“Balek! Balek!” (Watch out) Shouts my guide Mohammed as he grabs me out of the pathway of an oncoming donkey on a mission!
Laden down with animal hides from the tanneries, the donkey was on a route march to the local factory, the area of the Jewish quarter of the medina in Fez where cars are not allowed to enter. Many of the alleyways are so narrow here (some only a shoulder width apart), so even to this day everything is transported by donkey or mule. The sounds, colours and smell all awaken my senses as we meander through the labyrinth streets of the souks and I quickly lose track of my bearings as the towering city walls close in around me. I am just pleased that I have Mohammed with me as I would never find my way back to my riad. There are over 9,000 alleyways here and even the locals have to ask for directions.
Everywhere I look there is something interesting to see or photograph with each craft having its own area. In the meat and vegetable quarter, goat’s heads are on display which can be bought as unassumingly as a bag of rice (A local delicacy so I am told). Men dressed in their galabeyas with pointed hoods are sat around drinking mint tea and gossiping over the latest news of the day, surrounded by huge bags of fragrant spices and the vibrant colours of fresh herbs and vegetables. In the silver and brass section I can hear the echoing sounds of the craftsmen beating the brass into large cooking pots. I know I am at the tanneries way before I can see them, as the smell of urine and pigeon guano lingers in the alleys. As I climb the stairs to the viewing platform I am offered a fresh sprig of mint to disguise the pungent smell. Perhaps not such a good idea to visit straight after a heavy lunch of couscous and tagine! But the reward is worth it, to see the vibrant colours of the dyes, and to witness the traditional methods for making leather.
For a first time visit to this authentic and lively city, I highly recommend a guide for at least half a day to get the most out of your time here, but for the fearless there is much fun to be had getting lost and interacting with the locals as you ask for directions or just finding somewhere for dinner.