Hats off to Fez’s Magical Medina

Fez used to be the capital of Morocco but today it’s the country’s artisan capital, which is why it was high on my list for a visit. Many of Morocco’s beautiful goods, like pottery, rugs, leather goods, blankets, baskets, and more that I’ve seen all throughout Morocco are made in Fez.

In November, I drove a visiting friend from Rabat to Fez, where we hired a guide, Farida, who grew up in the medina. We met her at an easy-to-find McDonalds and she hopped in our car and directed us to Serghini Pottery (4 Rue des Forgerons, Fez), a workshop outside of the Fez medina where you can see the artisans making beautiful vases, cups, tables, and more.

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It’s here you can put in order for those beautiful Moroccan tiled patio tables, something I’ve been coveting since before we arrived. And here’s a good tip: These tile tables can get very, very heavy as the underside is usually cast in concrete. At Serghini, you have the option of a fiberglass underside, which makes for a much lighter table. This is important if you’re having the table shipped, because it will cost less, or if like us, you have weight restrictions on how many pounds of home goods you can have moved between posts.

We stopped at a palace for a little Fez history, and then it was to Fez’s Old City, or medina, which is for real a place like no other in the world. For one, it’s the biggest medina in North Africa. Here’s a photo I took from a distance, so you can see how sprawling it it.

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How to explain Fez’s medina? It’s a Medieval rabbit warren of concrete buildings built and rebuilt throughout the centuries. Some of the “streets” we walked on were shockingly narrow, sometimes they’d be speckled with little doors that look like something Willy Wonka would walk into.

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We were laughing following Farida around because she’d just dart left and cooly walk down the narrowest alley and we were thinking there’s no way she really knew where she was going. But alas, she did! And she’d lead us through doorways that revealed interesting things, like a man who feeds wood chips into a basement furnace that heats a public hammam directly above.

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Or a dorm that housed students at world’s oldest university, which is in Fez.

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Or a beautiful mosque. (Which you cannot go into unless you are Muslim).

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Or this amazing carpet store that is in a mansion of an old riad (Arab home). You must walk through this place if you’re in Fez, and there is very limited pressure to buy anything.

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If it’s your first trip to the Fez medina, visiting the leather tanneries is a must. Fez’s Chouara tannery is one of the oldest in the world.  To get a view of the tannery, you enter any of the leather stores surrounding the tanneries, the top floors of which all have views of the iconic pools of dye.

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Beware, the smell is truly atrocious. My friend and I said it reminded us of the chicken shit smell in a Marrakesh market we’d been to a few days before. And soon we learned why: A major ingredient in the dye is pigeon shit. So, yeah, at least its organic? To cover the smell, the leather store salesmen will give you a robust bunch of mint to shove into your nostrils. It does actually work and look how cute I look with a mintstache.

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I’m the animal rights type of vegetarian, have been for 21 years now, so I’m not about that leather. Avoiding leather has always been a little bit of a struggle when buying shoes and purses, but neither of those compare with the struggle of not buying a fabulous Moroccan leather pouf. Because they are gorgeous, iconic, soft, and they’d just look so good in my apartment. But alas, I’ll stick to my guns on this one. Besides, check out these great carpet poufs I got in Marrakech.

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Practically just as good as a buttery soft goat leather pouf and no animal had to get skinned for it. (Not that I’m in the position to give you leather advice, but we were told the order of suppleness is cow, camel, goat, and that’s why anything made of goat will cost you more money). My friend took home several poufs.

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For my second trip to Fez, Adam and I went for a romantic overnight. En route, we stopped at Volubilia Winery and met friends for fabulous tasting and lunch, and then continued to the Volubilis roman ruins, which are superb (more in a future post). From there we continued on an hour to Fez, through the mountain town of Moulay Idris and  onto a road with stunning views, like this view of the mountain-fringed Sidi Chahed lake.

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We checked in to Riad Rcif, an ornately-tiled riad located deep within the Fez medina.

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There was no way in hell we’d be able to find our riad – remember the old city’s winding pedestrian roads make no sense at all – so we parked in a lot, called our riad and they sent someone to lead us back to our hotel. This is how you do things in Fez. We’d learn this later when we tried to walk ourselves, like fools, to our dinner at Nur. The alleys spoked out from our riad door and we hit four dead ends, each time coming back to our riad door. Finally, we paid a guy to lead us to the restaurant. The  place was started by a guy who grew up not far from me in Michigan, and it’s helmed by a female chef, Najat Kaanache. Nur wowed us. Its high-concept tasting menu was visually gorgeous and actually delicious too. And they did a vegetarian menu for me that was every bit as creative as my husband’s non-veg menu. At $75 a person, it was cheap as far as tasting menus go, but of course we paid more for the wine pairings.

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The restaurant provided us a guide who lead us through all the winding alleys back to the doorstep of our riad. After a day of so much wine and delicious food, we crashed.

The following morning, we did a hammam experience at the spa in Riad Rcif. I’ve done a few of these strangers-scrubs-you-down hammams in my time, but I found this one particularly funny. It was a “couples” hammam, which in this case meant Adam and I went into a small heated room, stripped down to underwear, and a woman alternated between us, dousing us with warm water spurting erratically from ancient pipes and scrubbing our epidermises off. At one point Adam and I discussed whether we should repair the broken sideview mirror on our car with my bare breasts inches from his face as a strange woman vigorously exfoliated my armpits and my underboob. I feigned comfort hard.

Then, we set off, our cleanest and smoothest selves, to try and find some sites on our own, particularly Copper Square, the historic site of coppersmiths. You don’t need to imagine this place from 1,000 years ago, because I don’t think it has changed much.

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I really wanted to locate a lamp store we’d popped into on the first trip, and Adam and I  actually managed to find it.  (I can’t explain to you where it is but if you find Copper Square, you’re not far). Even though the name of Jawad’s shop is L’Art Traditionnel, it’s his more modern designs that I’m really in to, because I haven’t seen that around Morocco yet.

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And I won’t be leaving Morocco without buying one of these brass geometric beauties. (You can reach Jawad at Jawad_bois_wood@hotmail.com or +212-535-635-769).

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Jawad’s son took Adam and I to a nearby little workshop where several of the artisans were making lamps, and the process is so painstaking, you see why these lamps aren’t cheap. (They’re not too expensive either, though).

After a little more walking around, and buying a hand-loomed blanket, paying way too much for a ceramic menorah from “the last remaining Jew in Fez’s old city,”  and eating a “French taco” which is what Moroccans call a panini, we drove back to Rabat.

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A few tips if you’re planning a visit to Fez:  I maintain it is impossible to find your way around the medina on your own, so either just be okay with wandering and finding things when you find them, or hire a guide. (You can email Farida at Faridachaaibi@hotmail.fr). One annoying thing about the Fez medina: Lots of people want to be paid for guiding you somewhere and so people are constantly saying “You’re going the wrong way!” and you don’t know whether to believe them. They likely want to you to pay them to guide you somewhere. Fez’s medina is tricky navigate, but I found it less stressful than Marrkech’s medina because there aren’t a million motorbikes about to run you over at every turn. And a little confusion is worth it because there are beautiful and unique things tucked in every crevice of Fez’s magical medina, you just have to find them.

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To Fez,

Emily

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