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The Medina of all Medinas

Fes, Morocco

A seven and a half hour bus ride without air-conditioning or windows that opened, we finally made it to Fez. Dropped off at the old bus station just outside the medina, we began walking with our 20kg rucksacks through the small uneven streets. It just so happened to start raining the second we were in fez and it was so heavy at this point, we were soaked through to the bone and Ben’s farmer hat looked a little worse for wear.
our rucksacks, pale skin and Ben’s “look at me” hat were a dead giveaway that we were tourists and needed a place to stay. We might as well of had a neon sign above our heads saying “Cash Cows”, so we were jumped upon and couldn’t shake two of them off as we were shown into a Riad (house hotel) that wanted 300dh a night. We slyly asked the Moroccan chamber-maid who had an American English-speaking accent where we could stay for less than 200dh a night. He kindly said there’s a hostel in the new part of town and we’d need to get a petit taxi. Getting directions that its near McDonalds (that sells prawn burgers), we left the riad only to be led down some alley by one of the faux guides. Realizing quite suddenly it was a dead-end and he was knocking on someone’s front door, we swiftly and firmly said “no thanks” and spun around. It was a bit dodgy and a few steps behind us there was another Moroccan who also turned at the same time we did so we quickly made an exit from the busy medina, jumped into a petit taxi and said “to McDonalds si vous plat” feeling like a couple of chavs abroad.
Getting to the new town, we went for a wander and after mistaking a hospital for a hotel, Kat amazing found the Auberge de Jeune (youth hostel). It was 7.30pm by this time and we were wet, hungry, tired and felt grimy from the long journey. A private twin bed (shared bathroom) cost us 130dh and it included breakfast!!!
We also discovered that there were several randy tortoises in the large garden/courtyard area – very nice. The guy at reception seemed to be friendly and told us the rules of the place (doors locked at 3 till 6pm and 10pm to 8am). He also mentioned about the medina being very dangerous, easy to get lost in and has a load of pickpockets etc. He said that if we were approached to say that we’ve been in Fes for 10 days and that it was our 6th time to the medina. We had explained that we had been in Tangier and loved the medina there but his reply was that it is completely different and it’s a lot bigger. Because of this, he suggested that we hired an official guide from the tourist office which only cost 120dh and he could book it for us. Not bad we thought so we booked it for 11am the following day. Waking up to cold showers, pan aux chocolats, tea and coffee, we were ready to face the medina for the second time; packing our hats and loaded with our English speaking Moroccan tour guide we headed to the south of the medina.
The guide happened to be the same one two of the other hostel’s guests had the day before and had said how helpful and informative he was. Having to unexpectedly pay for the taxis there and back at roughly 12dhs a pop, we needed a cash point that took Kat’s card (Natwest are rubbish out here). On entering the medina from the south one of the first things we were presented with was the butchery and fish mongers section (unfortunately for Kat) outside one of the stalls was a camels head hanging from a butchers hook. Informing the guide that Kat’s a veggie, he said he guessed she wouldn’t want to see the shark meat at the adjacent stall. The guide led us through the maze and right into the different Souks (the souks are where all of the trades and crafts are handmade that make up the different sections of the medina). On route through the heart of the medina and heading to the north, we saw and stopped at several places including silver smiths
, the cotton weavers (where we found out you can get vegan silk from cactuses), tin
and blacksmiths
, coppersmiths
, bakeries where the local bread (hobz) is cooked and the guide explained how the Moroccan women take their dough there to be baked as its cheaper and in return they make more dough as payment for it. Other things we saw were the wood workers, apothecary,
rug and clothes makers who man-handled us to try on turbans,
the impressive stairs at the local library
and we also got to go into a house and out onto the terrace to get a panoramic view of the media which was impressive (although there were surprisingly a lot of satellite dishes).

One of the most memorable parts was seeing the infamous Fes tannery that hasn’t changed the way its worked for over 200 years.
It was one of the grown-up sons who told us about the history of the tannery and how it functions, saying that a piece of leather is ‘stripped’ in lime, then put into a natural dye for 7 days and is turned and massaged for about 3 hours each day.
The dyes used are: red (poppies), blue (indigo and the colour of Fes), orange (henna), green (mint and the colour of royalty), yellow (saffron and signifies wealth so a lot of men wear yellow leather shoes
) and we can’t remember the rest. It’s a grueling process and it’s quite shocking how much work is involved. The workers get 10dh per piece and can produce 10 in a day so they earn about 10euros a day. The man explained that they only use goat, sheep and cow leather in this tannery, but camel leather is often used in other tanneries but gives a really stiff leather. Kat almost died when she thought her bag could have been made of camel but the guy said it was goat which didn’t make it a great deal better. It was amusing to see the
American tourists on another balcony clutching their video cameras with one hand and a handful of mint with the other, as they were holding it to their noses to avoid the strong smell of animal hide and a stronger vision of the hard labour that went with it.
After a great 3 hours walk around in the 1000 acre medina with its 83000 stalls, 12000 streets and over 300 mosques, we had seen a lot and learnt many things including what ‘Balak!’ meant which is ‘move’ in Arabic (you hear it a lot) and we found out that there is no VAT inside the walls of the medina. Drawing to an end of the tour our guide turned from being mr nice guy to mr I want your money because you haven’t bought anything today and demanded 150dh rather than the previously agreed 120dh at the hostel. We were going to tip him before all this happened, but being shafted once Ben wasn’t going to let it happen again as he argued the price until the guide just took the money and left with no goodbye. Bit of a shit ending to a really good day but it did get better when we went back to the hostel and met a really lovely Argentinean woman called Natalia. She seemed a little stressed and explain her day which sounded really awful – from landing at the airport and being questioned on Swine flu; being stuck on a local bus for ages; getting lost trying to find the hostel; being followed by a pervert; finally arriving at the hostel for it to be locked and then coming back an hour early as she hadn’t changed the time on her watch, and finally checking in discovered she had booked a room for 4 people and wasn’t allowed to change it so had to pay for all 4 beds. She really had a day of it. When she was going through all of this we couldn’t help but laugh at it because it was so tragically comical, which was her in a nutshell. Another girl joined us called Emma who was from Cambridge and studying to be a vet in Liverpool, so we had a really good chat and Kat loved having the female company for a change. As the evening drew on, the receptionist left a bit early leaving the caretaker in charge who didn’t speak English. Shortly after at 9.45pm and as luck would have it there was a knock on the locked doors. A kiwi and a Korean guy were both stood on the doorstep and were being refused entry by the caretaker. The kiwi got agitated because he had already checked-in in the morning and all of his stuff was in his room and he had handed his key into reception (which was locked). Nobody spoke French let alone Arabic to explain this so the receptionist guy had to come back and sort it all out. In the meantime the Korean guy who didn’t speak French, Arabic, Spanish or English had the door slammed in his face by the caretaker. None of us didn’t really know what to do and were shocked that even the apparently friendly receptionist wouldn’t let the guy in saying that it was full (despite Natalia saying she had 3 spare beds). It’s a shame how the people can turn quite quickly on others out here, something which we’re beginning to learn.
In the morning we decided to explore the Jewish quarter of the Medina by our self, it was only a short walk away and we passed the palace of Mohammed V.
By this point we were all medina’d out and decided to chill for the afternoon at a local café in a park.
The following day we decided to say our goodbyes to our new friends with lots of lovely invites to their home countries (we will hopefully see you soon Natalia in Buenos Aires) and headed towards the bus station.

permalink written by  Kat and Ben on June 15, 2009 from Fes, Morocco
from the travel blog: Kat & Ben's World Adventure
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