I awoke quite early the next morning with thoughts of the days hustle and bustle. There was no chance of getting back to sleep so I decided to get up, put some tea on and see what was going on around the campsite. It had obviously been quite cold over night. The water in the stream that runs along the boundary of the campsite was pouring steamy vapour amidst the shafts of bright sunlight that filtered through the foliage of the tree canopy. Our rendevous with our guide for the day wasn’t until 10am so after a bit of tidying up around our camp we had plenty of time left for multiple cups of tea and coffee as well as a substantial breakfast. At the meeting point we found the rest of the people we would be sharing the tour with; a couple from Germany traveling with their teenage son and another German couple enjoying their retirement. The taxi arrived and we were greeted by our guide; a towering stature of a man. He must have been at least 6’ 6” and had more ear hair than I think I’ve ever seen on a single person before.
At this point it became apparent that the ten of us plus the driver would be getting into the Mercedes Vito to be transported to the Medina- a minibus none the less but it still only had six seats. A game of sardines ensued and we squeezed ourselves into the van. The journey was only around 15 mins and deposited us a very short walk from our destination. One of the first things we learned from our guide was about the colour of the roof tiles of the majority of buildings in the city. All of the mosques have green roof tiles to denote their status. There are certainly some very grand and ornate mosques around that need no help with their identity, but its easy to see why many of the more humble places of worship benefit from being able to be easily recognised amongst the jigsaw puzzle of buildings around them.
Our first point of interest within the old Medina were some of the narrow streets that were packed with fabric and haberdashery shops. From swathes of lavishly decorated fabrics to tassels and buttons, right down to entire shops of threads which are available in the entire colour spectrum.
It was fairly busy in the streets, but not packed. Moving around was really quite easy with onward movement only hindered by the odd barrow or donkey with saddle bags making its way by. Having a guide was worth while as we were shown discrete points of interest along the way that we would have been very unlikely to have found by ourselves, let alone be able to find information out about them.
Some examples were particular pieces of architecture embellished with intricate carvings and painted with beautiful cyrillic texts; others were different sectors of the Medina, famous Mosques, even a Moroccan Pharmacy; but one of the more interesting places for me was a Caravan Serai.
A Caravan Serai was a place where traders from all over the continent would meet. They were based in towns or cities and offered accomodation, a place to house animals and a common forum to negotiate the selling of their wares. In present times Caravan Serai’s are used by various businesses and their craftsmen all going about their daily work. From here we made our way through many streets and alleys past food vendors, sweet shops, market traders and much more before reaching a very small door tucked away in a dark corner. Had we not been with our guide, there’s no chance we would have found the door, let alone plucked up the courage to venture through. It led to one of the city’s many fabric bazaars where they not only sell but also produce the fabrics on offer.
The space housed multiple looms each with a man busy operating them; firing their shuttle back and forth at lightning speeds, accompanied by a clackity clack noise of wood striking wood as the many shuttles reached the end of their paths at opposite ends of the looms. Harriet bought herself a new scarf and Jed also bought something from the Bazaar later that day. It had to be bought in secret, but more on that later. The famous Tanneries were next. This was the bit we had heard the most about and what Fes is world famous for. We had been warned by many people that you would be able to smell the tanneries far before you reach them. Luckily it would seem that the middle of winter is a good time to visit. There was definitely a particular aroma but nothing close to the stomach churning, ammonia like stench, that people speak of when they visit in the summer months.
We were led upstairs and onto a terrace where the processes of the tannery were in full view. There were many different pools that make up the process of turning an animal skin into workable leather. Whether it be goat, sheep, cow or camel, the same series of treatments are implemented and the process has remained unchanged since medieval times. First the skins are soaked for two to three days in earthen vats that contain a mixture of quicklime, cow urine, water, and salt. This loosens excess fat, flesh, and hair from the skins. Once the skins are fished out of the vats, the tanners can then easily scrape away the hair fibers and fat.
In the next stage, the skins are carefully laid out on rooftops or hung in racks to dry naturally under the moroccan sun.
Once dried, they are washed and placed into a different set of vats that contain a mixture of water and pigeon droppings. The pigeon droppings contain ammonia that acts as a softening agent to make the skins supple. Next, the tanner has the immense task of kneading the skins with bare feet for a few hours until they reach the desired state. The skins move onto yet another set of vats where the dyeing (or tanning) takes place. The moroccan tanneries continue to use the natural pigments that have been used for centuries; poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow).
Once dyed the skins are stretched over racks to keep the leather flat and they are left to dry once again. The entire process, from animal skin to coloured workable leather, takes around 20 days.
Then comes the work of the master craftsmen to turn the leathers into an dizzying array of different garments, shoes, slippers (babouches) wallets, etc.
After a good look at all the products on offer at the tannery we made our way back out into the Medina. We paced along yet more twisting paths through narrow shadowy streets on to our final destination for the day, our first visit to a Moroccan restaurant, which was just as well, as by this time the albeit decent breakfast we had eaten early that morning, had well and truly faded away into desperate hunger. During our meal, Jed whispered to me to cover for him as he was venturing back into the Medina accompanied by our guide for a short while. He was heading back to the fabric bazaar to buy a beautiful throw for Louise as a Christmas present. With a bit of creative…er…lying is was able to make his disappearance seem perfectly mundane, phew… the secret was safe.
After we had eaten and got back out of the walled Medina, we all squeezed ourselves back into the Taxi who was ready and waiting for us. The journey back to the campsite was filled with enthusiastic conversations of all our different experiences from across the day and thoughtful reflection on how the working conditions and production processes of Morocco differ so hugely from the ones in the societies we are all accustomed to.
Once back home at the vehicles, we all set about getting ourselves ready to leave the next morning, packing everything back into the particular places set aside for all those essential items that make up your day to day life whilst on the road. We would be heading south east from Fes into an area known as the Cedar Forests. This was the point where the driving and scenery was going to get a whole lot more interesting as we would be heading away from the main roads and venturing off into the wilderness and with Christmas just around the corner we knew we needed to get a move on to get ourselves a bit further south in time.
Article and photography by Alan Hayes
You can read Part 1 of Campervan Culture: Morocco [Here]