Fèz is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the third largest city, a religious place and felt to be the religious capital of Morocco. There are a couple of campsites to the south of Fèz and we based ourselves for two nights at Camping Diamant Vert about eight kilometres from the centre and not far from the motorway. It’s a fairly large site with a swish swanky reception area, restaurant, bungalows to rent and a camping area further down the hill. At 120 dirham a night (about £10) it is the most expensive site we have stayed on so far but not expensive by European standards. The shower block was all clean and tidy but the showers were cold. Meh, you can’t have it all.
Uncharacteristically for us we decided to visit Fèz accompanied by a guide. It’s not something we normally do as we generally like to just do our own thing and not traipse around following in the wake of a gaggle of people. From what I’d read, the vast network of alleys and lanes in the old town can be difficult to navigate, easy to get lost in and you might find yourself fending off faux guides trying to offer their services. The campsite is in contact with a number of official guides at set prices which makes life a bit easier but is probably not the cheapest way to do it. Presumably the campsite takes a percentage of the tour fee for giving the guide access to the campers. Wafi approached me whilst I was using the wifi in the reception area to offer us a tour. There was no hard sell he just spoke to us in the evening and explained what the tour would involve and then left us to mull it over and let him know in the morning if we wanted a tour that afternoon. The guys at Our Tour had used him last year and recommended him so we felt we’d be in safe hands. The fee of 350 dirham (about £28) was indeed a fixed price and included all the transport to and from the campsite.
After a taxi had picked us up from the site, taken us to see the entrance to Royal Palace, a vantage point above the city and a short tour of a traditional ceramic makers we met up with Wafi close to the Medina.
It was just Wafi and us for the tour. No waving flags or umbrellas to follow. Ideal. We started at the tanneries. After our inpromptu tour of the tannery in Meknès and having seen pictures of the famous Fèz tanneries it was the place I most wanted to see. It didn’t disappoint.
After the ceramics and then the tanneries we quickly surmised that as part of our tour we would be taken to a selection of sellers in the different souks, have a short tour and then be left to peruse their wares in the hope that we might buy something. I was OK with it though as we were warmly welcomed, it was all good fun and there was no hard sell at all.
We did the tour on a Sunday afternoon and it was surprisingly quiet. The medina itself is quite simply incredible. Just amazing. It defies belief.
Any historical fiction I’ve read set in the middle ages from authors such as C J Sansom, Ken Follet, Alison Weir, Phillippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel etc give me a sense of what life might have been like in the olden days. The medina’s of Fèz just bring those images to life (if you ignore the mobile phones in hand).
Even though it was quiet (by usual standards) when we visited it was still all noise, craftsmen working cheek by jowl in cramped workshops, crumbling grimy walls and doors, secret alleyways, mosques, donkeys, horses, carts, hand carts, chickens awaiting their fate. The sense of community must be like no other. I can’t really do it justice in words. You’d have to go and experience it for yourself.
The penultimate stop on our tour was to a carpet seller. Of course it was. We came out after thirty minutes having purchased a traditional Berber blanket. We paid £34 for it. Am I happy with what we paid for the blanket, was it a fair price? As I mentioned in my last blog post the concept of bartering is an alien one for me. I really don’t know what a fair price for something is here. We’re used to a different buying experience. I mean, picture the scene. You walk into, let’s say, Carpetright in the UK.
You’re immediately immersed in beige. Nobody acknowledges you. Alone, you peruse the different samples of fifty shades of beige. Still nobody acknowledges your presence. After a while you beckon over an assistant. They come over with a weak smile. You ask about a couple of samples you are interested in. They tell you that the darker beige one is more expensive because it is sixty per cent wool whereas the other shade of beige you are looking at is made of acrylic. That’s all they can tell you about it. You decide to splash out on the more expensive one as it’s currently on sale at 25% off and you think you can get away with keeping the underlay you already have. You give the assistant the measurements, a calculator is whipped out to confirm the price, you go to the till, pay by credit card, confirm a date for fitting, say thank you and leave the shop. Mission accomplished.
Compare that to the buying experience we had in Fèz. We’d been greeted with huge smiles and warm welcomes, exchanged names, been immersed in a beautiful environment within an historic mansion house, had thirty minutes undivided attention from the seller whilst he and his able assistant laid out numerous carpets and blankets in different styles, colours and materials at our feet. We sat in comfort whilst sipping mint tea. We’ve learnt a little bit about where the different carpets have been made and what materials are used. We’ve been shown how the loom works that some of the carpets and blankets are made on. We’ve all smiled, chatted, bantered, shaken hands, paid in cash. In short, we’ve had the full carpet experience.
So, in answer to my question above, am I happy with what we paid for the blanket, was it a fair price? To me, absolutely. I have zero idea of what the going rate is in these parts. What an experienced buyer would have paid. It matters not to me. Our beige blanket is worth every bit of the £34 we paid for it. Beige? BEIGE? Yeah well, old habits die hard!
It was dark by the time we left the medina and Wafi left us perched on a wall to watch the world go by whilst he went to retrieve his car to take us back to the campsite. We were more than happy to wait the fifteen minutes for our lift to arrive just to experience a Moroccan city by night. People everywhere, donkeys and carts trotting past, cars, mopeds, tuk-tuks all tooting, u-turning, stopping, overtaking, undertaking, cutting up, here there and everywhere. To our uninitiated eyes it was complete chaos. Once in the car our guide speeded us through the melée. Tim sat bemused in the front as our guide changed from a softly spoken, kind, gentle person to a maniac behind the steering wheel. I was loving it in the back. Don’t bother with Alton Towers just get a taxi at rush hour in Fèz. It’s far cheaper!
Our tour lasted six hours door to door and we thought it was informative, fascinating and money well spent. We would certainly have enjoyed an aimless wander by ourselves but definitely wouldn’t have got as much out of it. I would recommend Wafi although I did struggle to get the gist of what he was saying at times. He seemed to me to be talking in riddles about religion, marriage, relationships and so on. He wasn’t deliberately setting out to confuse but maybe his use of language and choice of words was not the style I’m used to. Also there is so much to see, hear and smell that it’s difficult to concentrate anyway. Tim looked to be taking it all in but when I discreetly asked him ‘did you get that?’ he said he’d already switched off some time ago. So it wasn’t just me.
Fèz is an incredible place to immerse yourself. You could spend weeks there and still only scratch the surface. We had debated about whether to stay another night and have a wander around the city by ourselves but in the end decided to move on.
We’re eighty kilometres south now at Azrou, a small town in the heart of the Middle Atlas mountains. The temperature has dropped to three degrees. It’s just started to snow.
Still, that Berber blanket should come in handy!