Monday, January 09, 2006

Fes Medina Time Machine

The Hotel Batha (pronounced Bat-ha) in Fes is good in every respect but one: they have terrible breakfast. In a land dripping with oranges the juice is bottled and sickly sweet. The bread is stale. The ubiquitous hard-boiled eggs are so old that when I bite into one my teeth bounce back and I put it down in disgust. Too bad because our dinner here last night was fine and the room is warm. There is a pool and a tiled courtyard and it's all very reasonably priced.

We meet our guide for the day outside the hotel. Ali is dressed in the 'uniform' of Morocco, a djellaba. For some reason this hooded robe makes wearers look like evil monks. What does a peaked hood seem sinister and a rounded hood spiritual? Ali has a car and speaks good English. I tell him I don't want to shop but I do want to see the tanneries. He says fine and drives us past the golden walls of the Medina to a ceramics factory.

The potteries used to be in the Medina but the olive pits they use to fire the kilns cause billowing black smoke and so they have recently moved outside the city walls.

There are very few people around – either tourists or workers – but Ali hands us over to a man who will give us a tour. The first room we see is the tile-cutters' room. This is fantastic. I can't imagine any difference from Roman times. The men and boys sit or squat at low tables in a plaster-walled room and chip away at the ceramic tiles, making stars, hexagons, diamonds and all the other shapes that make up the mosaic walls, columns and fountains you see everywhere.

Next our guide takes us to the back of the factory where there are six big circular pits in the ground. This is where clay from the mountains is soaked and kneaded (by bare foot) to make it soft enough to work. The ground is slippery here from yesterday's heavy rainfall.

We see the kiln being fired, get a demonstration of a foot-powered potter's wheel and see the glazing room. It's like going back in time. Nothing can have changed in two thousand years. Finally we are taken to the factory shop. This is a cooperative and the prices are marked. Not cheap, but we buy a few things to take home: a bowl for olives and a tile.

From here Ali drives us to a parking space outside the Medina walls. No traffic is allowed inside, and all goods are carried on donkey, mule or horseback. Ali was born and raised her in the Fes medina; he often stops to greet friends and we are never pestered.

The tanneries are amazing. You go up through tunnels of leather-goods to a high balcony where you can look down over them. Another guide offers us a mint-tea and as we sip it he explains how things work. The raised pits are for tanning and dyeing the leather. The hay-strewn flat rooftops for drying, the running water for washing. The stench is bad but it must be terrible in the heat of the summer.

After the tour we buy some belts, a leather rucksack, and a pouf for our London apartment. It's not cheap and I realised I could have done a better job haggling. Never mind: the profits are shared out between all who work here, including the poor tanners who are all rheumatic by 50.

Ali leads us through narrow winding streets past stunning mosaic mosques and fountains. Every so often you have to press yourself to a wall to allow a donkey to pass. We see boys hammering copper, someone feeding sawdust to the furnace of a hammam, just like a slave in Roman times would have fuelled a hypocaust.

Ali takes us to a carpet factory despite the fact that I tell him we do not want to buy a carpet. He just wants us to see 'the six-hundred year old house it's built in'. I realise this is definitely the 'shopping tour' not the 'monument tour'. But I don't mind because this is like going back in time and the monuments are mainly mosques and Islamic tombs, which don't really concern me.

We don't buy a carpet at the 600 hundred year old carpet shop and we don't even go into the jeweller's or embroiderer's. But we do let Ali take us to the apothecary. This is a little Alladin's cave of coloured powders in jars and dried lizards and bottles of oil. Here again, Ali sits and lets an on-site guide do his spiel. We smell lots of perfumes and aromatic spices and Richard buys half a pound of cumin and 'Moroccan curry powder' to experiment with at home. I buy a textured glove and a piece of sandstone 'pumice' for my next hammam.

Ali also takes us to the Mellah or Jewish Quarter and up narrow stairs to the synagogue. Until recently it was a museum but since the owner died her son is selling off everything so that he can go back to Paris to live. What a shame...

For lunch, Ali takes us to an ornate restaurant near the carpet shop we saw earlier. The set menu is cheap and surprisingly delicious. Dessert is oranges sprinkled with cinnamon, which is simple but tasty.

As Ali drives us back to the hotel mid-afternoon, I ask if he knows a place where we can hear some Moroccan music. He tells us he'll take us to a restaurant in the Kasbah where we will hear authenic Moroccan and Berber music, see belly-dancers, etc. It sounds very touristy but Ali assures us the whole evening costs 'only' 300 dirhams per person (about £25) and that the restaurant will provide a courtesy car home.

Ali picks us up at the hotel at 8.00 and drives to the Restaurant Palais La Medina, then leaves us. I pay him and give him a nice tip and a signed book for his kids, and later wish I hadn't. This place is a huge disappointment. Although the tiled interior is stunningly beautiful and the performers mostly good, the food is terrible and it's full of tour groups. Also it ends up costing over 1000 dirhams. We do not get a courtesy car home.

But this sour taste at the end of the day will not spoil our memories of an amazing town. I believe Fes was the closest thing to ancient Rome that I have ever experienced. 

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