Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fes & Beyond: Melodies and Magic Carpets

Fes Leather Tannery
Fes Leather Shoes

It was bound to happen and I suppose it’s not really a bad thing that it did. If I had any fear that my trip would peak too early, it was well warranted. For unknown reasons, I’m prone to habitually elevating my expectations – every new experience needs to be bigger or better than the one preceding it. After setting the bar so high during the Marrakech – Essaouira – Sahara legs of the Great Odyssey, a fall (or at least a plateau) from such great heights may have been inevitable. There are worse problems that one could endure. So it was that I arrived in Fes, exhausted from a few weeks travelling in a strange land, but exhilarated from one memorable experience after another.

In hindsight, I’m quite sure that two days in Fes, Morocco’s third largest city, would have been sufficient. Instead, I struggled to re-capture the excitement I’d felt during the first three weeks. I stayed four days too long. My brother warned me that I’d have moments like this.

Most of the travellers I met along the way had lauded Fes for its “authenticity.” It promised a glimpse behind the veil of the tourist trade where you are much more likely to encounter ‘real Moroccans’ living ordinary lives in the walled city than in Marrakech. In the medina, tourists are still the minority, and English-speakers are a rarity. There is nothing wrong with any of that, of course, though I’m not convinced that the business of catering to tourists (wheeling around suitcases full of money, as the locals seem to believe) is any less authentic than that of the leather tanners or metalcrafters of Fes.

Fes el Bali

Fes el Bali, the old city, is built into the side of a hill, and is better suited for mountain goats than human habitation. How it has thrived so well for the past twelve hundred years is a little beyond me. According to the always-trustworthy Wikipedia, the medina is the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world. I believe it (or at least my poor, suffering feet do.)

The city’s punishing geography, of course, is only a real issue if you’re heading up hill. Logically, those living at the bottom (like me) could just trek to the outskirts of the medina (there are no cars inside the entire walled city – many streets are no more than a metre wide), take a cab to the top and work your way downhill through the maze of 9000+ alleys that would challenge King Minos' labyrinth in complexity. This strategy would be much more effective if Fes didn’t have such a ridiculous shortage of taxis.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote rather eloquently in the Great Gatsby, that “decency is parcelled out unequally at birth.” It seems the Moroccan men near Place Rcif, the nearest place to get a taxi, were among those badly short-changed. For 45 minutes one evening I watched able-bodied men of all ages literally elbow desperate elderly women and handicapped people out of the way so they could get a taxi for themselves. The concept of cuing up for anything is completely foreign to these people. Even if you are able to snag a taxi, the odds are (especially if you don’t speak Arabic) they will refuse to take you to your destination, preferring instead to take someone travelling a greater distance. Consequently, on more than one night, I chose to pass on the two kilometre uphill hike through the baffling Fassian maze to the nearest decent restaurant, in favour of a can of Pringles and a soft drink in my room.

A Bad Day to Be a Camel

I’d hate to leave the impression that I disliked Fes or had a bad time – that simply isn’t so. It just lacked the magic of something new that my previous stops had to offer. My hosts, Bernard and Laurence were absolutely wonderful, as was my stay in their home, Dar Melody. Laurence took great pride in ensuring no one left Dar Melody in the morning hungry, with a breakfast that would put some Vegas buffets to shame (I’m only slightly exaggerating – I felt a little bad leaving so much on the table each morning.) Michael, a fellow Torontonian staying in the room above me, aptly described Bernard as a French-speaking King of Kensington. Those of you who recall that classic 1970’s TV show can easily visualize what it was like to walk with Bernard through the medina as every local he passed stopped him to say hello or shake his hand (if you don't remember, click the link). I would stay at Dar Melody again, in a heartbeat.

The people you meet along the way are often what make a travel experience truly outstanding. Michael and Tania were two such people, and being from Toronto, proved once again that we live in a very small world. It turns out our paths had crossed several months earlier. We were three of just 400 Toronto gastronomes, students, and chefs who had attended Chef Thomas Keller’s speech and cookbook launch in the City. We shared a nice dinner out one evening in the new city and discovered we have a similar passion for cooking and food, though I suspect theirs would put my meagre culinary talents to shame. If I wasn’t already excited enough about getting to Paris, the 75 pages of detailed research they left behind for me, describing everything from where the up and coming Parisian chefs-to-watch are cooking to where I can find the best French Patisseries has caused me to rethink the final days of my Odyssey in hopes of adding a few more days in the City of Light.

Having spent very little money on souvenirs, Fes presented an opportunity to do a little shopping. Visits to the Tannery, ceramics and metalworking souks left me still looking for that little something to remember Morocco by so it was time to participate in the time-honoured Moroccan carpet buying ritual. After the getting-to-know-you mint tea sharing at the palace where this all took place, the carpet merchant's team under the stern direction of my ‘host’ began rolling out scores of carpets in every conceivable pattern and colour. Accompanying the demonstration was a complete education on the origin, process, and significance of each design. After the pile grew to a few dozen, and gauging my interest, my host taught me a couple of phrases in Arabic and it became my job to instruct the carpet rollers to either “take it away” or “keep it aside”. Through this process we narrowed down the choices to a few that I liked, explored some different sizes, then moved into the negotiation phase. If you’re in a similar situation, whatever you do, don’t take their starting price too seriously. They’ll graciously take your money if you want to pay the first asking price, but you’ll both leave feeling dissatisfied. In Morocco, you’re expected to bargain and most of the guidebooks will tell you to start your initial offer at 35 to 40% of the original price you’re given and if you’re good, you’ll eventually land at somewhere in between (i.e. 65%).

My New 'Fes Blue' Magic Carpet

I think I bought a pretty good one. The label on the back is in Arabic but I can tell it’s extra fine quality, looks as good from the back as the front, took one person a full year to weave, and maybe, just maybe, is one of the elusive but exciting flying carpets. I’ll have to wait till I get back to Kingston where it has been shipped, unless my Mom wants to have a try and let me know how things turn out.

In the end, I was thrilled with my stay in this African nation. I set out in search of a rich, unique experience, and I found that and more. After day trips to Meknes, and the incredible Roman ruins at Volubilis, followed by a single night in Casablanca, it was time to move on, fond memories firmly set in my mind and on the pages of this blog.

 2000 Year Old Roman Ruins at Volubilis

 Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

The Skydome of Mosques

 Rick's Cafe, Casablanca

Issam at the Piano, Playing 'As Time Goes By'

It's getting harder to keep up-to-date on this blog. The Italian leg of my Odyssey awaits…


  1. I should have known that the carpet would be Conservative Blue. ;-) It sounds like you are having a fabulous experience. Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. It seems like years since we've had a good dinner table debate ;-)

  3. Your rug dosen't fly. Harry seems to like it though.

    Never mind the low of Fes, a few nights of Grappa will wash it away.

  4. Craiger,
    We hadn't heard from you in a week. I thought you might have fallen into some Den of Inequity.
    Good to here you made it out of Africa in one piece. Onward and Upward brother.

  5. The blue rug has been viewed by all in my LR! Hadley asked where the blue rug was when she came on Tuesday! The rug is not magic.. I tried! The magic will come when you lay it at your home.
    Looking forward to the next installment whenever the time is right!

  6. Unbelievable. You guys obviously just don't know how to work a magic carpet.

  7. Possibly only the true owner can make the carpet fly!

    Enjoy your travels!