Exploring what is perhaps Morocco’s greatest city, with the help of a guide. In part, a glorified shopping trip, but one full of stunning architecture and fascinating historical context.
One thing that made our trip through Portugal and Morocco is that we had excellent input from friends about where to go and what to see. For the part of our trip that wasn’t in Tangier, it felt like we were basically recreating a trip taken by my friends, Stephanie and Dave, who had traveled to Morocco a few years ago. Among their helpful suggestions, other than prioritizing Fez as a destination, they really encouraged us to hire a guide for the day, which turned out to be an excellent investment. We arrived in Fez around 7 pm, after our train was delayed an hour, and after some struggle, we managed to find our hotel, where we were extremely pleased with the level of accommodation we received. Seriously, it was really lovely to be able to stay at a place like this on the grad-student budget we were traveling on:
After we settled in with a cup of sickly-sweet mint tea and had been shown our rooms, which were upgraded, excellent accommodations, we set out to explore to find a place for dinner. Almost immediately, we were pretty thrown off by the fact that everywhere we went looked exactly the same, particularly in the dark. We managed to go out for what was literally a square block of tracing, which brought us back to our hotel, before we decided we would need a little more guidance about where to go. We settled on a forgettable dinner in the Nouvelle Ville, where we traveled by taxi, which brought the advantage of being very easy to find. The next morning, after a lovely breakfast, our guide met us at the hotel for a full day tour of the city. By morning light, the city looked completely different, and we walked out into the streets of the medieval city as the markets and sellers were just starting to come alive.
One of the first things that our guide, Kamal, explained was the reason that the city itself looked so plain and monotonous from the inside: medieval ordinances apparently required that private buildings and residences not be decorated from the outside, in order to give a more egalitarian look to the city — so that, at least externally, homes looked roughly the same. This also meant that the interiors of buildings were often richly decorated. In contrast to private dwellings, however, public buildings — mosques, fountains, etc — were decorated externally, since these were considered to be public goods. This fact immediately brought context to how we visualized and interpreted the city.
Our first major stop, and also the most expensive, was the leather tanneries, which were undergoing major renovation, perhaps fortunately for the atmosphere but disappointing for our cultural education, since apparently the smell is unforgettable, and not in a good way.
An employee of the tannery met us to explain a little more about the history of leather-working, the process of making and dying leather, and the work that goes into the leather products that come out of the place. We learned, not surprisingly, that it is very, very hard work but with relatively good pay, and that historically, it was an undesirable job that younger people took on for a maximum of 7-8 hard years to make good money for the backbreaking labor, with enough to then live on. Or at least, so we were told. And then, the requisite shopping, a bit of a theme for the day… We all walked away with at least something — a leather coat for me, a weekend bag for Maki and me, a purse for Kate and a wallet for Neil. The coat, I’ll say, has been one of my best purchases.
From there, we continued through the winding streets of the old medina. The area, for the record, is one of the largest car-free zones and a protected UNESCO World Heritage site in and of itself. The old city itself was founded in the 9th century, but had its biggest heyday between the 12th and 15th centuries. One particularly memorable stop and site was the Al-Attarine madrassa, founded in 1325, which has been since opened to the public as a museum.
Kamal gave is a history of the building, as well as a very detailed crash-course in Islamic symbolism and artwork, explaining the use of various shapes, colors, and even different scripts, which helped give context to the stops over the course of the day.
Kamal was also extremely knowledgeable about the specific artisan techniques involved creating these endless masterpieces. I’m pretty confident I will never cease to be amazed by this level of artistic mastery.
Another thing we helpfully learned about was the use of communal bakeries. Rather than every home maintaining an oven hot enough for baking bread, each community has a local bakery, where locals bring their daily bread in to be baked with those of the neighbors. A baker with good experience will recognize each household’s bread, and children are often sent in to pick up the family’s loaves of flat, freshly baked bread.
From there, we continued on, stopping in at a lamp-shop that caught my eye, and Kamal helpfully explained how the lamps were traditionally forged by melding together various sheets of intricately cut pieces. If money were no object (and if we had endless luggage space or a container ship to bring stuff back to the house we don’t have), I’d have bought all the things!
Passing through markets, we also learned of dying techniques for thread — and of the specific silk-alternative that is used in Morocco, derived from cactus plans rather than silkworms, according to local religious stipulations. Everywhere we went, the color and and the variety were eyepopping.
We continued on, often stopping by entrances to mosques (where, in Morocco, non-Muslims are not allowed) for Kamal to explain more about the history and religious practices. Even from the doorways, these places were stunning.
The ceilings of these buildings — even just in the entrances we were allowed to peer into — were especially stunning.
And of course, the detailing on basically every surface.
Architecture in Fez was basically endlessly mesmerizing and beautiful. I could have stayed forever.
Another of our stops that afternoon was at a carpet shop, where we learned about various techniques of carpet making.
We learned of various different kinds of rugs, and the comparative work that goes into the different kinds. We also learned about identifying higher quality mastery, which came in handy later, when Maki and I finally caved in Marrakech and bought a rug. For the time, however, we were happy just to look and learn.
Carpet making, we also learned, is still largely a woman’s domain (unlike many of the other handicrafts), much like embroidery, which is also typically made by women (and, obviously, sold by men).
Elsewhere, we were shown large looms, where people make fabrics and cloth.
Again, the color and variety was perpetually eye-catching.
I think there is often a tendency to think of traditional handicrafts as some how ageless and out-of-step with the modern world, but if there was one particular takeaway from our day of touring Fez, it was a persistent reminder that though people use traditional techniques, these are also a part of the fabric of modern life in Morocco, and in no way evidence of a lifestyle that is contemporary in every way. Our final stop of the day, a traditional herbalist and pharmacy, further emphasized this point, as we appreciated the way various natural remedies could be utilized. Not ground-breaking, per se, but still a nice reminder. One small sniff of black cumin and we were convinced that it’d clear the nose faster than any prescription-strength medicine! We kept our purchases to Argan oil, but appreciated the introduction to the many things for sale. We finished our tour and bid farewell to Kamal, extremely thankful for the helpful introduction he had provided to Fez.
That night, emboldened by our newfound local knowledge and better grasp of geography, we ventured across the old medina towards a series of restaurants, where we enjoyed a lovely, filling meal with a view of one of the many beautiful entrances to the city.
We even made it back on our own, and thought back with a laugh at our unsuccessful efforts the previous night. We felt extremely satisfied with what had been a wonderfully lovely day in Fez, with perfect weather. The next day, unfortunately, we had to move on — but the weather, a persistent rain all morning — made it a lot easier to board the train and head for the sunnier coast, where we would part ways with Kate and Neil, who needed to return to Brussels for work, while Maki and I continued south.