Friday, October 05, 2007

Fes

Fes was our next stop after Chefchaouen. We arrived at night and checked right in to the HI hostel as it was the closest and cheapest option. No sooner do we get in and the guy starts warning us about all the touts, scams and theives in the city. After Marrakesh it is the 2nd biggest tourist destination in Morocco and growing daily. There are now really cheap flights on Ryanair direct to Fes so lots of newbie tourists arrive here and immediately get destroyed. We had heard lots of stories and were expecting the worst but figured we could handle it.
Actually, it turned out that we could because the hassle largely ignored us and we are still surprised at how easily would be guides and shopkeeper touts will give up with only a single strong "no". Most unusual for us of late. Fes dates back to the 8th century AD and was an early capital of Morocco. The Medina of Fes is the largest islamic medina in the world. Fes also claims to have the world's oldest university and remains a very important site of Islamic learning and influence, second only to Al Azhar in Cairo. Thus being the religious and historical center of Morocco it claims a lot of important influence. And now the tourists are here too. There is a lot to see though and some of the architectural and design work on some of the medressas is very impressive in it's detail.
Actually, maybe it was once worse or maybe it is Ramadan or just the offseason but things weren't that bad and the local authorities have been cracking down on hassle and trying to make things easier by putting up a few signs in the medina. If you haven't been through one, let me tell you, rats have it easy. These things are crazy mazes or narrow winding streets going in every direction as well as up and down hills with just about everywhere looking the same. You get lost fast. No question about it. There are lots of young guys that take advantage of this by running around rescuing tourists or offering their services as guides to find the more hidden sights and then demanding crazy "tips" for the service. We did pretty well but eventually did pick up one guy that we couldn't get rid of and he tried to cause a scene but for the most part we just laughed at him. He picked the wrong group. Anyway, there are lots of shops and we just wandered around on our own popping our heads into different workshops or just watching the tour groups pass by with disgusted faces through the butchers area. That was quality.
The most famous industry here is leatherworking and there are tons of tanneries around. They are truly the foulest smelling things ever created and I don't know how anyone can work in them. They do goat and sheep hides mostly and after washing the hides in the nearby rivers you can see them being brought into the medina and up the little streets on the back of donkeys. Everything is carried in on donkeys actually, bricks, hides, water, coca-cola, etc. The donkeys wear rubber on their feet to prevent them from slipping on the smooth stones as they are moving through the medina. The problem with that is that they can easily sneak up on you because they are so silent. They bring the hides to workshops where they coat the underside in a chalk solution so that the wool will fall of easily before sending the to be processed and dyed. That's where it gets really bad. It requires a lot of chemicals and often those can be found naturally as the whole process is still done by hand the same way it's been done for hundreds of years. Let's just say they use very large quantities of cow pee and pidgeon crap in the process and when you are standing on a terrace looking down on the giant vats to watch what is going on, you don't want to breathe, much less open your mouth because everyone is gagging. Then they dye the skins in different coloured vats with guys standing in them. Again the process is natural and uses saffron for yellow and indigo for blue and that sort of thing. We didn't stick around too long to be lectured though..... The river running through the middle of the medina comes in second place for worst smelling though it wins for the worst looking. It is easily mistaken for the local dump as everything seems to be thrown in and is piled up to frightening heights. So sad that in a country with water problems the people choose to use the rivers as dumps. It is a sad and very common theme throughout the developing world.
There is also a fair amount of pottery going on with black clouds rising up from the south of the city. They have a royal palace off limits and a jewish quarter which are called Mellahs in Morocco. Actually, most cities have them and the history of the Jewish settlements typically starts with a group fleeing from Spain and the Inquisitors. They were welcomed in Morocco, were set up in their own ghettos where their money and influence quickly helped the towns prosper. They were very influencial in the trade of precious jems, gold, silver and also salt. Mellah means salt in Arabic so there must've been a lot of it for the whole area to be called such. Of course these days most of the Jews have long gone to Israel though the different architecture of wrought-iron balconies remains.
Again, even though this is a city of over 1 million people, at 6pm there is nobody on the street. On our first full day in Fes, there was a thunderstorm coming in the distance right at sunset when everyone was disappearing and it looked like everyone had fled in the face of an oncoming natural disaster. You could've filmed Twister there or something. It was perfect. (Here I am still thinking in terms of movie sets, thanks Rhiis).
Ammon

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