From Meknes, we travelled to Fez, only 53 km away but about a 1-½ hour train ride. It is the second largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca, with a population of 1 million.
As in Meknes, we are staying in the medina, the walled off, old part of the city. The Fez Medina has been named to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. It was founded in the 9th century and is home to the oldest university in the world. The medina grew in the 12th and 13th centuries to the size that it is today. Many of the major sites – madrasas, foundouks, palaces, residences, mosques and fountains – date from this period.
The medina is where people live and work. The Fes el Bali medina has a total population of 156,000 and is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world. Located in this medina are coppersmiths, weavers, potters, jewelry artisans, butchers, and just about any other craftsman you can think of. There is even a tannery where the animal skins are treated in the open air and in plain view.
Walking through the medina is like going back in time as the market has changed little in the past millennium. The Fes Medina is the largest in the world with about 1,000 very narrow derbs (dead-end alleys). Exploring this honeycomb of ancient alleyways with often chaotic crowds, steep inclines, and pitted cobblestone steps is a challenging and often frustrating adventure as you try and find the sights. You never know what is in each entranceway until you go it. You might be entering a madrassa (school), a former palace, a mosque, or just a tiny room with three walls and the door to the alleyway making the fourth wall.
The alleyways are busy. People trying to get past you constantly jostle you about or you are slowed to almost a grinding halt as a large group walks in front of you with no room to pass. In addition, donkeys, as well as push carts, are everywhere, as they are used to carry goods to and from the merchants.
There are several entranceways into the medinas and at some of them are parking lots, as people who live here have cars parked outside the walls. However, judging from the amount of parking I have seen, I would suspect that most do not. In general, I would say the areas outside the medinas are not all that traffic friendly as many people walk on the roads and it appears the traffic has to make their way around the people. (Note- in the newer parts of town, traffic works normally with people on the sidewalks and cars owning the roads.) At many of the entranceways are also large open areas where people gather. It is wonderful, particularly in the evening to visit this area and see all the families sit around and socialize. It appears that this is a close-knit community; women and men sitting and chatting and children playing with each other.
Some odds and ends:
Of the sites in Fez, probably the most interesting was the Chouara Tannery. It is the largest of the three tanneries in Fez, and was built in the 11th century. Leather goods have been produced here using the exact same method for more than a thousand years. To process the hides – cow, camel, sheep and goat – skins are first placed into white vats, which contain a mixture of water, limestone, and pigeon droppings. The limestone helps to remove hair from the skins while the acid in the pigeon droppings softens the hides. Three days later the skins are removed and washed, after which they are placed in the dying pits. Dye colors are all derived from natural products: red from poppy flowers, orange from henna, blue from indigo, and yellow from saffron. Men in skimpy shorts, many with bare feet and legs, stand thigh-high in the dye solutions and agitate the hides like human washing machines. When the desired colors have been achieved the skins are pulled out of the pits, trimmed, and laid out to dry on surrounding rooftops before being moved inside for cutting and sewing.
I took a cooking class!! It was offered by a local restaurant. The classes are small with a maximum of six people, so it was a more intimate experience with more one on one time with the instructor. Sanford didn’t join me, but I was with four other people, three Canadians and one Australian, which was nice because English was the common language for us all. At the class, we decided as a group what recipes we wanted to make from a recipe booklet and chose a salad, soup, entree and dessert. We picked a beet salad, harira (a traditional bean Moroccan soup), a seasonal vegetable tagine with chicken, and macaroons. The chef took us to the market first for shopping. She bought a live (!) chicken that was killed on the spot, some vegetables and breads, and took us to other food stalls and told us about the various olives and dates and spices. From there we went to the learning kitchen and all partook in the creation of the meal. At the end we sat on the terrace and she served us the meal we just cooked. It was a great experience and lots of fun. I’m looking forward to trying out all the recipes once I’m home. Just a note about the chicken – we didn’t cook the chicken that was killed today, apparently it is too tough to eat the same day as it is killed, it was to be used for the next day’s class. We used the chicken that was bought and killed the day before.
I got a haircut from the local hairdresser. The cost was $5.50 and I suspect that was the tourist cost and not the local cost, but I’m not complaining.
We are leaving Fez tonight on an overnight bus and heading to Merzouga and the Sahara Desert.