The Beauty and the Beastly Smells of the Fez Medina

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February 26th 2014
Published: February 28th 2014
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There is mystery and music and intrigue for me in the names Fez and Marrakech. They sound exotic and foreign and romantic. Maybe even a touch dangerous or threatening.

I feel some excitement at the thought of seeing, feeling, hearing, even tasting the experience of locales that have only been names until now.

Both of these Moroccan cities have been immortalized in popular songs of my era:

"The Fez" by Steely Dan in the 1970's which is actually using fez as a slang term for condom,
• and Crosby, Stills, and Nash 1969 song "Marrakech Express", written by Graham Nash after a 1966 train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech.

And so I arrive in Fez with a mission - to acquire a "fez", the round red hat with the flat top that you'll see Shriners wearing in parades and festivals.

The first morning in Fez - our guide and driver Redouane and Fouad meet us early at our modern hotel and we start with a couple of quick stops high above the massive white and tan-coloured city to get an overview.

The next visit is at a local pottery school. There, a young worker convinces me to try my hand at molding and kneading the stiff, grey clay, laid out in a big wet lump on the floor, next to the artists spinning their wheels producing tagine pots. The skin of my palms becomes greyer than the hair on my head.

By the time we finish there, I walk out with a beautifully painted tagine pot in my possession. I figure that this is just part of my early preparation for a tagine cooking class we will be taking a couple of days later in Marrakech.

And now, here we are in the entryway to the Fez Medina (walled city) that transports a person back in time into a remarkable marketplace that has been the lifeblood for dozens upon dozens of generations of Moroccans. There's a touch of Alice Through the Looking Glass entering the hole, the tunnel that may or may not let us out of its grip.

This morning as our group prepares to enter the medina, Redouane, once again dressed in his cloak-like djillaba, introduces us to a young fellow. Aladdin, an unemployed, yet well-dressed local man, will accompany us through the labyrinth to ensure that none of us becomes lost in the narrow, twisted alleys.

Within seconds of leaving the open square and entering the medina, an acrid, pungent smell hits.

We are surrounded by hustling, rushing people pushing their way through cramped, narrow corridors. There are scattered bits of overhead roofing some of the time, although the passages are so narrow, it feels as if we are indoors the entire time.

The first market stalls we encounter are laden with animal carcasses, mostly lamb, sheep and beef, and some wicker baskets filled to the brim with live shrimp or tai-chi slow moving snails in their shells. There are dozens of snail baskets stacked back deep into the shops. These are obviously a popular local delicacy, and something we'll see a lot of little stalls selling later, hot and prepared in the souk of Marrakech.

The pinched passageway rises up and down and bends around corners, the floor sometimes smooth, but more often bumpy and cracked. Every 10 or 15 seconds a push cart or scraggled donkey heavily laden with food or fabric or animal hides - cement even - approaches from behind and the Arabic word "belek" is shouted..."move aside".

There is constant movement and interaction between the sellers and the men, women, and children who live their lives inside this encapsulated city.

Small emaciated cats sit amusedly or run hither and thither, collecting any tiny stray scraps of meat or white bits of fat dropped to the ground by merchants. In the Muslim world, cats are considered clean and can be touched and held, whereas dogs are believed contaminated, and after touching one, it is important to wash and cleanse oneself, almost as if you were entering a mosque.

Some of the shops appear to be long ago dug into the dirt hillside, dark and primitive, while next to them, others have lovely ceramic entryways and bright lights. Still stranger are the doorways that open into a modern looking bank or a restaurant, a mosque, or even the world's first university.

This is a place of huge diversity, with a whole lot of curiosity; for example, when we entered a leather tannery factory.

At the dark, claustrophobic entryway, a small, old, bearded man hands each of us a branch of fresh, leafy mint. Nice smell, OK.

We climb two flights of cramped wooden stairs where we are greeted by a middle-aged semi-toothless fellow who speaks English with a southern twang, who ends his "s" words with "sh"..."Welcome to Fesh".

It's hard not to stare at his yellow-mottled, peg teeth as he tells us he once lived in Cold Lake, Alberta, flowering us with compliments about Canada. Then he launches the tour of the tannery factory inside the Fez Medina.

Leading us one floor higher, we walk into a sizable, dull wood-floored room with a long opening on the far side looking out over the Medina. When we approach the edge to peer out, it's as if a scene from Dicken's industrial age is laid out before us.

Far below is a huge square filled with perhaps a hundred round, concrete vats, each maybe 6 or 8 feet across looking like small hot tubs. They're filled to the top with dye liquids of varying colours.

Dozens of grizzled men work around and inside them. Some are carrying heavy loads of raw, untreated hides that they toss into the "baths". Others are swimming in the vats up to their waist in dye water, mixing the hides to take on the stain: the yellow, the brown, the black, the red and many more. All to make the coats and purses and leather briefcases we find in our houses somewhere in the world. Some of the men walk about with legs tinted the same colour as the coats we admire later.

Immediately, it's obvious why we were handed the mint. The stench is overwhelmingly nauseating in the way it burns into your nostrils and lungs. Holding the mint to your nose helps to lessen but not obliterate the rotting, putrid smell.

There's a constant flow of hides entering and leaving the area; the tan or white hides coming in flung over the shoulder by the dozen, and dripping wet, coloured hides carried away for the next stage in the process.

After observing the trip back in time for a few long moments, we're taken the standard tourist route through the many displays and showrooms of all of the leather products: coats, handbags, valises, suitcases, belts.

Sydney, one of our Canadian co-travellers shows an interest in a handbag, if it's not too expensive.

An hour later and after intense negotiations that could have bought and sold a major Canadian corporation, Sydney sheds $300 on a handbag and a red leather jacket, bargained down from the $700 starting point. Maureen was brought in to the negotiations partway through to lend some supportive, female strength, and then later, Sydney's husband John was dragged in to approve the final purchase.

Tired, dehydrated and hungry, we all shuffle off for lunch, stumbling along the snake-like passages and then abruptly swinging right through a doorway. Down some rickety stairs, a high ceiling-ed chamber opens up before us - the room is filled with diners settled at round, wooden tables surrounded by benches lined with bulging, over-stuffed cushions.

It is dimly lit, and had it been filled with smoke, we might have thought we had entered a den of iniquity from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Our group settles in and soon has a table filled with multiple plates of finely chopped Moroccan salads, followed closely by a chicken tagine mixed with our first sampling of couscous. No alcohol is served here in the midst of the Muslim surrounds, but lots of hot, sweet mint tea washes down the spicy dishes. A final course of fresh bananas and mandarin oranges leaves us recuperated and refreshed for further medina meanderings.

Getting out of the restaurant is as difficult as finding our way through the rest of the medina.

A few of our small group are held up by the other 3 of us who take a wrong set of stairs and begin climbing upwards, and then more upwards, attempting to find an exit. "Funny, I don't remember passing this office room when we came in here."

Finally, a kind server of the restaurant escorts us few lost sheep to the correct staircase that leads us back to the twisted paths of the actual medina. We carry on visiting other alleys and shops, and small factories until our feet are sore from the ups and downs and all arounds.

Like the 19th hole of a golf course, or the sports bar after the hockey or football game, our group returns to the hotel where we gather later for dinner and relive the day that has stimulated all of our senses with the sight, sound, touch, taste, and yes, especially, smells, of life behind the walls of the medina in Fez, Morocco.

In the next blog post, we'll take you through the Moroccan countryside and to the exciting city of Marrakesh and its Souk (market), a tagine cooking class, and a visit to a Hammam (traditional Moroccan public bath). You won't want to miss it!

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


Chicken Tagine with CouscousChicken Tagine with Couscous
Chicken Tagine with Couscous

How many vegetables can you identify...

1st March 2014

So cool!!! Wow, another amazing spot in our world ..
10th March 2014

Thanks Val … where's YOUR next journey??
2nd March 2014

Wish number 2 yaaah completed!
I am so jealous! You and Maureen look to be having such an adventure. Did you eat any of the snail? Can't wait to see you in your new Fez. I would be so tempted to dip one leg into one colour vat and the other leg in another coloured vat. Or maybe each finger into a different coloured vat - that would be neat. Safe travels continued!
3rd March 2014

Adventurous YOU!!
Its a damn fine thing you're not here travelling with me...I can't begin to conceive of the troubles you and I could get into. Wait til you read my next story coming up about my visit to the hammam:-) Sorry, no snails eaten!!
2nd March 2014

Of course Cats are clean
Hello my authorities. I received word of your travels from the staff you hired to tend to my needs while you are away serving yourselves instead of me. I wish to remind you that Cats have been held in high regards in many cultures through the ages. Did you think that this would be any different on the other side of the world? Please take more photos of my breatheren for my perusal when you return. PS, you shall have to replace the large plant in the living room when you return. Did you honestly think that I wouldn't take my revenge out upon it?
3rd March 2014

I told you to keep your paws off the technology while we were treats for you when we get home. Maybe more quality time outside with the coyotes :-) We can always ship you to Morocco if you want...
7th March 2014

Blog and pics
Larry, enjoyed reading about your trip and see your photos - feel like I've been there myself - Thanks!
9th March 2014

Thanks for the comment Diana … and thanks for dropping in to read my stuff!!

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