In this week’s guest post, fellow Lonely Planet writer Helen Ranger of The View of Fez takes us for a Saturday morning wander around her adopted city of Fez in Morocco. Join Helen on a stroll through the medina and find out what a typical day in Fez looks like.
SATURDAY MORNING IN THE FEZ MEDINA
Remember that old song, ‘There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza’? I was humming that gently to myself this morning, thinking of my father singing it when I was a child. It brought a smile to my lips. Well, what would you do if you had a hole in your bucket? If you live in the Fez medina, you take it to Monsieur Tazi who made it for you in the first place. Mind you, it’s a very special bucket, made of cedarwood, and used to pour water over yourself in the hammam, the traditional Moroccan steam bath. I have a couple in my bathroom that I use to store towels and soaps. They look great and smell wonderful. A metal band has come off and the bottom has fallen out, so it has to be repaired. Monsieur Tazi is pretty famous, being the last cedarwood hammam bucket maker in the country. All the smart spas in Marrakech order their buckets from him.
On my way down the street, I pass the usual places and smell the usual smells that I’ve come to take for granted. First there’s a small yard built around a natural spring, and it’s here that tanners wash the freshly flayed sheepskins before taking them to be dyed. Mules transport huge piles of skins up and down the street and it doesn’t smell too good. Where else, though, can you hear mules clip-clopping past your house all day?
Down a bit further is the ferran, the neighbourhood’s community oven. Bread is made here for distribution to local shops, and women take their loaves to be baked just before lunch. You’ll often see women or children bearing trays with flat loaves covered with a cloth, on their way to the ferran. A much better smell emanates from this area. If you want some slow-roasted aubergines or peppers, or even a leg of lamb, you can bring it here and ask the bakers to cook it for you, for around a Euro or less.
Further down the street I meet Abderrahim who has an antique/junk shop has to show me a tarma that he’s just bought. A tarma is like a room divider, made of cedarwood, and decorated with turned spindles and carving. This one is thick with turquoise paint that Abderrahim is gradually removing. They’re from old Jewish homes, usually in Sefrou which is about 30km from Fez. Most often a tarma was used to divide the meat from the dairy in a kosher kitchen. While I admire it, I’m not in the market for one and this splendid specimen, probably around 300 years old, will fetch at least 2500 Euros. And that’s just in Morocco: it would be hugely more expensive in Europe.
Back on my journey through the medina, I come to the fountain where a natural spring is fed into a large trough. Should you have a stallion (or even just a mule), this is where you come to wash it. Often the stallions have bright hennaed manes and tails, which means they’re the ones used for weddings. For such occasions, they’re decked out in red and gold brocade saddles and bridles and the groom rides it to the ceremony. The horses are used for circumcisions too; the little boy (usually around 2 years old) rides with his father to the mosque.
Local women come to the fountain to fill up their buckets with water. All houses are plumbed these days, but this water is free so it’s sometimes worth the effort of lugging all those buckets through the streets.
Turning right, I carry on through a dark passageway held up by the ubiquitous scaffolding that supports falling-down buildings. I come out onto the main shopping street, but can’t remember if I should turn left down the hill, or right up it. I’ve lived here for five years, but still have the capacity to get lost in the maze of tiny streets. I ask in a shop, and am directed up the hill. Yes, there is Monsieur Tazi in his kennel-sized shop, the floor of which is five feet off the ground. He hops up and sits cross-legged to tap away at his cedarwood buckets, pretty agile for man who must be at least 70. Breathing in the delectable scent of the cedarwood, I show him my delapidated bucket. It will be ready tomorrow.
To wend my way homewards, I carry on up the hill, stopping off to buy an English-language newspaper at the only vendor in the medina. I turn right at the snail stall. Here Bahou Hasnaoui plies his trade from a home-made stall. There’s a large cauldron bubbling away, full of spicy broth and snails. There are plates of lemon-halves stuck with safety-pins and piles of bowls. The idea is that you buy a bowlful and use a pin to ease the snails from their shells, and then drink the broth from the bowl. The steam has a pleasantly warming smell, but I have to admit I’ve not tried the contents of the cauldron.
Just near my house, I stop off at the honey souk. It’s located in a very old fondouk, or caravanserai where traders used to come to sell their goods. There’s a large central courtyard where the trade would have taken place and the beasts of burden, mules, donkeys and camels, would have been tethered. Upstairs are rooms along the verandahs where the traders would have lodged. This particular souk specialises in honey and khlie. That’s another Moroccan delicacy that I try to avoid. It’s dried lamb or beef strips preserved in fat and sold in plastic tubs. But it’s the honey I’m making a beeline for. I have the beginnings of a sore throat, and there’s one particular honey that’s well-known for its therapeutic properties, made from euphorbia flowers. You can ask to taste the honeys – in the back of the shop are huge blue plastic drums full of all different types: lavender, rosemary, mountain flowers, carob, orange blossom, thyme, fig, even caper, and, of course, the euphorbia. You’ll be given a small tasting spoon that you can dip into each one. The spoon is not changed between dips and has probably been used by plenty of other people. Ah well, they do say that honey is antibiotic. I taste mine at home; it has a slightly medicinal flavour with a warming, almost burning sensation in the back of the throat. Perfect.