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February 8th 2019
Published: February 8th 2019
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We meet our local guide for Fes, Kamal, with Aziz at 930am. We couldn’t start any earlier as our freshly baked baguettes for breakfast were not arriving till 845am. They were worth waiting for though! We assume everything starts a bit late in Morocco because the sunrise is late and it is freezing early in the morning. Don't come to Morocco at this time of year without warm clothing, and be prepared to have your skin dried out in the bone dry air.

After about five minutes twisting and turning down alleys we arrive at a stout wooden gateway. Inside is a magical garden, part of a riad that is now owned by a Frenchman, and is run as a hotel. In here you really could be somewhere in the south of France. Then it's off again, down passageways with wooden props holding the walls on either side apart and up, while Unesco and government funding is awaited for the necessary restoration work. Kamal seems to know everyone, and stops every two minutes to shake hands with people. We dive into a tiny workshop of a tailor who is working in a silk type thread they get from agave plants which are succulent broad leaf plants native to Morocco. It spins out into fine thread. We see a man whose business is to spin the thread brought to him by customers, and another who dyes the thread to different colours.

Through alleyways selling anything and everything we go. We happen upon a nursery school with five little pupils. Uupon being invited to enter they give us a rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, in English, somewhat incongruously. We arrive at a large recently restored caravanserai opening up onto what passes for a large square in the medina, but is roughly 40 feet square. Kamal doesn’t think the restoration is sympathetic to the local Fes style as is was done by an Egyptian, he disdainfully tells us. IN front of it is a public water fountain decorated in the Andalucian style of the Muslims who fled Spain and first settled in Fes in the 9th century. It has green roof tails, stucco work and mosaic tiles. A party of Chinese tourists arrives in the square and Kamal tells us what he thinks of them too. “The Moroccan government likes them to come as they spend money, but they steal our culture. They buy things and copy them in China, and sell at very cheap price and it is then difficult for our craftsmen”. So their presence is a mixed blessing. Some of them clearly did not read the weather forecast before they came, going around in their light cotton clothing and shivering.

We visit the tomb of Moulay Idris, the Muslim founder of Fes in the ninth century. It is a revered site. Non-Muslims cannot enter but we can get a glance of his tomb through the entrance doorway. Next we visit the El-Cheratine medersa or madrassa, an impressive 17th century building built around an ornate central courtyard. It is not in use now so we can enter and admire it.

More tortuous alleyways bring us to a tiny doorway that we dive through, to find ourselves in the communal oven. This is where everyone local brings their bread to be baked. For half a dirham (4p) the oven man will bake your bread or your cookies. Each family’s bread is brought on a different shaped tray and has a different pattern stamped on it, to allow the baker to know whose is whose.

We are taken to a carpet co-op. Kamal apologises and says they are obliged to take people to the co-ops but emphasises we are not in any way obliged or pressured to buy. Indeed, for these sort of things, the presentation is very low key and quite interesting, and mercifully short. Lots of nice carpets but who knows if they are bargain prices? One assumes not but cannot judge as one is no expert in the field. But a carpet with 300,000 knots per square metre that took over 6 months to make is never going to be cheap.

The tanneries are one of the more unusual sights of Fes. You are taken through the inevitable shop to a viewing platform to look down on dozen of vats where the hides are washed, cured and dyed. It is smelly as promised, but at ground level by the vats it will certainly stink. Back through the shop and there is a half hearted selling attempt, but the Asian visitors are much easier game for the sellers. Fluorescent lime green jacket insufficiently cured anyone? A large goatskin pouffe for the living room?

We emerge into the light and the car is miraculously waiting to take us up the hill out of the medina to see the entrance of the King's Palace and the adjoining Jewish quarter. They came here, as did most of Morocco's Jews, in 1492 when expelled from Spain. There are some Jews left but they all now live in the ville nouvelle on the hill but tend some of the ancient buildings here. There are two synagogues but both are locked, and houses with wooden balconies which they built, a completely different style to the local one. We stop for kofte and mint tea for a welcome lunch break at a local cafe. Then it’s back in the car, and a quick obligatory visit to a ceramic workshop. Very nice if you want an overpriced ceramic tiled table for your kitchen at an exorbitant price. Then it is back to the riad and time to relax on the roof terrace, which is where we are now listening the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from dozens of minarets, all out of time with each other.

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