully carved stucco work takes over, rising to "stalagtite" arches. There is a fountain with pots of shrubs and plants around it. The rooms have very high ceilings so that the overall effect is of spaciousness.
Dinner was bean soup and a lamb tagine - both excellent.  The food is subtely spiced rather than "hot"and we were able to get beer/wine with no problem. At least we should be spared 2 weeks of Coca-Cola or Sprite - so often the only alternative to water.  Perhaps some of the present world wide, over excited, Muslim reactions to western culture is due to a heavy intake of sugary drinks, just as we now realise the effect they have on our children!
Slept like logs in comfortable beds, only waking briefly to the Muezzin's call at dawn.
Wednesday, 22 February.  A day in Fes.
An excellent French breakfast on a glassed in balcony with a view over the roofs.  Latif was with us just after 09.30 and we set off in the minibus for a morning tour of the city. We started by driving around the walls, pausing at the Royal Palace gates where we made use of the nearby ATM for some cash.  The gates have been  restored after a school was demolished from the square in front of them.  Nicely worked in bronze in 1968.  Proceeded to the pottery district were we followed the centuries old process of tile manufacture - zellij work.  They make fairly standard hand made square tiles of various colours which they then chip into smaller pieces of varying shapes.  These are laid face down on patterns on the floor inside a metal frame and meticulously fitted together like a jigsaw. As the colour is downwards, they have to remember where each colour goes.  When complete, the mosaic of loose tiles is covered with cement, and, when dry, the whole panel is turned over.  This is then used to decorate walls, or to make table tops. We also saw them making patterns on tiles by chipping away the glaze back to the biscuit glaze, and freehand painting stunning designs on pots and plates.
On to a view point overlooking the Medina. Minarets stick up from the mass of buildings but the concentration of stone and brick give no hint of the maze of alleys and passage ways running between them.  We circled round to the Blue Gate (Fes blue on the outside, but holy green on the inside) to start our walk through the Medina and we were immediately thrown into the melee of stalls, shops, mosques and fondouks(khans or caravanserais) and the bustle of people, donkeys, mules and handcarts all hurrying about or standing chatting. No hastle but plenty of cheery smiles of welcome. We went into the Bou Inania Medersa which was beautiful.  Again the open courtyard but this is the" most elaborate, extravagant and beautiful of all Merenid monuments coming close to perfection in every aspect of its construction - its dark cedar is fabulously carved, the zellij tilework classic and the stucco a revelation".  So important is this medersa that it incorporates a mosque on one side of the courtyard. Infidel are not allowed in, but it is open fronted and you can look across a little canal into the prayer hall. It has onyx pillars and a beautifully executed mihrab.
Thence to an old fondouk which has been restored under a UNESCO programme to a museum of woodworking.  Sounds anorakish, but bear in mind the stunning wooden carving in most buildings, painted wooden ceilings, wooden coffers for domestic storage, wooden doorways, lintels, bakers rakes for taking bread from ovens etc etc and you begin to realize the wealth of wood work over the centuries.  The building itself rises to 2 stories and a roof terrace, all looking down into the central courtyard with wooden railings at each level and much detailed stucco work and zellij tiling.
We had lunch at the Restaurant Asmae,slap in the middle of the medina, approached by a bewildering maze of twisting alleys. Excellent food including pastilla - pidgeon pie in crisp, flaky, sweet pastry with a dusting of icing sugar - a stunning multi-dish salad, a lemon chicken tagine, lamb tagine and kebabs, cous-cous and vegetables followed by slices of fresh orange, strawberry and banana. A modest meal to set us up for further medina exploring.
The medina is split into "quartiers", each containing one, and only one, mosque, baker, fresh water fountain, koran school and hammam (steam bath).  All are still there today, except for the koran school, and we saw the locals bring trays of their own bread to the bakers oven. They like to make their own bread, which they mark with the family sign on each loaf, before leaving it with the baker to cook, calling back later to collect. They prefer the wood ovens to there own gas ovens.
The Kairaouine mosque was being renovated so we were only able to peep through a gap in a door to see multiple arches reminiscent of the great mosque at Cordoba.  When the arabs were driven out of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, many moved to Morocco and to Fes.
All the shops are there from taylors to dried fruit shops, bakers, shoe shops and butchers (one had a complete camel's head hanging majestically out over the thoroughfare) intermingled with goldsmiths, copper beaters and woodworkers.  Eat your heart out Blue Waters!
We walked to the tanneries.  These are centuries old and consist of dozens of stone vats in which hides are soaked and processed, mostly by the tanners trampling them bare footed and thigh deep. They start by being stripped of wool/hair in vats filled with soda and pidgeon dung, then washed and moved into vats of different coloured dyes. Further scraping and rubbing brings them to finished quality for use in everything from shoes, bags, coats and lamp shades. As the process starts with raw hides, the smell on a hot day can be imagined.  For a few minutes we blessed the freezing temperature as the pong was minimal.  Purchased a few goods for delivery to our hotel next day - inshallah!
Then to a spice/herbalist for the Steenbergs to compare with "Steenbergs Organics". Not sure that they are into skin remedies and spices that "help the stomach and are good for gas" or "musk" from the glands of a deer which seems to be a male perfume and marginal aphrodisiac....but then I have not checked the SO website recently!  This was followed by a bief visit to a carpet emporium where all of us, for once in our lives, resisted the urge to buy a carpet.  It was in a magnificent old 14C merchants house.
Back to Riad Al Pacha for a rest and light dinner of a veal and poached egg tagine.........surprisingly light (which is what we wanted after stuffing ourselves at lunch)....although two bottles of rather nice Moroccan wine did slip down as well.
To bed in fleeces, socks and all the blankets. Oh to be in north-west Essex in winter!!