Fes: Moroccan Medina Maze

Trip Start May 15, 2008
Trip End Jul 24, 2008

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Friday, June 20, 2008

Fes was the total opposite of Chefchaouen - massive, sprawling, and made completely of whites, tans, and browns.  There were no blues here (or very few).  The streets were narrow, winding, and with no apparent pattern or logic.  Everywhere in the medina (center city) and zoco (market) was bustling with people, action.  Craftsmen and vendors were everywhere.  People made loud, rude comments to the girls in our group.  Apart from the occasional reminder, it really felt like we'd stepped back in time a hundred years.
My introduction to Fes was when we stopped at a lookout point over the huge city on our way inside.  The pictures are incredible and the city seems to spread out forever, enveloping the surrounding countryside.  Majestic hills rose in the background.  No skyscrapers, there was so little inherently modern by the scene that I felt I could have been staring at the city a thousand years ago.  To make things even more dramatic, we were at the lookout point just as the sun was beginning to set, which cast a serene glow over the city.
After the lookout point, we went to the hotel in the new town, where we had our first introduction to Moroccan green mint tea, which is very strong and served hot in tiny glasses.  It's certainly interesting, and by the end of the trip I even developed somewhat of a taste for it.  We ate dinner at the hotel and stayed in for the evening.  We were definitely not venturing out alone here. 
The next morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we set out on a sightseeing tour of the city, starting with the exterior gate of the Royal Palace, which features seven different doors of various sizes, all ornately decorated and made of solid gold.  After a short photo op, we headed towards the Medina, walking through a neighborhood until we walked through one of the gates into the old town.
The medina was truly remarkable, one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  It was packed with more shops than I can image.  It's full of 9,000 pedestrian (and donkey/horse) streets with no apparent patterns (locals don't even need maps).  To make matters even more confusing for foreigners, 5,000 of the streets are dead ends.  Another thing that struck me was how there were cats all over Morocco, literally hundreds walking through the medina, presumably to keep the mice away.  Seeing some of them was sad, made me want to adopt one and bring it back to the US with me.
There were definite signs of traditional ways of life.  Donkeys and horses roamed the streets.  Men and women were using the sides of buildings to make thread, wrapping string around and around.
We walked through the various streets and stands, stopping briefly at a building where Maimonides once lived.  Around the corner, we stopped at an old Muslim University (of which unfortunately I do not recall the name).
Then we walked to a shop that sells gold and silver plates and decorations.  They had impressive collections and were geared to the high end tourist crowds.  Afterwards, we stopped in an impressive parlor room (again, we weren't really told what it was/what it is used for).
After that, we got mint leaves to mask the scent as we moved into the tannery district.  This was probably the coolest single thing I saw in Morocco.  We walked through tiny tunnels and back alleys to a leather shop which sold all sorts of colorful leather goods.  We went up onto the shop's roof where we had a great view over the tannery (and the rest of the city for that matter).  Below us were hundreds of adobe vats with different colors of dye to treat the leather in, and boys scrambling up and down working at the various stations.  Overall, one of the neatest things I've seen (you have to look at the pictures to see what I'm talking about).
Then, stopped at a mosque, walked down another section of the market, and peaked into the Kairaouine Mosque, but non-Muslims aren't allowed to enter mosques in Morocco.  Interestingly enough, Morocco is one of the only countries that bans non-Muslims from going inside mosques.  It is a law dating back to the time of French colonization when there was worry that Christians going into the Muslim places of worship would cause social unrest and rebellion and that Christians would act out violently against the Muslims.
Our next stop was a carpet shop to look at fine Moroccan rugs.  The store was incredible - it probably had ten thousand rugs and carpets of various textures, colors, and sizes.  After the carpet store, we headed to a weavers guild that sold scarves.  It was neat to actually see the craftsmen working the looms in front of us.  Then, we headed to a traditional apothecary who told us about traditional medicine.  It was the coolest of the stores we stopped in.  It's crazy how everyone in Morocco seems to be selling something (and they're very good salespeople).
After that, we returned to the hotel for a late lunch.  Then, we headed out to a ceramics shop/factory.  It included a really neat guided tour of the whole process, from molding the clay, to the kilns, to the painting of the pottery, then to the area where workmen chip away small stone blocks to make mosaics, and finally to the shop, where the storekeepers once again tried to get us to buy things.
We ended our tour with a stop at another mirador overlooking the city, this time from the opposite direction, but still incredible.
That evening, we went to a "traditional" (i.e. touristy) Moroccan dinner and show.  It was a little pricey, but the food was incredible - just mounds and mounds of great food, a sample so you can try all sorts of traditional dishes for appetizers, salads, main course, and dessert.  They were very accommodating of the vegetarians in the group, something we didn't find too often.  The show was pretty good, but wouldn't have been near worth it without the dinner.  It featured several belly dancers and traditional musicians.
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