Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Views from Fes

21-23.02 - Tighssaline - Fes, 192 km, three rides.

My next destination on the way north is Fes, Morocco's second biggest city, former capital, one of the country's four "imperial cities," the other ones being Marrakech, Rabat and Meknes. My cocushurfing host, Choukri, is my first host with whom I speak mostly French. No problem - for him it's much easier than using his spoken English, for me - another chance to brush up my French.

The place where Choukri really wants me to see is the medina. We start our walk in this maze from visiting his uncle who sells different kinds of bread and pancakes in a small stall. He lets us sample barghir - sweet, thick pancake eaten especially during ramadan, m'semen - the same flaking bread I prepared with Rayhana in Tighssaline and harcha - pan-fried bread made from semolina flour. Everything in the company of unparalleled Moroccan tea, but also milk. I'm quite surprised to discover that drinking milk is almost as popular here as drinking tea.

Eventually we spend over two hours wandering aimlessly in the medina. Its complicated layout of cobblestoned narrow alleyways can lead any visitor astray many a time. It's big enough it could as well pass for a separate city. On an area of around 350 hectares there are around 9400 criss-crossing streets, which makes even locals lose their sense of direction. Some of them are so narrow there's no way a car could fit. That makes donkeys most popular of all means of transport that people use to deliver goods to shops selling groceries, spices, mysterious herbs whose names are written in Arabic except for Viagra, carpets, lanterns, silver teapots, colorful babouches, jellabas and hijabs, antiques and ceramics. Occasions to become owners of "authentic Berber souvenirs" await you on every corner but what astonishes me the most is multitude of shops selling clothes that have little in common with traditional Moroccan style. The striking juxtaposition of takchitas with mini skirts or deep V-necks is a proof how much local sellers exclusively cater to Western tourists.

Above these modest houses tower multiple architectural wonders - Quranic schools, royal residences, soaring mosques with sky-high minarets. Fez is home to around hundred mosques; apart from the major mosques there are also small ones sandwiched between tiny, forlorn houses in the medina.

This magnificent open-air museum, so attractive for visitors, for locals is not moonlight and roses. Inhabitants of the medina struggle with overpopulation, lack of proper transport and low sanitary conditions. Nowadays it's mainly poor people who remained there. The richer ones have moved to more contemporary Ville Nouvelle in the southern part of the city. Nowhere in Moroco have I seen the opulence and poverty converge as much as in Fes. On one hand ornate treasures of history whose every detail has been meticulously considered, and challenges of living in clay houses that poor inhabitants of the medina have to endure every day on the other.

Since 9th century Fes has been renown for its tanning industry and producing some of the best leather products in the world. Local tannery is nestled among old buildings. Wandering the narrow streets you might not even think about this hidden corner, so easy to spot when you look at the medina from the top of any of surrounding rooftops. Thanks to the fact that I'm with local, I can have a very close peak I probably wouldn't be able to catch if I were here on my own.

The smell of this place is the first suggestion that something different is about to appear. To say this place stinks is an understatement. It's a tremendous challenge to put up with the ghastly stench of not just dyes, but also rotting skins of goats, camels and sheep, blood, urine and feces. Don't forget it's still winter and think how repulsive this place must be in the summer time when temperatures reach 40 °C.

Nowadays leather products are still made the traditional way. The leather-making process starts with shaving the animal's fur off the skin. After this treatment it's placed in the liquid for one month. Men wearing shorts stomp the leather with their feet, wading knee-high in the vats containing pigments mixed with feces that soften the leather. Before only natural dyes were used (flowers, herbs, minerals), now artificial ones are becoming more and more popular - they're cheaper and easier too get. When the desired color has appeared on the leather, it dries in the sun on the terrace. This work is neither easy nor pleasant yet quite well paid. I can't put up with the terrible stench for more than ten minutes. How must these people who spend entire days among this toxic mixture of smells feel?

The tannery is surrounded by shops where all possible leather products in all possible colors are sold. It's not a surprise to hear the sellers speak perfect English with tourists who can't resist the temptation to buy turquoise purses, raspberry wallets, chartreuse gloves, maroon jackets, magenta hats... All of these products cost a pretty penny and if you see the hard work tanners do you don't wonder why.

Antennas - inseparable part of Moroccan landscape

In the evening Choukri borrows a motorbike from his friend. We speed on this rickety vehicle, on potholed and precipice streets of his white city leading to a hill which offers a panorama of an unforgettable beauty. At least from here the omnipresent antennas don't dot the view, at last I can fully appreciate he mountains surrounding Fes. That's one of my last Moroccan sunsets. Europe is only couple of days away.

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