Sunday, August 2, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 30. Fez (or is it Fés?)

Ah, Fez, the city of One Thousand and One Nights. Modern Fez is of course a young, growing city, but the old Medina (the core of the city) goes back to 700 AD, and certainly bears well 1,400 years of history. Today we had our first lady guide, Hakima, who courageously undertook the task of guiding 16 cats through a labyrinthine city. By now we know who is going to always be last, so we are taking turns herding this particular cat, but that means that we move slowly, just like the much scorned tourist groups do. And like said scorned tourist groups we made a stop at a pottery and mosaic shop, where our guides get a little kickback for getting us there. Mind you, it was supper interesting seeing the raw kaolinite-rich mudstone they quarry from the nearby hills; the whole molding, drying, decorating, and firing processes; and the tile making process. What totally floored me is the way they make a mosaic table, fountain, or palace wall: First you fire tile on each of the colors you plan to use (green, red, blue, gray, orange, yellow, and black being the common colors). Second, a group of men chip away with a sharp chisel the different shapes that will be used (squares, triangles, wedges, half moons, parallelograms, or stars). Mind you, these are really tiny pieces, maybe a centimeter long, and they have to chip thousands of them from each tile. Third, the master creates the design in his head, and then lays the chips against each other, face down! That is right, he cannot see the colors that he is laying down, so if he makes a mistake the whole thing can be ruined. It might take him a couple of weeks to put the puzzle together for a garden table (and months if it is a special design, such as the emperor and his 500 wives). Once the puzzle is set, the steel frame of the table is placed over the puzzle, and the puzzle and table are bound together by grout. Let it dry for another week and, presto, you have a fancy table to have afternoon tea. Lovely, but how would you take it home? No problem. For US $800 they will be glad to ship it to you, properly protected by a wooden frame!

Then we went for a walk through the labyrinth of the market place, wondering at the great variety of olives, sweets, galabeeyas, and bronze house furnishings, all the time headed for the tannery (or the terrace overlooking the tannery because the latter is quite slippery and stinky). As soon as we got there we got a branch of mint (to fend off the stench) and were courteously taken to the top floor, where a knowledgeable salesman gave us an overview of the tanning process. I remained behind in the terrace while the group was escorted to the lower floors to admire the beautiful work done in leather, including sandals, jackets, purses, wallets, boots and a dozen other articles. Some of my fellow travelers did a bit of shopping, and I enjoyed the visit, but spending an hour and a half on what should have been a 15 minute visit (just like we did at the pottery shop) is beginning to get on my nerves.

We had another lazy lunch together, and as soon as it was over I offered my excuses to the guide and took off for a solo exploration of the souk. It is a bit confusing, but it is not infinite as you first imagine, and after two hours of going round I began recognizing market stalls and where to turn to get to where I wanted to go. OK, now that I got it the time had come to go out and see more of the town. Yes, it is a town, and the market place is just a small part of it. Not only that, but the city council has invested on some useful signs to show different paths through the town: The Path of the Mosques, the Path of the Gardens, or the Path of the Palaces. It is too bad that by that time I was hot and bothered, because I didn’t have the strength to crack that puzzle, but I think I am going to suggest these paths to our guide as an alternative for her non-shopping clients.

When I felt ready to get home I took a Petit Taxi to the vicinity of the hotel, but actually found the energy to go to Carrefour, the modern supermarket, where I enjoyed browsing through the corridors to guess at what the modern Moroccan homemaker was planning to have for dinner. My favorite, as always, was the aisle of spices, where I found cous-cous spices, tagine spices, and the all important Ras El Hanout, a unique spice mix of pepper, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, and rose petals. Anyone interested in cooking with flowers?

Still enjoying my new found freedom I went to dinner to a small restaurant that faces the Boulevard Hassan II, where for US $10 I had a wonderful dinner with Moroccan salad (a type of cob salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce), a good side of steamed vegetables, a delicious tagine of chicken cooked in preserved lemons and olives, a big bottle of fizzy water, and a café au lait. I think we have been systematically paying twice as much for our meals than non-tourists do. As I was sipping my coffee my friends went by, looking for a place to eat. They are a good group of people, but simply by moving as a pack they radiate the aura of tourists half a mile away. 

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