Suitcase and World: Exploring Fez.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Exploring Fez.

Today was our first full day in Fez. Last night, Ahmed told us that breakfast starts at 9a but Sabah would hang around until whenever we were ready for breakfast. We were too eager to get started on the day so the night before, we decided we would be up by 8:30a.

"The day begins
The alarm on my Blackberry went off at 7:15a and I rolled around in bed until about 7:30a. We had turned the space heater on last night and the room was toasty warm. I had a nice down comforter on top of me. I would have loved to have stayed in bed longer but with only three bathrooms and four people, it could take a while to get everyone cleaned so I decided to make an early go of it. Besides, that might guarantee a better shot at hot water!

Mildred wasn’t awake so I quietly grabbed my clothes for the day and my toiletries and headed to the 2nd floor bathroom which was unoccupied.

Time for a nice warm shower!! Well, that was the plan, at least.

For whatever reason, showers work differently in every country. When I saw this set up, I thought that what you do is run the tap water and when you want it to come of the shower head, you twist the small knobs up above. So I got the water nice and warm and twisted the knob. What came out was a driblet of icy cold water. I tried again and it was the same effect. I tried with the cold water and it was the same thing…..driblet of water.

It was cold in the bathroom and standing in the shower buck naked doing water tap tests was not my idea of fun so I gave up and just filled up the bucket with warm water and used that to bathe with. A handful of buckets later and I was done. It was a quick shower but I was clean.

When I got back to my room, I grabbed my camera and shot this panoramic view from our rooftop terrace.

It was still early in the morning and from our terrace, we can actually catch a glimpse of the main street of the medina.  There was barely any foot traffic; so different from the afternoon before when it was jam packed with creatures.....both two and four legged.

"Hungry man breakfast By the time I got downstairs, Sabah had arrived and was preparing breakfast for us. Sayeed had also arrived and was helping out in the kitchen.  I did my small bit by cooking up the sausages that we had bought last night - both Soon and I were keen to taste them.  Count on Soon to videotape me cooking :-)  That's teeny, tiny Sabah working at the counter next to me.  She's the sweetest person you'll ever meet.

Bit by bit, Sabah, Sayeed and Ahmed laid out the spread on the coffee table in the living room. When they were all done, the table was filled with food…..lots of plates and bowls of all different sizes. Just looking at it, I knew there was more food there than the four of us could reasonably eat.  Soon was happy :-)

And as if that wasn’t enough, each of us got served a small tajine containing an over easy egg.   Apparently, that's how they cook their eggs here.  Of course, there was mint tea to wash it all down with. So much food and no space in our tummies to take it all in :-(

After we had stuffed ourselves to the state of “I really can’t eat one more bite”, we pulled ourselves away from the coffee table and got ready to head out for the day. The plan was to hit some of the highlights and then to have time to wander the market.

"Let the sightseeing begin "Since we’re located just a stone’s throw from the Karaouine Mosque and University, we decided to go there first.

We followed instructions from Ahmed and headed out the front door.  Before plunging ourselves back into the labyrinth of narrow alleys, the threesome wanted to do a photo op with the front door.  Uh....I don't know why. It's an unassuming door in a small, dark is in the eye of the beholder :-)

It was still early in the morning, Fez medina time and many of the shops had yet to open. Compared to the previous night when it seemed like all of Fez was congregated in the medina, it looked and felt like a ghost town this morning.

The streets had been cleaned overnight and that was nary a person around. It was actually nice being able to stroll without having to avoid someone, something, or a four legged creature.

Somehow or other we did manage to find out way to Karaouine but because we’re not Muslims, we’re not allowed in. As Soon says, “sucks”.

"What a cup of coffee can get you There was a man standing at the entrance and he offered to take pictures for Soon of the interior. So, Soon handed him his camera and the man snapped away and captured sights that only Muslims are privileged to see. For this, the man just asked for some coffee money so Soon handed him a few dirhams. A small price to pay for the memories of the moment.  Looking at the pictures, it's a shame they don't let Muslims in; the place is gorgeous.

 While Soon and I were focused on capturing images on our cameras, Aaron had managed to pick up a “friend” who was expertly winding his way into our company as our guide. Mohammed was his name. Charming Moroccan. We followed him like mice to Pied Piper. After we were done at Karaouine, Mohammed told us he could take us to a terrace where would could look into the courtyard at Karaouine. For some reason, I felt like I had found a loophole in rule and wouldn’t get punished for exploiting it so what the heck, I was game.

We followed Mohammed inside a rug store and up the stairs we went.  Of course, along the way up, there were floors filled with rugs and of course, if we wanted to take a look we could. Perhaps (not) on the way down.  Okay, perhaps.  I kept walking up the stairs....all the way to the very top.

"A rooftop view " As he had promised, we emerged on a terrace that offered a good bird’s eye view over the courtyard at Kararouine. Mohammed led me to a smaller, upper terrace and from there pointed out the green tiled rooftops of the Karaouine complex and its two minarets; supposedly the white one is used for the daily calls to prayer and the yellow, brown one is used to call professors and students to class.

Soon shot a video of the panoramic view that we took in.

I headed back downstairs ahead of the rest of the gang, including Mohammed. Standing there, I was mesmerized by the sound of hammers against metal. We were in the midst of the metal souk; surrounded by shops selling metalware of all sorts.

The amazing thing about Fez medina is just how many craftsmen there are in this relatively tiny area and everything is still done by hand, in some instances, using methods unchanged for centuries. That is probably more true in the leather souk than anywhere else where something as easily manufactured as shoes are still fashioned by hand. Of course, the ultimate in centuries old manufacturing techniques can be found in any of the tanneries that Fez is so well known for. I don’t know of anyone who has come here who has not paid a visit to one.

 "A Tannery like no other " The largest of the tanneries is Chouwara and it just happens to be located stone’s throw from Karaouine. The owners of the tanneries know that they have become a popular tourist attraction so they’ve obviously partnered with guides like Mohammed to lure tourists into their shops by allowing tourists to first see the leather workers in action.

We followed Mohammed as he led us up and down the alleyways, even crossing over a small river that led over to the Tanners’ Quarter. Along the river’s edge, we could see hides being unloaded from trucks, plastic sacks of shorn wool and workers washing the wool in the river.

As we entered the shop, Mohammed handed each of us a small bunch of mint to sniff on in case the stench got too overwhelming. What stench you ask? Well, the first stage of leather processing is to dunk the hides in pigeon excrement to soften them. From the store’s terrace, we could see the entire process taking place. It was a flurry of activity that was taking place below us. What is amazing are the conditions. Everything is out in the open. There is no shelter from the elements. There are no safety measures. Men scampering atop the vats with no shoes on all the while carrying heavy buckets filled with some sort of a liquid.

"Stage 1 " is to soak the hides in the pigeon excrement which is contained in huge stone vats. Those are the gray square shaped vats in the lower left of the photo above. The smell of the ammonia wasn’t too bad at the time of the day we were there plus I think I was just so interested in what was going on to be bothered by it. But the ammonia has a detrimental effect on the health of the men so they only work from about 6am to noon. After that, the heat of the day presumably causes water to evaporate from the vats thereby concentrating the ammonia. Additionally the men who work the pigeon poop vats have to wear some form of protective clothing as the ammonia will eat into their skin. It’s a dangerous stage of the processing if you ask me.

"Stage 2 " is to dye the softened hides. Men repeatedly dunk the hides into the dye vats until the skin has absorbed the color.

You could tell that the skins are heavy; a lot of strength is needed to push the hides down into the colored liquid and then bring them up to the surface and to repeat this process countless times. The men who work in the tanneries are all lean and muscular.

"Stage 3 " is to dry the dyed hides. They’re basically spread out or hung up to dry however it’s possible to do. Today, yellow was the color that was being processed. It was a beautiful, bright butter yellow color. Looking down at the yellow pieces of leather from above, they looked like fallen autumn leaves.

If I could have, I would have bought one because that whole piece represents a lot of hard spent human labor… should be somehow preserved and admired and I would do that.

Later on in the morning, Mohammed would take us to another leather shop that offered a different vantage point over the same tannery; we would have the dye vats in our foreground view and the pigeon poop vats in the background. No matter what the vantage point, it’s truly a fascinating sight to see. In a day and age when how something is made is not a process that is visible to me because it all happens in some factory around the word, watching these men at work was something that will stick with me for a long, long time.

 Soon shot this video compilation showing the men hard at work.

I was so preoccupied with the activity going on in the tannery below that I didn’t even notice and to be truthful, even care about the leather goods the store keepers were trying their damndest to sell me. But, I could still admire the leather itself and for me, it is the babouches that captivate me the most. Stacked up neatly or strung up light Christmas tree lights, presentation doesn’t matter. I love the colors and the patterns. Of course, I bought a pair. Tempted to get a second. :-)

"I am not a shopper "Between tanneries, Mohammed took us to more shopping places, one that sold woven goods and another that sold spices and Moroccan perfumes. In that shop, both Aaron and his sister bought small pieces of amber and musk which are used as perfumes.

Then, last but not least, we went into a textile shop.  For some reason, when I’m dragged into a shop and forced to look at something, I immediately lose interest in it and not matter how good the salesman, I have no intention of buying anything. It’s a hard sales job and I don’t react well to it
On another day and under different circumstances, I probably would have been much more interested in the beautiful woolen and silk goods that were in the shop but not today.  Not in the mood.  I did need to buy a woolen jacket as I had accidentally left my thick cotton sweater behind in Casablanca.  I had to have something warm for the night that we would be spending in the desert.  I did see a jacket that looked decent but the guy wanted 800 dirhams for it.  That's close to $100.  Even if I could knock the price down by half, it was more than what I thought it was worth.  As persistent as he was to try and sell it to me, I was equally persistent in saying "no".

While I was trying to walk away from a so-so wool jacket, Aaron was one floor up trying on a djellaba.  Afterwards I found out that he had no intention of buying but I think he was curious to just see what it looked like on him.  You have to admit though, he could pass for a native Moroccan with the djellaba on.  The shop owner included the fez for an added touch of authenticity :-)

"A bit of Spain in the medina "Somewhere between visits to the tannery and the various shops, we entered into the Andalusian Quarter,  the most ancient part of the Fez medina, founded by refugees from the Reconquista in Spain.  There area is home to the Jamaa (mosque) Andalous.  Since non-Muslims are prohibited from entering mosques, all we could was admire the front door.

Luckily, we soon approached on the lunch hour because had Mohammed dragged us to any more stores, I would have thrown a real fit.

"Lunch break "Of course, he suggested a local restaurant where he gets a cut. Mohammed left us at the restaurant. We gave him a sizable tip as despite him dragging us around to a bunch of shops, he was basically a nice, hard working guy. You can’t blame the man for trying to make a living the best way he knows how. I later found out he was working on career as a boxer. In the meantime, he’s basically picking up tourists as he can to make a dirham.

As for the restaurant, unfortunately for us, we were already seated before we saw the menu. Basically the same food that we had had at Sekaya the day before but at 5 times the price! Was the food good? Meh. It was definitely not five times better than Sekaya, I can tell you that!

The meal itself really was nothing memorable.  Same sort of tajines and couscous that we'd been having.   But who knew that when it came to desert, Soon would so defensive about his oranges.  Look at those facial expressions!  Priceless.

After the lunch, we used the restaurant’s facilities and then made our way to see more of Fez. Now, it was back to me being the guide. We had wanted to go back to Bab Boujloud to see it in the full light of day so we made that our destination.

"Back into the chaos of the medina "  As interesting as it is, the medina can feel really overwhelming at times.  No matter, I was on a mission to get to the Bab so that's all I focused on.  Leather shoes??  What leather shoes? :-)

By chance I happened to look up and I saw something that I recognized from my pre-trip reading.  The twelve windows of Dar al-Magana! The building is a former house  and is famed for a weight-powered water clock that was built in 1357.

I told the guys about the clock but that I had no idea how it worked.  There was a man standing nearby and Soon attempted to find out from him.  Something about twelve bowls of water that fill up in sequence.  As each bowl fills up, it drops a metal ball into the next bowl which makes a sound.  I don't know about that.  Anyway, time for us to keep moving on.

Seeing Dar al-Magana meant that both Medersa Bou Inania and Bab Boujloud were nearby.....really nearby.  

"Boujloud, round 2 "It was few short minutes later when I saw the Bab!  Unlike yesterday, there wasn't a throng of tourists around it so we could take our time to snap a few photos.  I even managed to catch the reflection of Bab Boujloud in Aaron's sunglasses!

Well, it's a gate.  So, a few minutes of admiring it and we're done.  I was sure we would be back again so no real need to linger.

"Medersa Bou Inania "The last place on my tourist agenda for the day was the Medersa Bou Inania, a Koranic school.  Since it's a school and not a mosque, we can actually go inside.  Woohoo!

But the challenge was to find it.  From my pre-trip reading, I knew it was located across the street from Dar al-Magana so that's the direction we needed to head back in.  Sure enough, as we arrived back at Dar al-Magana, I saw the entrance to Bou Inania.  A quick question to a person standing nearby confirmed it.

We crossed the threshold and entered into a courtyard that was surrounded about jaw droppingly beautiful building, constructed according to classic Moroccan architecture. The plaster surfaces were ornately carved into as were the wooden sections, including the doors. Zellij tiles added pops of color.  Koranic sayings were carved into the plaster.  It was simple artwork but it was gorgeous in its own way.  The building showed its age and I really appreciate the antiquity because you know there's history behind it. I loved the entire look and feel of Bou Inania.

Soon shot a 360 video of the interior.  I slowed the frame rate down slightly so you can have better view of the detail.

Unfortunately, few of the rooms were open and those that were were did not have memorable interiors.  So, after we spent our good time walking around the courtyard and taking in the beauty of the building, we left.

"On the other side of the medina wall "We decided to explore a different section of the medina, nearby Bab Boujloud.  The street was flanked on both sides by vegetable sellers.  The selection of vegetables is not great here but it looks well grown and *fresh*.   There were lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, onions, carrots, and the occasional heads of cauliflower for sale.  Not too many leafy greens.

Our walking route ended up taking us to another Bab.  Not a fancy working Bab.  If there is such a thing as the working Moroccan's Bab, this would be.  Seemed like the part of the medina were tourists don't normally go because there were none around us.

We decided to explore the other side so we exited.  There was as much activity going on outside the Bab as there was inside the medina.

There was a huge open area and it looked a flea market was going on.  We stood on terrace overlooking the area and spent a few minutes watching the world go by.  Add a table, chair and a cup of coffee and it would have made for the perfect people watching spot.

We followed a side street and surprise!!  Found ourselves back at Bab Boujloud :-)

By now, it was late afternoon and we were pooped.  Everyone wanted to head back to Dar Sienna so that's what we did.  I think everyone needed a few minutes to rest.

Back at the riad, we all scattered into various areas.  Everyone just seemed to want some place to unwind.  I spent a few minutes on the roof top terrace taking in the views of the surrounding hills as the sun was beginning to set.

"Tea time "By the time I returned to the second floor, Ahmed had arrived. Of course, he wanted to find out how our day went.  He then offered to make us mint tea if we wanted.  No way, any of us was going to turn down that offer.  He, Soon and Aaron went into the kitchen and Ahmed started the process of making the tea.    Last night I had made my own version which was nothing more than putting some green tea and fresh mint leaves into a tea pot and then pouring hot water over it all.  My version was so-so at best.  Turns out the process of making Moroccan mint tea has far more steps and includes boiling the tea leaves. No wonder the flavor was so much more full bodied than my version.  Of course, Soon and Aaron were teasing me about how bad my version was.  Sheesh.....not making tea for them anymore :-)

And it also turns out that you have to serve the tea properly which means doing the tray thing.  I just poured the tea into glasses and handed out the glasses.  Ahmed did the full spread.  Put my service delivery to shame. Ahmed's tea was so good we asked him to do a second round which he kindly did for us.  I'm getting spoiled by all this attention ;-)

As we were sipping our tea, I took the opportunity to get information from Ahmed about going to Meknes and Volubilis.  Nothing beats getting advice from a local.  Ahmed's suggestions made sense so I made a mental note of what we had to do.

"Dinner "After Ahmed left, it was close to dinner time.  We decided to head out in search of a meal. I really wasn't hungry but it's important to keep on regular meal schedule so I decided to just eat a light meal which is not an easy thing to do in Morocco.  Here, meals are big!

We headed back up towards Bab Boujloud where there is section with restaurants that have street side tables.  As expected, the moment we walked by any restaurant, someone would approach us with a menu in hand.  That's how we ended up at the place that we dined at tonight even though the restaurant next door had a placard touting that it was recommended by Lonely Planet.  No, we didn't eat at the recommended restaurant, we chose the one with the nice, convincing waiter :-)  A small restaurant with barely a handful of tables streetside.  It wasn't the warmest of nights to be dining outside but on the other hand, it was too nice to pass up the opportunity to sit in a place where we could people watch while we ate.  It was nice to sit outside but our table was a bit too close to the street.  Poor Mildred.  Her chair was just jutting out far enough for people, motorbikes, donkeys and whatever would pass by, to brush her chair.  Not a comfortable spot to be in.

Oddly, we also witnessed a bit of scuffle.  Looked like someone tried to deliberately a man to the ground.  Admittedly, the man who had been pushed was acting it he were drunk which is such a rare thing to see here since alcohol is not permitted.

All in all, it was a bit of a strange meal situation. Didn't help that the meal itself wasn't really anything memorable though it did fill the belly.

After dinner, we made a pit stop at the convenience *store*, located right next door to the restaurant, to buy a large bottle of Coca Cola and some chips.....your basic snacks in case we get an attack of the late night munchies :-)

Along the way, we also stopped to buy some candy.  At Dar Sienna, there was a candy tray on the coffee table.  Aaron had discovered a stash of cherry flavored hard candies that he had pretty much devoured in the past day.  Soon spotted the candies in a store counter and we decided to get 5 dirhams (about 80 cents) worth.  This what we got.....hopefully enough to satisfy Aaron's sweet tooth until we leave in a few days :-)

"Calling it a day"Back at the riad, everyone scattered into the corners.  Soon and I hung out in the living room where I worked on my blog postings - have some writing to catch up on before I forget what happened.

Though I'm not tired at the moment, it will be a long travel/sightseeing day tomorrow so I do want to get a good night's rest.

It's been a great day and I'm really looking forward to tomorrow.

Good night Fez!