I was continuously restless after the five o’clock Adhan and didn’t really sleep properly again so eventually I got up early because to be truthful I was rather anxious to check the weather. At the top of the Riad there was a sun terrace and as I climbed the internal steps I could feel the warmth and brightness spilling through the open door and cascading down the staircase like a waterfall of sunshine and once on top I was rewarded with a perfect blue sky and a view over the whole of the city across rooftops decorated with thousands of satellite dishes all the way to the Atlas Mountains and I was satisfied that it was going to be a fine day.
Hotel breakfasts are always a bit of a lottery I find and they can range from thoroughly disappointing to exceptionally good and I am glad to say that this one was right at the upper end of the scale. There were pancakes and cakes, fresh juice and plenty of tea and coffee and some delicious fresh baked bread and a range of fruity preserves all served with an excellent and satisfying attention to detail.
We were planning a sightseeing tour of the souks today and the previous evening the owner of the Riad suggested that with over nine and a half thousand streets and unmarked alleyways creating a labyrinthine maze where we would be sure to get lost or pestered by local boys offering to show us around that it would probably be a good idea to employ the services of a proper guide who would show us around and look after us. This seemed sensible so we agreed and after breakfast we were introduced to our chaperone, Hussein who, before we left, explained our itinerary for the day that would begin with Abdul driving us out of the Medina to see some places on the outskirts of the city.
Abdul negotiated the narrow streets with impressive precision and through a gate punched into the eleventh century city wall which Hussein explained was fifteen kilometres long and currently under renovation and reconstruction. Fez is one of the four Royal cities of Morocco, the other three are Rabat (the capital), Marrakech and nearby Meknes, it is a UNESCO World Heritage city and claims to have the oldest Medina in the World (although I seem to remember that they told us this in Marrakech last year, so I cannot be certain if this is so).
Abdul drove the taxi along a road with city walls on one side and the gardens and the ochre coloured walls of the Royal Palace on the other. The King lives mostly in Rabat but will visit his other palaces every now and again so there was a heavy presence of military guards at strategic points around the walls. Our first stop was at the ornamental bronze main gates of the palace with carved cedar wood panels and blue tiled arches with elaborate wood and plaster decoration.
It was only a short stop and soon we were driving away from the city towards the Borj Sud or south tower which was once a strategic military fortress built to protect the city but is now no more than a tourist destination because of the fine views all across the city and beyond. We stayed here for a while and then returned to main road through intermittent olive groves where local people were harvesting the fruit in the traditional way by thrashing at the branches with a stout stick and knocking the fruit down onto plastic sheets which covered the ground below the trees.
Hussein explained that Fez is the religious and spiritual capital of Morocco and the theological centre of the country with the oldest Muslim university in the World. He also mentioned that it was the handicraft capital of the country where manufacture was strictly controlled by the government to ensure authenticity and tradition and that he would now take us to a place where Berber people made tiles and pots in a workshop that was run as a cooperative.
The Berbers are a unique ethnic group who live in North Africa, the oldest settlers in the region and quite different from the Arabs of Fez and the rest of Morocco. Squeezed in between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Sahara Desert to the south the Berber communities have developed and thrived in the Atlas Mountains and it now turned out that Hussein himself was a Berber and it seemed likely that we were now being taken to see some of his pals.
The workshop was interesting but it didn’t look to us as though the kilns had been fired up for some time – they don’t fire on Fridays the guide told us but I suspect there would have been the same explanation whichever day of the week we had visited because there was no real evidence of any recent activity. He escorted us through the potters shop and a room with half a dozen men chipping away at tiles to make mosaic pieces and then a man making a traditional table which looked like a million piece jigsaw puzzle.
None of this was authentic of course – it was just a way of deceiving gullible tourists and getting us through as quickly as possible to the pottery shop at the end of the tour where there was an overstocked room with far more items for sale than could ever have been produced by the handful of people allegedly working here. We bought a couple of pieces anyway and after they had been wrapped and paid for we were back in the taxi and returning to the Medina and the historical centre while Hussein calculated the commission that he would return and collect later.