Wednesday, December 30, 2015

INTREPIDLY, MADRID TO MARRAKECH (Part 3): A day at the Fes Medina

The medina of Fes ("Fes el Bali")  is said to be largest in the world, and was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1981. How large? Well, by some estimates, there are ten thousand streets inside it. It is a car-free zone, and pretty much everything you can find inside it -- markets, schools, mosques, restaurants, riads (akin to boutique hotels for tourists), tanneries [more on this later] and all kinds of shops.

This is how it looks from a bird's eye view. "Whoa!" was the only word i could utter, really. 

Our group spent one entire day with a local guide, walking through the winding narrow alleys and taking in the sights (and smells); and trying our best not to bump into locals (or get trampled over by passing horses). 

Lots of food items for sale, such as these fruits, dates, olives, fresh salads and the like:


 For some strange reason i cannot fathom, we saw a lot of these huge nougat type of sweets (colored pink, green and white).

And these brown things swimming in the yellow goop? That's meat preserved in lard. They supposedly last for one year at room temperature, without spoiling. Ummm, not quite appetizing eh?  Maybe i should have bought some, to give as gifts to my frenemies. ;-D

 Seriously, though, i saw a shop selling camel meat; and guess what, they chopped off a camel head and hung it in front of their stall. Grisly and a bit stomach-churning. 

One has to be alert whilst walking on the narrow alleys, especially as locals transport goods using these same pathways;  and they are generally bustling about and in a hurry. When you hear cries of "Balak!" (meaning 'Watch out!"), well do watch out and get the hell out of the way. 

For me, the highlight of our excursion was checking out one of the three leather tanneries inside the medina. Fes is famous for leather goods, and the best place to buy them was right here.

The leather shops typically have a terrace, where one can view the dyeing pits and vats, where the animal hides are soaked. It makes for a very colorful and picturesque (and needless to say, Instagrammable) scene. We were out of luck, though, that day, as the pits of this particular tannery were being renovated; so this was the sight we saw:

I've grabbed this photo below from Flora the Explorer, one of the female independent travel bloggers whose writing i admire. Quite pretty, huh? 

Above the tanneries in Fez
(Photo credit: Flora the Explorer)

You can actually smell the tanneries, before  you see them, as the odor can best be described as malodorous. That's because part of the process of converting raw animal skins to leather handbags, shoes, etc. involves cow urine and pigeon poop. Here's an excerpt from the blog Moroccan Bling, which gives the full details:
"The start of the tanning process begins with the collection and sorting of the raw animal skins. The types of animal skins used are sheep skin, goat skin, camel skin, and cow skin with the best quality leather coming from goat and camel skins.  These skins are soaked for two to three days in large specialty vats that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This mixture will loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on the skins. Once the soaking duration is done, tanners then scrap away excess hair fibers and fat in order to prepare the skins for dyeing.

Once the skins have been cleaned, they are laid out to dry on the surrounding rooftop terraces. Dried, the skins are taken to a different set of vats where they are washed and soaked in a mixture of water and pigeon poop in order to make the skins supple and soft. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows for the skins to become so malleable and to some extent the animal hair loosens. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.

At this point, once the leather has reached its desired softness, the skins are moved to a select set of vats for the tanning (or dyeing) process. Within the Old Medina, the tanneries continue to use natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. However it is not stated by tanners or tannery shop workers but one suspects that chemical products are also used today for a better quality and longer lasting color, along with a less pungent odor."

Here are some photos of the leather goods in the shop, a veritable profusion of colors:

Fancy these babouches (Moroccan slippers)? ;-D

 Here's a closer view of them:

Hmmm, they seem inordinately fond of making these giant Ottomans. I'd love to buy that vivid blue one, haha. 

Caveat emptor, though. Our tour leader Anki warned us that there were NO fixed prices, and that bargaining was the way of life here. So if we were interested to buy, we had to bargain hard; and be able to walk away if we didn't get the price(s) we could afford. 

I expressed concern that the shopkeeper might be insulted if our price ideas were very low (and push us over the terrace into the pits below! LOL :-D), but she said they did not take it personally. I suspect they actually enjoyed playing the game.

My tourmate Sedgman was piqued by that torquoise green travelling bag (check out the lower left hand corner of the above photo) and so inquired as to its price. Their conversation went something like this:

Shopkeeper : "Ah, that is 4,500 Dirhams. But for you, my friend, i give at 3,600 dirhams."
Sedgman     : (with deadpan expression) "I will not pay anything above 2,000 for it."Shopkeeper : "Ah...."
Sedgman     :  "Take it or leave it."

And just like that, he was the triumphant owner of the bag!

By contrast, i was looking for a brown messenger bag and looked through more than a couple of different designs. After much hew and haw-ing, i finally asked the price. 

Shopkeeper  :   "That is 1,500 Dirhams."
GUS             :   "Really? So expensive!"
Shopkeeper  :   "What price you want?"
GUS             :   (does mental math, twiddles thumbs, scratches head, frowns) "Umm, what's your best price?"
Shopkeeper  :   "What price you want?"
GUS             :  (crosses fingers) "500 Dirhams."
Shopkeeper  :  "Too low, i lose money. 1,000!"
GUS             :  (hesitates) "600!"
Shopkeeper  :  (less firmly than before) "800."
GUS             :  (gathering steam) "650!"
Shopkeeper  :  "750."
GUS             :  "No. 650."
Shopkeeper  :  "700."
GUS             :  "No. 650."

And finally, he gave in! Yeyyyy! [fist pump]

We had a spot of lunch as well in one of the restaurants inside the medina. Your typical Moroccan lunch:

Bread. (The soda is less than typical, of course. Haha)

Assorted vegetables (carrots, olives, etc.) and goat cheese.

Meatball tajine (literally meaning the earthen pot in which it is cooked).


Moroccan mint tea. You can take it with or without sugar. I must say that the sugar cubes are quite cute, and i preferred two cubes per glass of mint tea. Drinking it without sugar has a taste akin to liquid toothpaste.

We also passed by this former school from a couple of earlier centuries. Check out the magnificent tile work, reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada.

And one of the final stops was this silk store, where the merchandise was actually pretty good. Tourmates spent most of the time being egged on to try stuff by the staff, and here's some shots worthy of 'Lawrence of Arabia':

Sheik Sedge, perhaps? All together now, the sixth sheik's sixth sheep's sick!