Inside the old city of fez

We took a private car from Chefchaouen to Fez, a ride that normally takes four hours. Our driver Mohammed was the most aggressive motorist I have ever ridden with, and we completed the white knuckle ride in less than three hours. We were only too glad to climb out of that old Mercedes alive.
A young man from our hotel came out to the car park to meet us, because motor vehicles are not permitted inside the walls of the old city. He hailed another fellow with a wheelbarrow-type cart, and piled our luggage into it. Off we went, a little parade, chasing after our bags down the crooked dim alleys. At one point the passage narrowed so much that the cart would no longer fit, and the porter and Craig valiantly hauled the stuff by hand. (Remember, by this time I have been shopping for two weeks. Things were getting heavy.) Then he turned into such a dark alley that I thought, this is it. We are about to become the subject of one of those tourist horror stories. A few yards farther, the porter pulled out a set of keys, and unlocked a massive door that magically opened into a sunny courtyard with a lovely seating area lined with orange trees laden with fruit. It was a magical transformation.
Dar Saffarine is a 700 year old structure that was vacant and abandoned for twenty-five years before Alaa, the current owner, began the three year renovation that brought it to its present glory. We had reserved a room off the main courtyard, but Alaa informed us that since we were the only guests that night, he had upgraded us to the suite. “Please consider this your palace, and you are the king and queen,” our gracious host smiled.
Dar Saffarine is breathtaking. The ceilings in the bedrooms must be twenty feet high, and the center courtyard opens to the roof, at least fifty feet above. The original woodwork and mosaics have been meticulously restored to their former glory. Alaa has furnished his home with beautiful pieces of intricately carved furniture: shelves, mirrors, arm chairs, and occasional tables. Finely woven rugs help warm the chilly tile floors, and finely worked, colorful embroidery decorates the sheets, pillow covers, and drapes. The bathrooms have modern amenities, and hot water, much to our relief. (That is something not taken for granted in many of the places we have visited.)
We have spent our days in Fez wandering the medina, both with a guide and on our own. We spent day one with a wonderful guide, Sadiki, who gave us an excellent orientation to the various traditional crafts that still exist in Fez, although just barely. The streets and squares are named after the craftsmen who practice their trade. So for example, our hotel, Dar Saffarine, is just off Saffarine Square, which is the neighborhood of the metal workers. Silver, copper, and brass objects abound here, and the name Saffarine, or saffron, refers to the yellow color of the brass. There are still a good number of metal workers, because everyone must have a tea pot, or copper pots and pans. However, the comb maker is the last of his kind.
At 85 years old, he has no wish to retire, and in fact he still goes to the slaughterhouse to choose the cow horns he uses, sometimes selecting specimens still attached to their owners. He then makes little bottles out of the tips, to hold kohl eyeliner popular with the women here. The large part of the horn is cut open, heated, and flattened in a vise. The comb maker creates hair ornaments too, and his comb handles are whimsically shaped rabbits, camels, and fish. In 2013, he was interviewed for a NY Times article, which we happened to have with us. When we gave him the paper with his picture, he was delighted. When he is no longer in business, the street will be renamed to reflect the end of an era.
Our guide Sadiki showed us the inter-relatedness of the craftsmen. The sharpener keeps everyone’s tools sharp with his grinding stone. The woodworker makes handles for everyone’s tools, and stools that the workmen sit on. The metal smith makes the blades for the tools. As we visited the tiny workshops, people continuously popped in and out to purchase the service that they required. The stores were no more than small caves, or cutouts in the wall of a building. It seemed inconceivable that someone would spend the entire day in such a confined space, never mind fifty or sixty years. Sadiki joked with the shoemaker about having a room with a view – his was the only shop we saw that boasted a window. He was busily making the traditional pointed-toe slippers that most Moroccans wear, in sunshine yellow leather. He was working on a large order of this color, because all the government cabinet ministers wore yellow slippers with their formal white robes. He reached for a pair he had just finished, and told me to try them on. They fit like a glove, so for 200 dirhams I bought my first pair of handmade shoes. It probably took him the better part of the day to cut the uppers from goat skin, the soles from cow hide, and to stitch them together using two needles, and I purchased the fruit of that labor for 20 dollars.
On to Marrakech in the morning!







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