Describing the day seems impossible, either in pictures or words as we were bombarded with new sites, smells, sounds and tastes throughout the day. We hired an English speaking guide for the day to help guide us through the city and help us understand the history of Fez.
The city consists of 3 main parts:
- Fez al Bali, the old walled city that covers 840 acres, has 40,000 streets and 9,000 dead ends,
- Fez-Jdid, new Fez founded in the 14th century and home of the Mellah (Jewish quarter) and royal palace,
- Ville Nouvelle, the French created, newest section of Fez that houses the business center of Fez.
We began our tour in “new” Fez were we saw the outside of the 260 acre royal palace, still inhabited by the royal family today. It is said to resemble the Alhambra palaces in Spain, but we, like most of the people of Fez, will never know for sure, as only the royals, foreign dignitaries and the people who work at the Palaces ever see them. From there we walked by the “street of the Moors” and through the Mellah, distinguished by their outward facing balconies which are unheard of in the Islamic quarters. The Mellah (old walled Jewish quarter) is home to the Danan Synagogue, built in the 17th century. The Synagogue is the lone survivor of several in the walled city and includes a micvah and Torah from the 17th century. After years of standing idle, it was restored in 1999 as a tourist site.
From the “new” Fez, we stopped at one of the 2 fortresses to see the view of the Fez al Bali before visiting a pottery and mosaic cooperative. The cooperative is both a school and factory, founded to preserve the tradition of the old artisan traditions that are in rapid decline. The factory (or school) was particularly proud of its history of hiring thugs and petty criminals and getting them off the street by giving them honest work. It was amazing to see the people sitting around chiseling the pieces of tile by hand to fit them into the mosaic tables and fountains they were creating.
After visiting the artisans, we headed back into the ancient walled city to walk the maze of 40,000 streets with our guide. (We’re staying in the old city, but had been very careful to about venturing in and had thus, only skirted the edges.)
What an onslaught of sites and smells. We passed apothecaries that rivaled the best that J.K. Rowling created, with dead bats, rats and other assorted dead animals, innards, feathers and tails scattered about. We walked a maze of shops including thread shops, with row upon row of brightly colored thread for embroidery. We saw places to buy material, pottery, rugs, cloths, socks, scarves, shoes, backpacks and candy. We passed numerous public ovens were people bring the bread they’ve made at home to be baked. We visited 2 mosques, one that is no longer used, so we could venture inside and one we viewed as people headed in for their midday prayer, announced throughout the Medina on loud speakers.
We ventured into the food market to buy lunch and couldn’t believe our eyes.
Along side the vegetable and fruit stands stood butchers displaying camel and sheep heads dripping with blood to show the freshness of their meat, bakeries, candy makers, people selling fresh goat cheese and others selling both live and dead chickens and pigeons. There was a berry that translates to “I don’t know” and people cooking chickpeas to load into a piece of bread. Overwhelmed, we quickly purchased bread, cheese and olives and headed into the refuge of a carpet dealer housed in a huge Riad (old palace). The price for having our “picnic” in the Riad was agreeing to not only learn about the carpet making tradition in Fez, but get the hard sell when we exited without purchasing “an heirloom for our dear children.” We did, however, get to visit some of the women sitting five across on a bench, weaving a carpet.
From there we walked the maze of streets, together with many other people and animals, to the Tannery where we were each given a bunch of mint to breath through as we toured. We saw how the leather is first soaked in huge vats of limestone mixed with pigeon poop to dissolve all the fat and hair off the hides. After the hides soak in this lovely concoction, they are washed off in a huge wheel and put into various vats of dye, where workers jump in and turn the hides with their feet and legs to ensure consistent color. (We were told they were paid well for this heavy and laborious work, but had a short career as they develop rheumatism from working in the cold water all day, every day.)
After this informative tour (I may stop buying leather products after seeing this process, as the vegetarian and humanitarian in me was screaming loudly throughout!) we hit the maze once again to visit an apothecary and weaving cooperative. Seeing the intricate designs, relative good working conditions and the beautiful scarves was a welcome relief after the tannery and we all felt good purchasing a scarf that we’ll need for our upcoming camel trek.
Our purchases in hand, we made our way back through the maze of streets to our car so our guide could drive us back to our quiet and beautiful Riad, located on the other side of the medina, to process the events of the day. (FYI, our guide only had one small accident in the car, in which he hit a moped, as we drove around the city, a small miracle by our reckoning.)
After a short rest, we ventured out to a dinner of vegetable cous cous and Tagine (vegetarian options are limited, to say the least) we all agreed that Fez is a wonderful, confusing, crazy place in which the ancient and the new co-exist. We’re, at once, happy to be here and experience it, and happy to not live here, tackling the craziness for years on end.