Vendors making pastilla in Fes's bustling medina.
  • Vendors making pastilla in Fes's bustling medina.
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Fes is my favorite city in Morocco. It has the best-preserved medina in the Arab world – dating back to the 14th century – as well as being one the largest living medieval cities in the world. It's considered the handicraft capital of Morocco, an excellent spot for travelers in need of retail therapy.

With 9,400 unnamed alleys and 350 mosques, the medina in Fes is Morocco's oldest and biggest. We hired a local guide for the day to take us to the various souks, markets and handicraft vendors.

Our first stop was a pottery shop, where we watched craftsmen make pottery on a pottery wheel and workers sitting on the ground meticulously chipping tile into shapes for mosaic pieces. After the shapes are formed, the workers sand them smooth and lay them upside down to make a table. We also watched the process of clay being soaked in water and then laid out in square bricks, and finally the finished pottery pieces being painted.

From there we entered the medina. This medina is like the biggest corn maze on the face of the earth. Not even a mouse in search of Swiss is coming back out without a local guide. GPS will not help you. The markets are a Willy Wonka factory of food. Women are busy making layers of dough for pastilla: they lay a pancake-thin layer of dough on what looks like a hot bald head to bake. There are booths piled high with fresh fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and pyramids of spices.

If you're looking for really fresh meat, the chickens are tied together by their feet and laying on the ground. If you’re an adventurous eater, you can sample cow's feet cut off at the knee and standing up straight, or heads of goats and camels with eyeballs staring at you. Bags of snails are hanging from the ceiling and sold after they've fasted for three days in order to remove the impurities.

The alleyways are crowded with people, and too small for vehicles, so donkeys carry merchandise to their destinations.

Tannery dye pits in Fes.

Tannery dye pits in Fes.

My favorite stop was the tannery. We were given a sprig of mint to put under our noses because the smell was pretty potent. We were told that we were lucky to be there in the afternoon; the odor can be especially flowerful in the morning.

Hides come from camel, goat, sheep or cow, with the softness and expense of the leather in that order as well. The hides are first soaked in limestone to burn off the fur for one week, then washed and dried. (The leftover fur is used for stuffing mattresses.) Then the hide is put in a vat of pigeon excrement and water to make the leather soft. Next, the leather is put into dye pits, where men stomp the color into the leather. The color comes from spices: saffron for yellow, pomegranate for red, turmeric for brown, etc.

I had to buy a purse here. I was very proud of myself for bargaining from 180 durhams down to 70, until Manuella told me that she got hers for 50. In the medina you can also drop off old clothes to be re-colorized in vats of dye – either refresh an old color or completely change the color of your garment.

Trying on headwraps in the scarf-making shop.

Trying on headwraps in the scarf-making shop.

Our next stop was the silk and wool scarf-making shop, where men were weaving scarves with an old-style manual machine. The silk's made with the cactus agave plant. Here we had a group picture taken with our Muslim headdress.

Our final destination was a pharmacy and spice store. The pharmacist presented us with various spices, lotions and potions and explained what everything was for. He even had remedies to stop snoring and stuffy nose. We smelled all the spices and tried on several of the lotions. Shopkeepers in the spice markets make special mixtures containing from 10-100 spices; each has their own secret recipe.

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Javajoe25 June 28, 2013 @ 9:29 p.m.

What a magical place this sounds like. I was in Morroco many years ago but did not see this place. I'll have to get back there for another look. Tell me, Karen, any idea how the agave plant contributed to the silk? That has me curious.

Great article.


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