I took a local overnight bus from Essaouira to Fez, a lovely twelve hour journey. The ‘nice’ bus companies, CTM and Supratours, don’t run this route so the local bus was the only option. I have to say, it was brilliant.
I’ve never in my life had so much leg-room on a bus. It was a good 10-12 inches more than on a plane and compared to a normal bus it was like heaven, despite the crappy air conditioning. The person in front could fully recline their seat, and it made no difference to me at all. I never thought that was possible! However I must admit I didn’t enjoy waiting at one station for an hour as they had to empty all the luggage out to fit three motorbikes underneath before reloading all the bags. It was unpleasant to be woken up at 2am – I’m quite practised at sleeping on buses – to guard my bag from potential thieves while a giant game of 3D Tetris was playing out before me!
Arriving at Fez at around 8.30am, I was surprised by the lack of persistence in the touts and the fact that the first taxi driver to approach me advised straight off that he would use the meter! I made it to Place de R’cif in the old part of the medina, and tried to remember the directions given by my hostel of choice. Something about a set of stairs opposite a pharmacy. Well, I found a pharmacy – but no stairs were in sight. I wandered around looking lost for a while before some kind soul took pity on me and showed me the way to the hostel. I later discovered that I should have walked south from that pharmacy to the next one, about 200m down the road where the staircase opposite led me directly to the hostel. Oh well, I got to enjoy my first experience of the world’s most confusing medina.
After a much needed shower, I joined a Polish couple from the hostel on a guided tour of the medina, and I think that was the best thing to do. Our guide showed us around for almost six hours, visiting most of the sights – being mosques and medersas, we could only look through the doors – and no small amount of shops. Of course, anything we bought would be ridiculously overpriced to cover an excessive commission for the guide and knowing this, I wasn’t going to buy a thing. The commission they can earn is huge, and the prices can be inflated so much that the guide makes more in commission than you could have bought the item for had you been alone.
Before visiting any of the ‘cultural’ sights – being primarily shops – we wandered through tiny alleys, some so narrow that single file was necessary. We saw Fez’s version of the Champs d’Elysee and the Arc de Triomph, both clearly local jokes, and wandered through the vegetable market, which I visited every day to stock up on supplies.
We also quickly discovered that the medina was not just for people – the streets and alleys are shared also with horses and donkeys.
The first ‘official’ stop was the tannery. It is surrounded by leather shops, unsurprisingly, and can only be viewed from the terraces of said leather shops. Tourists are not allowed in there, and to be honest without your own supply of clean air you probably wouldn’t want to get much closer. The staff at the leather shops show you up to their roof, and supply a fresh stick of mint to protect the delicate noses of us soft foreigners. That mint helps, believe me. The smell coming from the tanneries is truly nauseating, and the workers there must obviously sacrifice their olfactory sense upon taking the job. From the terraces, you can see rows and rows of pits, each section with a specific purpose. Some are for soaking the skins to remove any remnants of wool or hair; others to soften the skins and still more to dye the leather.
They claim to use only natural products throughout the process, which such pleasant ingredients as copious amounts of pigeon poo [for ammonia] used to soften the leather of sheep, goats, cows and camels. Pigments used in the dyes include indigo, henna, saffron, mint and poppy. We watched the workers stripping wool from skins, dumping piles of clean skins into the pits and laying out others to dry. I don’t think it’s the job for me.
Inside the leather shops, they have the most amazing variety of products and I could have gone crazy with the beautiful bags, belts, slippers and more. They’re big on the hard sell, despite all promises of no hassling or pushing, but I stuck to my guns.
Next stop, a carpet gallery complete with an introduction to Berber weaving. We watched a man weaving a blanket on a large loom – in Berber tradition, the men weave the very simple blankets while the women weave the more intricate and complicated carpets. Men get the easy job there!
While the kilims there were nice enough, I must admit I’m not even tempted by carpets in Morocco; I simply don’t particularly like them. They are very simple and basic compared to what I’ve seen in every other country I have visited, and the patterns, despite every insistence that every carpet is unique as it’s created by imagination, all look the same. Finally, a country where I’m not remotely interested in the carpets! They look beautiful all folded up, but individually are just quite plain. I was, however, intrigued to learn that they make ‘silk’ carpets – in this instance though the silk is not from silkworms but from a particular type of cactus. That’s right, cactuses are good for more than making tequila.
We visited a Berber pharmacy, complete with jars of herbs and spices, taxidermied foxes and iguanas and the ubiquitous Berber Viagra. Women demonstrated the production of argan oil, and we were shown ‘magic’ lipstick. Now that’s something that would be a fun gift. It’s a henna lipstick and it’s bright green – upon application however it goes on clear and gradually turns a deeper pink-red colour.
We were shown another weaving gallery, where they made cactus-silk scarves, sheets and curtains. A jellaba shop – jellaba is the local traditional dress for both men and women – proved a huge distraction for Poland as the couple I was with spent far too much money on overpriced bags, dresses and scarves for their families. Our guide would have got a very healthy cut from that. Finally, a jewellery store where I was quoted 1500 dirham for a necklace – a necklace I later bought, along with a matching bracelet, for less than one-third of that price from a different little artisan’s workshop. I figure that I was paying the guide to guide me around the medina, not to ensure that I got royally screwed by his buddies.
People in Fez are not particularly happy to have their photos taken, and to avoid too much confrontation I decided to try shooting from the hip as we explored the alleys of the medina. While no one ever asked for money there [at least they didn’t ask me], I wanted pictures of the medina itself and of people just going about their everyday lives. I wasn’t too concerned about portraits as realistically it just wasn’t going to happen. So, upon checking my camera at the end of the day I discovered that among the strangely angled and sometimes blurry photos [stopping makes it a little obvious] I actually had some interesting shots.
The next day, I set about exploring the medina alone, in the hope of becoming hopelessly lost. While I achieved some measure of success, I was disappointed to continually find myself in places I recognised.
I learnt that the best way to get completely lost was to wander right away from the souks into the residential areas, where following narrow winding alleys and turning totally at random enabled me to lose all sense of direction – at least for a little while, until I found myself back at my favourite place in the medina: a little patisserie with ice-cold fresh orange juice and a delectable selection of pastries, where they quickly came to know me as I visited it about seven times in four days.
While I was mostly left alone on the first day, being with a guide, wandering the medina alone caused me to attract a lot more attention. A guide keeps other guides – mostly faux guides – away, to ensure their own commissions. Sans-guide, however, it was as if I was a magnet for people looking to cash in. Most were dispatched politely with smiles on both sides, although one required significantly more effort and eventually resulted in my salvation at the hands of two older Moroccan men with a beautiful shop that looked more like a museum than a store.
They were absolutely lovely. They completely understood two things: one, that I wanted to be left alone to explore the medina without harassment and two, that I had no intention of buying anything. They brought me glasses of mint tea and a bottle of cool rosewater to splash my face and hands. We chatted about all sorts of things and they showed off their collection, telling me the history of certain drums, vases, necklaces, sabres and carpets – for fun only. It was wonderful. Refreshed for a few more hours of exploring, I left them and thoroughly enjoyed the remainder of my afternoon.