First our hotel didn't have a room for us, even though I'd phoned ahead to reserve and phoned again to confirm. Pension Batha, hang your head in shame. Then, desperate for food, we endd up in a typique Moroccain restaurant which served delicious food, but added on some ridiculous surcharges, bumping up the already overexpensive price. Beware the typique Moroccain restaurants! Add to that a few unpleasant run-ins with bumfluffed manchild hustlers - "You don't tell me to go away in my own country!" "Stop following me around then!" etc - and it looked like Fes would be the undoing of us. But thanks to the mostly friendly people, extraordinariness of the city, and metred petit taxis, all turned out good.
Two particular highlights were the Bou Inania Medersa, a truly grand 14th century school / mosque, and the Choura tanneries, where leather has been made for centuries.
The Medersa, built under Sultan Abou Inan, apparently cost a truckload of money to make. It shows. It's hard not to wander round it with your mouth open. The Sultan apparently threw the bills in the river when they arrived, saying, "A thing of beauty is beyond reckoning." I imagine, in reply, the builders said something like, "Yeah. But where's our money?" Abou Inan clearly couldn't get enough when it came to things of beauty: he reportedly fathered around 325 sons in 10 years.
Our visit to the Choura tanneries was a strange but fascinating experience. You can see the dying taking place from nearby rooftops and watch skinny-legged men knee deep in various-coloured pools of dye plunge skins into the liquid. Walk down a filthy alley, with a small river of dirty water running down it and donkeys waiting with piles of pelts tied to their backs and you can see it all - and smell it all from ground level, though you have to grease the palm of the gardien to get in: "Twenty for entrance, twenty for the people." For the people? Yeah, right.
There's an awesome description of all this - and the extreme voyeurism the visit entails - in the Rough Guide. I've included it below, as it's one of those great bits when the guidebook goes both eloquent and profound:
There is a compulsive fascination about the tanneries. Cascades of water pour through holes that were once the windows of houses; hundreds of skins lie spread out to dry on the rooftops; while amid the vats of dye and pigeon dung (used to treat leather) an unbelievably gothic fantasy is enacted.
The process can best be seen from surrounding terrace rooftops, where you'll be directed along with other tourists. There is, oddly enough, a kind of sensuous beauty about it - for all the stench and voyeurism involved. Sniffing the mint that you are handed as you enter (to alleviate the nausea) and looking across at the others doing the same, however, there could hardly be a more pointed exercise in the nature of comparative wealth. Like it or not, this is tourism at its most extreme.
Days 4-7: Marrakesh