Morocco to Madrid 10: Fes

So Fes continues to overwhelm, though in a different way than yesterday.

We decided to go with an official guide to take us around the medina today, because after what we saw last night, and what I’ve read about Fes, and after hearing stories from Moroccans about them getting lost in the Fes medina, we figured we’d try to make today a bit easier and avoid people coming at us with the “hard sell.”

Turns out, it was more of a “soft sell” type of day.

Our guide’s name was Mohammed (one of the many we’ve met this trip), and things started off simple enough.  We wandered back to the Dar Bou Jeloud, the “Blue Gate”, moving past the same restaurants we went to last night, all of them a lot less pushy at 10 am.  We got to enter the Medersa Bou Inania, the oldest medersa in the medina, with beautiful wood carving and marble.

We also got to check out a restoration work in-progress.  Fes is filled with very non-descript buildings from the outside that are absolutely stunning on the inside, and we got to see an old house that was being turned into a new riad.  Daina was in heaven, snapping away, noting the different between the restored and the crumbling.  It was a neat stop.

Next up was the tannery pits. Now, I’m almost completely convinced that everybody in Fes is “in on it” together.  Our guide seemed to know everybody wandering by us in the street, we got zero hassle from anybody else, and no hard sells.  But we did get to see the tannery pits.  These things are literally medieval, where materials like cow urine and pigeon poop are used to strip skins before they get dyed in henna and saffron.  In the first one we saw, we weren’t allowed to take pictures because, according to the “Leather Master” (i.e. shop owner), “a Spanish man took a video, put it on YouTube, and said these men were doing the “work of donkeys”, and they got offended, so they said no more pictures.”

The second tannery we visited, where photos were allowed.

Now, this seems like the Benghazi of tourism protests here, because there’s a lot of other reasons to ban taking pictures, like maybe safety or health conditions, but regardless, there was a guy standing in the middle of the tannery with a piece of mirror that he would shine into cameras he saw trying to take pictures.  Not sure what the effect would be on the camera – like, couldn’t you just squint and take the picture? – but it did serve as some sort of deterrent.  Happily enough (?), we did get to take pictures of a different set of tannery pits later, so I’m still not sure what’s going on with the whole thing.

Cute highlight was stopping by a kindergarten class, where two of the three kids there sang Frere Jacques (a boy there, Inez, was having nothing to do with the day at all).  Even then, the kindergarten teacher asked for a school donation.  It wasn’t set up as a tourist stop, and I had mentioned that I was a kindergarten teacher, but again, was “everybody in on it?”

After this, we wandered through some more souqs, with different products, different views of mosques, dodging donkeys as we went.  We stopped in a carpet shop and got the obligatory “carpet demonstration”, which we cut short through total honesty, having had our Berber carpet bought in the Todra Gorge.  We made a stop for lunch in a beautiful restaurant that was insanely peaceful until about five other tour guides decided to bring their groups in there, too.  Which is fine, but again, brings me back to the “everybody is in on it” idea.

On getting out, we stopped off at the henna souk, went by the Kairouaine University, which is considered the oldest university in the world (though we couldn’t enter because we weren’t Muslim), and saw people making the pilgrimage to the shrine of Moulay Idriss II, who helped “found” modern Fes (though we couldn’t enter because we weren’t Muslim) went to the above-mentioned “second tannery”, where we could take pictures, and then meandered through souks dedicated to dyers, glasswork, metalwork and woodwork before getting in a red shuttle van back to the riad, which cost us 30 dirham, which I though was a bit surprising.  Maybe the driver was in on it, too.

And now we’re relaxing.

Going to be completely honest and say I don’t quite know what to make of Fes.  There’s a lot of times where, as a tourist, you’re trying to find the “real” city, some quality of authenticness.  I don’t think we found that today, with a local guiding us around, but maybe this is the “real” Fes, when it comes to the medina.

Like, for example, Daina was bartering with a guy in the henna souk over some crafts, and when he asked Mohammed what a good price would be, he kind of shrugged and let the negotiation go on.  Kind of, “Well, I’m not buying it, it’s your decision, so keep negotiating.”

Which I get.  If you’re a guide and you’re constantly undercutting the shopkeepers, it’s probably not going to be the best thing for you.  It was just weird to see it go down like that.

Anyway, it doesn’t change the fact that there is an insane energy and beauty to this city, which is definitely worth seeing.  I’m just not sure what that energy is.

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