A Parisian Miscellany

We are in Paris all week for work, and most of the sightseeing we will be doing will be snatched minutes between meetings and venue and site visits. So I’m just posting some of my favourite pictures of all the super recognisable places that don’t need any much explaining into this post and will probably share it at the end of the week. Paris has such a famous skyline that hardly any of these buildings and monuments need a title, let alone a description.

The Eiffel Tower seems to have received a fresh coat of paint in readiness for the Olympics. It’s looking the best I’ve ever seen it. It is however, all closed off around the base, so you can’t walk around underneath it like normal at the moment, and most of the long park behind it (where one goes for that typical long shot of the Eiffel Tower) is all closed off in readiness for the Games also – they are erecting grandstands along the park and we think this is the venue for beach volleyball? But haven’t been able to confirm that – scratch that, it’s confirmed. Beach volleyball is happening in that park.

L’Arc de Triomphe…

Views from the top. Obviously I couldn’t go up with my fucked up knee… stupidly there is an elevator that will get you most of the way to the top, but given the AdT is on the world’s craziest and most notorious traffic roundabout, to get to the base of the monument, you need to go down a significant flight of stairs, go under the roundabout in a pedestrian walkway, and then up another significant flight of stairs to access the lift that goes up the monument. Well, done Paris. Yes, you’re an old city, designed without accessibility in mind, but that’s fucking stupid.

Train station under the Louvre to get to the CBD.

No one ever sends home their happy snaps of the Paris CBD… wonder why that is. Honestly, could be the downtown area of any modern city.

Market stalls lining the Seine… these are so typically, ‘Paris’ to me. I remember them so well from my first visit here in 1995. Back when I had 28 rolls of film to last me for a six month trip and taking photos was done sparingly! So I recall seeing mundane things like market stall and not taking any photos of them because we needed to save our shots for more interesting subjects. I also remember the processing cost when you got home, oh and the stress that the airport security x-ray machines were going to trash all your treasured images. I really should go dig up all my old travel pics and digitise them somehow.

A half hour spent shopping at La Samaritane… went in to see the peacock murals, came out having utterly brutalised the credit card! Spontaneous luxury shopping centres and unmedicated ADHD are a powerful combination apparently. 😉

Nearly bought a Tiffany key to go with my other ones, but it was only in rose gold, and my other two are yellow gold. It would have made a nice collection: Home, Paris, Fifth Avenue in New York, but I don’t do rose gold. When Mr K bought me that first key, I warned him that keys come in bunches…

Love the peacocks.

French jewllers… Van Cleef & Arpels. Beautiful and timeless pieces.

Back outside and heading back to the hotel (not sure which day)… I love that they haven’t modernised all the Metro signage.

More magasins along the Seine, selling touristy bits and pieces…

… and this one stall selling French Michelin guides from every year from the 1960s.

Early morning pics of the Louvre… where only crazy people (and Chinese bridal parties with their photographers and stylists), venture this early.

Mr K taking a selfie.

The Musée D’Orsay from the bridge.

Notre-Dame is still under repair… they were hoping for it to be open by the Olympics, but they’re looking to be six months behind schedule on that one and it’s now aiming to be open by Dec 2024. I wonder how different it will feel once it’s completed.

It’s truly an iconic building and it’s hard to believe that at one point in it’s history, the city considered tearing it down to avoid the cost of upkeep.

I’m not sure about the super modern colour scheme that Paris has chosen for their Olympics, it certainly makes the city look bright and different for the locals, but for visitors? I feel it detracts from the city’s old world charm.

Thus ends our week in Paris.

Only other observation I wanted to make note of, is that the Charles de Gaulle Airport is a full on dump compared to other international airports. It also feels stupidly haphazard with weird exit processes… mostly around VAT tax refunds etc – which all need to be done *before* you check in your suitcases, creating a crazy hectic and illogical situation where you have heaps of people lined up with enormous trolleys to get paperwork processed across two levels of the airport which has elevators barely large enough to put one person and one airport trolley into, and the little guys handing out cash refunds never asking anyone to show them the actual duty free purchases anyway, because who has time for that when you’re processing paperwork?! Weird.

We managed to see quite a bit of the city while we were here. Which was great.

In Bruges

I slept like a dead thing last night – was much needed and much appreciated. Work travel is all good and well, but when the work back home (or in this case, in the Middle East) keeps going and you’re on even more unusual time zones that you’re accustomed to, it just creates different challenges.

We were up early hoping to see a few things in the morning so we could be back to work this afternoon. First up was the obligatory canal boat ride, to see a bit of the city from the waterways. Apparently 8 million people visited Bruges last year and it sounds like nearly all of them did the short boat trip on the canal which takes little over 30 minutes.

What a glorious day! Saint John Nepomuk, patron saint of boatmen, bridges, priests and all men who have something in common on the water.

Gruuthuse Palace named for the wealthiest family in Bruges in the 15thC.

The Djiver Marketplace, where markets are held every weekend in the summer.

This is the Spiegelrei (Mirror Quay) and it sits just opposite the Jan Van Eyck square with its statue (c.1878), and the “Poorterloge” with its tower.

Pelikaan (N°8) is a pediment house which features a pelican feeding its children with its own blood. It is the symbol of charity and these houses were created as social housing in the 15thC – they are still social housing, even though tiny houses along those canals are worth upwards of €800k.

The Church of Our Lady dominates the skyline on this side of town – it’s a beautiful building.

Palais du Franc is a former law court, now turned museum… like most of the beautiful old buildings in Bruges.

So the building below is the one that Colin Farrel jumped out of in the movie, ‘In Bruges’, which is part of the same hotel we are staying it… you can see our hotel window in this picture – it is the left window of the two with the white painted frames, just to the right of the shot. It’s a great little spot, with fantastic restaurants just downstairs, music and a great ambiance all round. It’s always nice to choose somewhere to stay and it turns out nicer than you had even hoped.

Every visitor to Bruges seems to come to this little point beside the canal for a now Insta-famous selfie spot.

Gabled rooflines were used as a symbol of seigneurial housing, and became the fashion of the powerful bourgeoisie of the free market towns.

Bricked in windows were also evident along the canals – for those who don’t know, many European countries established a window tax, as a way of taxing the rich, and for some people, they took to bricking up their windows to minimise their tax burden on their windows. It sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. It’s also where the term ‘daylight robbery’ comes from.

Tanner’s House.

Bruges’ swan population have been seen as a symbol of the city’s power and wealth since the 16thC.

After our short boat ride, we made our way to the Church to see the Madonna.

Bruge’s ‘Church of Our Lady’ is a Roman Catholic church dating mainly to the 13th to 15th centuries. It has a 115m tower that remains the tallest structure in Bruges and is apparently the third tallest brickwork* tower in the world (after two in Germany)… *not to be confused with stone work edifices.

The construction of the church is in a high gothic style with flying buttresses, which were constructed in 1270-1280. It has an impressive black and white marble floor throughout and several baroque style chapels emanating from the main nave.

Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Philippe Bernaerdt, 1660. Bruges. Oil on canvas.

Confessionals. Jacob Berger and Ludo Hagheman. 1697. Oak.
This heavily ornate row of baroque confessionals is considered one of the most beautiful example of its kind in existence. The figures represent numerous saints – St Jerome, St Augustine, Faith, St John, St Catharine of Alexandria, as well as the Virgin and Child and St Anne and St Peter.

De Baenst Chapel… named after the a prominent Bruges family.

Passion triptych, Bernard of Orley and Marcus Gerards, c1534. Oil on panel.
Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy died at Nancy in 1477 and was finally laid to rest here in 1563. This painting was commissioned by his granddaughter, Margaret of Austria for the tomb of her own husband, Philibert II Duke of Savoy. Unfortunately the artist, Orley died before he could complete it and it was instead finished by Marcus Gerards the Elder and was later transferred to this chancel for Charles the Bold. It depicts the crucifixion, and side panels featuring the flagellation, the Way of the Cross, the Harrowing of Hell and the Lamentation. Waste not, want not, I guess.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Jean-Baptiste de Bethune. C.1863
*Interestingly, Bethune was the nephew of the then Bishop of the church and scored the job of decorating the sacristy from sheer nepotism. He created this entire space in the English style complete with murals and stained glass. They must have been happy with his work as he scored commissions for two more chapels of stained glass after this one.

Tomb of Mary of Burgundy, createdby Jan Borman and Reiner van Thienen. Gilded and enamelled by Pierre de Beckere. 1490-1502, Bruges.
Mary of Burgundy died after falling from her horse on 27 March, 1482 at the Prinsenhof (Ducal Palace) in Bruges. She was only 25 years old, but had ruled the Low Countries since the death of her father, Charles the Bold in 1477. She specifically requested to be buried in the Church of Our Lady. Her husband, Maximilian of Austria, commissioned this tomb in 1490 in a Gothic design. The side panels show her family tree on both her mother’s and father’s side.

While Charles has lions at his feet, his daughter Mary has two rather stunned looking puppies keeping her company in her skirts.

Coats of Arms of the Knights of the Golden Fleece
Pieter Coustain and Jan Hennecart, 1468, Bruges. Oil on panels.
Above the baroque choir stalls are 30 coats of arms of the prestigious Knights of the Golden Fleece. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy founded the order in 1430 on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal.

From 8-10th of May 1468, the order held its meeting in this church and Charles the Bold presided over that meeting. Usually, a member of the order was retained for life, but could be expelled for failure to adhere to the rules of the order. Charles the Bold’s nephew, John of Burgundy was at one point, expelled. His coat of arms were painted black and removed from the choir stalls – the reason for his expulsion was said to be heresy and straying from the faith.

Tomb of Charles the Bold.
Worked by Jacques Jonghelinck (c.1558-1562), Bruges.
While the design of this tomb is extremely similar to that of his daughter’s, it was made nearly 70 years later and shows many signs of typical the Renaissance style – the style of his armour etc.

I can’t get over the detail on his garments – the textures applied that represent heavily embroidered clothing suitable for the noble classes and the expensive fabrics they favoured.

I found these two beautiful embroideries just outside the chancel that held the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy – unfortunately there was no information available on them, and the musuem staff didn’t know much about them either. They are definitely Opus Anglicanum in style (the 3/4 figures and the elongated hands are very typical of that time frame) and the stitch work is definitely congruous with that supposition – but that could mean they are works from as early as the 13thC. Surely, they wouldn’t just be hanging on the wall in regular daylight if they were 700 years old…? Perhaps they are a fairly accomplished but more recent reproductions done in that style. Very curious…

This, second object was also similarly convincing.

The Madonna of Bruges is definitely the highlight of this cathedral. Sculpted by Michelangelo between 1501 to 1504, it is said to be one of the rare few items of his work that left Italy during his lifetime. It is in an usual arrangement for this subject matter – normally the Virgin and Child motif show a pious mother cradling and looking down on her child, but here you see Baby Jee standing unsupported and appearing almost ready to wander off. It has the typical early 16thC High Renaissance pyramid composition style frequently seen in works from the late 1400s onwards.

The Madonna has been removed twice from Belgium, after originally having been purchased by two wealthy cloth merchants (Giovanni and Alessandro Moscheroni) for 100 ducats in 1504… once during the French Revolution in 1794 and citizens of Bruges were ordered to ship it and other valuables to Paris. It was returned after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. It was again removed in 1944 during WWII, with the retreat of German soldiers who smuggled it into an Austrian salt mine in Altaussee, where it was found a year later. Seems between this beautiful statue and the Ghent Altarpieces, we are inadvertently doing ‘The Monuments Men’ art tour of the Low Countries. It is stunningly beautiful, and most obviously a huge cut above the other statuary in the church.

Procession of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Snows. Anton Claeissens. 1575. Oil on panel.
This painting draws inspiration from the 4thC legend that Mary is said to have caused a miraculous snowfall on Mount Esquiline, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, in the middle of summer. She wanted to indicate that a church should be built for her on that spot, apparently.

This beautiful little random fresco on the actual wall of the church didn’t have any description accompanying it… but I was quite enamoured with the delicate calligraphy and how well preserved the colours were.

Popping back out into the daylight after the somber shuffling inside a cathedral/musuem like this, can often be a bit jarring. Bruges has certainly turned on a beautiful day for us and we wandered around town for a while checking out the architecture and of course, the famous belfry.

Oddly enough, at 83m high and 366 tiny winding steps, I shan’t be climbing it with this fooked knee of mine. All good, just means it stays on my list and I’ll have to come back. Maybe I’ll see if Mr K wants to climb it tomorrow. 🙂

Bruges has more chocolate shops than I have EVER seen in my life. There must be over 50 of them within a 500m radius of our hotel, they are everywhere.

We walked around behind the belfry to hunt for a more out of the way, quite spot for lunch. Everything here is at full on tourist prices, which I don’t mind so much, so long as you’re also able to get something quality for your Euro. We are skipping dinner tonight, so a decent lunch is the plan.

We found a nice cafe called Tompouce – Mr K was exceedingly happy with his large blonde beer that came out in a glass almost as big as his head.

Flemish stew – rich and delicious gravy with slow cooked beef.

Beef meatballs in a tomato sauce with mashed potatoes. There – dinner is done!

After our meal, we wandered around a bit, taking more pics of the architecture and searching out the hidden little nooks and crannies of the back streets. Bruges is super pretty and being a medieval town, it’s a rabbit warren of little treasures around every corner.

Ah, these pics are for Angus – he said he wanted me to bring back Belgian chocolates for him – but tbh, I woudln’t know where to start! I don’t really eat chocolate myself, and there is so many varieties on offer, it’s kinda overwhelming to try and choose something… plus, who asks for a gift from overseas that is 1) perishable, and 2) cost by the 100gms?! Doesn’t he know I have a luggage allowance to consider! 😉

I finally found the perfect chocolate present… though I dare say these aren’t the same quality as the fancy truffles above.

I also stumbled into a tapestry shop, Mille Fleur’s Tapestries, which contained all locally woven products… so many beautiful things in here, though I didn’t allow myself to get too far into the back of the shop where the obviously large and impressive pieces were. Instead, In content myself with a small Cushion Agenda… I found two fabulous designs based on the Bayeaux Tapestry, which of course, Mr K had absolutely no Cushion Opinon on, and so I have bought a couple for our media room at home. There were even Mondrian designs for BigSal, but I resisted… this time.

Back to Marrakech

We had a lovely relaxed morning in Essaouira yesterday before making our way back to Marrakech by public bus.  I knew that this trip had some public transport in it – and initially, I was thinking, ‘Well, that could really suck’.  But turns out I was concerned for no reason… this is not Turkey c.2007 apparently – the bus driver is not allowed to smoke, use his phone and drive in the middle of the road here – so me and Moroccoan ONCF bus services can remain friends. The transit was the best type of transit. Uneventful.

Our group checked into our various hotels – most of us at the Moroccan House Hotel in Marrakech, and we checked into the Trois Palmieres, some four doors up from the rest of the group.  There was something about the very noisy electrical box in Room 45 that made us feel like the hotel might burst into flames or electrocute one of us when plugging in a phone that made us not want to stay there again.  We had informed Intrepid, but they didn’t seem to share our safety concern, so we just ended up repaying for the booking.  It was a good move; worrying about spontaneous combustion is rarely conducive to sleep (all that watching the bushfires unfold on the news back home was probably not helping).

Tonight was the last night of our tour and a farewell dinner with the group.  Across the two back to back groups, we have been fortunate to be travelling with simply wonderful groups of people, from London, New Zealand, Brisbane, California, Melbourne, South Africa, Quebec, Ukraine, Greece and Victoria, BC.  And of course, our Intrepid leader, Samirr who is originally from the High Atlas Mountains, but now lives in Marrakech.  We don’t usually do group tours like this, so were pleasantly surprised to have met such a lovely bunch of people – we have been duly warned by others who have travelled with Intrepid, G-Adventures and Peregrine a lot, that this is not always the case!  Most of them were seriously happy to have been with such a harmonious group too. We had a lovely dinner, shared contact details and there were hugs all around.  It’s weird how you can get to know people so quickly – I’m going to miss my morning hug from Chris.

Anyway, we had some work today do while in Marrakech, and then it was one last foray into the medina for some last-minute shopping. I have to admit that after our madhouse experience here just before New Years, I wasn’t really looking forward to it.  I mean, we were told that town is busy on the weekends, and it would be much quieter when we came back on a Tuesday… but even I hadn’t anticipated this quiet: Gone was the soundstage with the makeshift concert venue set up for 40,000 people, gone were most of the snake charmers, monkey handlers, watermen, spruikers, and the heaving tide of humanity that we pushed through when we were here last.  The place was just eeriely quiet.  This is 10am on a Tuesday in Marrakech’s main square!

Even once we dove into the medina, it was predominantly empty!  Which was both great – no crowds of locals and tourist to push through, and also not great – we were the lone target for the few pushy shopkeeps we did encounter.
Literally, shop after shop, empty. Guess what Dr Nick?  I have made it through three weeks in Morocco surrounded by gorgeous pashmina and haven’t bought a single one!  Not even under the pretence that it’s a gift for someone else… who would have thought such a thing could ever happen!  🙂 
After our rather quiet (and I have to admit, pleasant) trip into the medina, we went to pick up some laundry and do a few errands before it was back to the hotel to play Tetris with the luggage – that’s always my job.  Making it all fit in.  We normally make sure we don’t buy things that need to be declared when coming back into Australia – it always just reeks of too much effort when you’re shattered from the long haul, but the handicrafts here have defeated us and we have several things that need to be declared, so I have carefully packed those for easy access at customs.

Saw this sign and remembered that I have failed to mention that Morocco still has barber-surgeons… you go to the barber for your haircuts, shaves and basic dentistry etc.  Yeah… you first. Spent the afternoon getting some work underway and packing.  After that, though, we were too stuffed to go out to hunt and gather for food.  So this is what we ordered from room service at our hotel – a Scillian pizza (with way too much capsicum and missing the requested anchovies), a kefta tagine (which was very tasty) and some Moroccan goats cheese and herb briouats (little filo pastry pies).  It was extremely tasty.

I’ve found a nice looking recipe for a kefta tagine that I’m going to have to try out when I get home.  https://tasteofmaroc.com/moroccan-meatball-tagine-tomato-sauce/
After this, we managed to find a movie on the TV, (‘Man on a Ledge’, in English) and aimed for an early night.  So much for that!  Woke up at 04:17 and haven’t been able to get back to sleep which seriously sucks when I am facing a 24hr+ transit starting around 11:00.  :/

Chefchaouen – Shopping and the Kasbah

If you’re over the crazy blue walls and doors of Chefchaouen, then I suggest you close this now and come back tomorrow… this place has me entranced and this post is all:  blue, blue, and bluer!  🙂

We had a free day today to potter around this gorgeous little town and decided we would have a lazy start to the day today.  Attempted to sleep in – unsuccessfully which is no real surprise (my back is just not happy, especially seeing I’ve had to leave some medications at home) and we eventually went out to the terrace restaurant for breakfast around 9ish.

This is the view that greeted us from the terrace restaurant at the hotel over breakfast. Our room is the bottom one here – we were given the top floor, but gave it to Tess and Karl when I decided I didn’t really feel like walking up six flights of stairs every time we came and went from our room. After breakfast, we ran into Jake and Tyson, who were chilling out using the wifi in a little fabric lined antechamber off the hotel lobby.  They’re from California, both in college and travelling with their lovely grandparents, Chris and Allan.  They’re really nice guys, though sometimes listening to how they talk to each other makes me laugh.  They’re sure making themselves comfortable… Christian may be the only person we beat to breakfast, he’s from Quebec, and here he is looking out over the view from the terrace restaurant.

Anyway, there were only a few things on the very loose agenda today:  1) Get my phone to a Maroc Telecom and figure out why my SIM card is only ever getting 3G reception, 2) potter around the medina and have a good poke around the handicraft shops, 3) check out the Kasbah this afternoon and 4) buy a djouba (or two)

So we set off trying a different way to get around town through some less touristy worn streets to find the Maroc Telecom.  It was a 15 min walk or so and mostly downhill.  I have to say, Morocco needs to smarten its act up a bit on their stairs – we haven’t really seen a flight of stairs that are ‘regular height’ so it’s quite hard on the knees and ankles when going downhill, especially if you miscalculate the height of the step.

On our way to the telco, we wandered through some more residential type areas, which were just as blue as the main touristy streets. We met a lovely lady at the Maroc Telecom who was able to assist me with my 4G problem, in spite of my halting French.  She told me that my SIM wasn’t properly activated and promptly fixed it.  Service with a smile from a telco – who knew such things even existed?  After we left there, we decided to take a taxi around to the top of the springs where we pretty much started yesterday’s walk – it wasn’t much farther than we had just come, but it was all uphill through the very winding streets, and today was supposed to be a chill day – so we shelled out the exorbitant AUD$3 for a Petit Taxi.  Got to the top and there were men selling photos with their birds… I managed to sneak a picture of the guy’s peacock – but the guy standing beside an ostrich taller than he was, eluded me. And so we wandered through the narrow pedestrian walkways of the medina checking out the wares lining the streets… so many beautiful handmade things, so many beautiful blue alleys and so many very fancy doorways.
If felt like there were fewer people around this morning than yesterday evening – not sure if that was the case or if it was because we were trying to wander through the backstreets a bit more, but every time we stumbled back onto the main thoroughfares, it was not particularly crowded. Very fancy and intricate painting on these doors… my image shrinker has lost a lot of the detail, unfortunately. Souvenir hand-embroidered cloths. Me – standing in a very short, very blue, doorway. There were so many very funky hand-knitted beanies everywhere, and I had to stop myself from buying some – but, I think I’ve finally learned my lesson.  That lesson being – *You live in Brisbane and it’s rarely cold, you do not need twenty bloody woollen beanies collected from every weird place you go to!*. Well, at least the lesson seems to have held up for today, we will see if it makes it intact through the entire trip. This fountain is fed from the beautiful fresh and clean spring that we went to yesterday, though I have no idea what they have been washing here to make it look so unappealing.  Don’t care how clean the water is supposed to be, there’s no way I would fill my bottle from this fountain! Gorgeous altogether! In the back streets looking for interesting alleys and vistas and spied this very steep set of stairs… did a double-take and noticed this little guy: Sitting around like he owned the place.

We stopped for lunch down in the main square.  Coffee thick as mud, chicken shish, and kofka tagine.  Doesn’t take long to decide you could sure get used to this – a long black, a lemon soft drink, two lovingly cooked and very tasty main meals served with free bread, and we were up for a hefty AUD$15.00.

After lunch we went for a walk around the Kasbah and heard some the call to prayer happeining, as it does at regulour intervals during the day.  In this town, it seems to set the local dogs off.  And we heard these two, barking along – from above!  Took a momen to spot them and I have no idea how they got up there! Gorgeous facade on a local school: We then made our way into the Kasbah to have a look around.  The Kasbah in Chefchaouen was built in the 15thC and in contast to the blue city, it is terracotta-brown in appearance.  The Chefchaouen Kasbah contains a lovely Andalusian-style garden and a former prison. This prision reminds me of the one Kevin Costner finds himself detained in when captured by the Moors while on Crusade in the terribly historically inaccurate, but somewhat lovealbe film, (thanks Alan Rickman) Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (c.1990 something). Looking out from the prison to the Andaluscian gardens. Amazingly there are at least half a dozen huge and very established gum trees in the garden.  They might seem like a good idea, but I have a feeling if one of them comes down, they are giong to create one helluva mess of the ancient walls.  The Center for Research and Andalusian Studies is also here and currently undergoing renovations, so we could only see the lower levels at the moment.

After leaving the Kasbah, we went hunting for djubbas.  We saw some lovely wool ones, and for some reason the Sales Dude brought out this short pom pom’d thing for Mr K to try.  Swing and a miss, Mr Sales Dude. After that it was back through the mall by which time the buskers, touts, and generally annoying people trying to get your money had all started to turn out, and we decided it was time to head back to the hotel for a bit of rest before dinner with whoever turned out to be around at the time. 

We had a lovely, fairly chill day.  I love this town, it is visually stunning and there is lots of fun little alleys and back streets to explore.  I would definitely come back here and would happily stay at the Dar Echaouen again.  All round a wonderful place.

Tomorrow, however, is going to be somewhat hectic.  We have a bus ride to Tangier, followed by a city tour, a meal with a local family and then an overnight train to Marrakech… am doubting the sanity of this – but hoping it won’t be too bad.

The Funky Fez Medina

Another day; another ear worm!  🙂

Had a bit of a later start today and didn’t head out until about 0900… it was nice to get going when the sun was up!   We had a big day planned to check out the Fez Medina.  But first, we took a couple of pit stops.  The first being to the Dar al-Makhzen or the Palais Royal, which is one of the many royal palaces belonging to the Alaouite sultan – ie: the current King of Morocco.  The palace grounds seem enormous, it sits on some 80 hectares of land and no one really knows what it looks like as it is not open to the public.  Mustafa (our local Fez guru) told us that the King of Morocco has an inordinate amount of power… he is the supreme head of the church in Morocco, he is also the commander in chief of Morocco’s military, he is effectively the head of an executive branch of the government, he can veto bills in parliament, hell, he can even dissolve parliament!  Basically whatever he says goes… and he owns a bunch of palaces across the country – most of which rarely see him. This palace in Fez has seen him in residence for barely a month in the last two years. The royal palace is a popular tourist stop for its enormous ornate bronze doors in gates heavily decorated with zellige tilework and carved cedarwood.  The innumerable hours of hand-craftsmanship that goes into making these things is simply phenomenal.
Zellige is mosaic tilework technique that is achieved by taking individually chiselled geometric tiles and then setting them into a plaster base (for certain purposes, like small fountains, they use fibreglass to set them into place. It’s a really popular and prevalent form of Islamic art that we’ve seen replicated on a lot of Moroccan architecture.  The geometric patterns are really appealing and you see them on walls, ceilings, fountains, floors, pools and tables. Off to the left of this main gate is a small ‘servants entrance’… frankly, they probably deserve to use the main entrance seeing they come and go way more than the King!

The palace is set right in the middle of the 13th mellah – or Jewish Quarter.  The area is a walled Jewish settlement which people often mistakenly compare to the European Jewish ghettos.  The Jewish community was first confined to the mellah in the beginning of the 15thC and again in the early 19thC, but generally the Jewish community seems to prefer to be centrally located near their synagogues, so it’s a more ‘self imposed’ autonomous confinement nowadays.  The Jewish quarter is typified by a very European feel to the architecture with these cedar balconies overhanging the streets. 

As we were walking through the Jewish Quarter, Mustafa pointed out some Moroccan black soap also known as beldi soap.  Beldi soap is a high-alkaline soap made from olive oil and macerated olives to form a gel like goop.  It’s a hideous green/black colour, and thankfully doesn’t smell anything like it looks!  It does have an olive oil smell to it which isn’t unpleasant but certainly looks like something that might have come from a cow’s arse… they use it a lot in the hammams (traditional steam baths) in Morocco.  Blerg! After a quick wander through the Jewish Quarter, we took a drive out to a lookout to have a look at the city of Fez.  Fez is Morocco’s second largest city, behind Casablanca, with 1.4million peoples. It is largely locaed in a valley surrounded by the high grounds, and the old city or the Medina is divided by the River Fez which runs through the 9thC walled part of the city. These pictures show how closely packed the Fez Medina is – it is believed to be the largest pedestrian zone in the world. Not a single vehicle can enter the medina as it is a completely bamboozling labyrinth of winding alleyways some of which are barely 70cm wide.  Donkeys, mules and horses are the only form of transport in the medina and everything is transported in via animal or hand cart. Walls of the Fez Medina…the holes in the walls are desinged to allow the high wind to pass through the walls rather than causing damage.  Apparently the wind here gets so bad it can ‘knock over’ wall like this…Before we threw caution to the aforemented wind and ventured into the Medina, we took a stop at a local mosaic and ceramic factory.  Pictoral mosaics like the one below are not particularly common.  Usually you see the traditional geometric, typically Islamic styles of art still being replicated in mosaic work.
Piles of clay come straight from quarries and have zero purification or cleansing before being put to use. Turned bowls drying before their first firing.
The kilns used are still traditional kilns that have been used for hundreds of years… the ground up dark dirt seen in the front is actually ground up olive pits which are added to the kiln fires. Something to do with the oils being beneficial in the firing process, but I’ll admit the explanation was a bit disjointed. Tile making in action – this guys spends all day making clay squares into more uniform, flat and tapered clay squares.  :/ Painting the ceramics with glaze before the second firing.Etching off the glaze before a second glaze is done. Mosaic work is painstakingly done by hand.  From the drawing of the designs onto the nice square tiles the previous guy was making…
To the hand-chiselling to taper the pieces to the right shape so they may be fit together properly…
To the laying out of the design – upside down so the plaster can be poured onto the back to hold it together!To the final chiselling of the finished product to clean up any irregular edges or overflowed plaster.The end results of this meticulous and time consuming work are amazingly beautful artworks.

So many beautiful designs, so many gorgeous objects, so many overblown price stickers because this is tourist central!

After our brief foray into the exciting intricate and time consuming world of mass produced handmade ceramics and mosaics, we finally made our way into the world famous labryinthine Fez Medina! The World Heritage listed Fez al Bali Medina has alleys coming off alleys,stemming from alleys that are connected to even more alleys. Nearly all tourists who venture into this place come with a guide of some sort, becuase it is so easy to get completely lost and end up wandering around for kilometres to find your way out. We entered near a food section of covered markets. Dates, figs, seafood, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, tea, grains, spices, herbs, and god knows what else was stashed into every available square inch of space in the covered shops. It is very similar to the Grand Bazaar in Isanbul. This man was selling live snails, and when he saw the tourists photographing his big tub of slimy delicacies, he started asking for money from people who shoved their cameras right over the tub of writhing creatures… tourists in the medina taking lots of photos and buying no produce must drive them crazy. The camel heads hanging at the butcher’s shop is apparently the easiest way to tell people that you have camel meat in stock today.  Little gory, definitely effective advertising. Seafoods – the large lumps of white flesh in the front of the table is some sort of local shark meat. Not far from the fresh produce and food stuffs are was dyers lane.  I could see all this silk hanging up and it piqued my interest immediately.  Apparently this is ‘saba silk’, which allegedly comes from the agave cactus plant – yes, that agave plant.  Disappointinly, from what I’ve read up on this thread though, the bulk of the ‘saba silk’ used in Morrocan crafts is actually rayon that has been manufactured in Spain or India and comes in bulk and is dyed here for local use. I don’t think people care that their item has rayon embroidery on it – but generally speaking I don’t think it’s ethical to lead people to think that their item is made from hand harvested agave and spun by local women into something beautiful, when it’s actually brough in pre-manufactured from India.  This is one of those things you hear about and think: ‘yeah, not entirely surprised’. Just outside the dyer’s lane was a small bridge that gave a view of the Fez River which runs thorugh the medina. It’s difficult to see in this photo with such a high contrast ration, but I can tell you unequivocally that the fish and eel and other seafood stuffs being sold inside, does NOT come from this river. We saw loads of these large cone shaped items around the place and had to ask Mustafa what they were – they are food coverings, and apparently these huge velvet and embroidered ones are used for covering bread… ’tis a far cry from the Brabante bread bin that adorns my kitchen!

All over the medina were people selling brass objects, ‘silver’, copper and other items of metalware… a lot of these metal items were elaborately decorated with Islamic motifs.  I did walk past a guy who was hand chasing and engraving these intricate designs into a place.  Unbelievable – these large plates in particular, are one of those things I’ve seen around over the years, and I’ve always just assumed they were punched out by a large steel press somewhere…?  Apparently – no.  They’re largely handmade! I managed to see another man doing some metal work on one of these metal topped tables, and was just amazed at how detailed they were.Further into the the medina we found ourselves moving into the leather area.  Morocco is famous for its leather industry, and the medina has three tanneries contained within its walls.

We did get a chance to visit the Chouara Tannery which, oddly enough, is located in the leather area of the medina.  It was built in the 11thC and is the largest tannery in the city. Ever since its introduction to Fez, the tanning industry has been continually operating in the same place and in the same fashion as it did in the early centuries – that means there has been untold generations of people stomping around in the disgusting and fetid conditions of the tanning pits.

We walked into the tannery via a shop, and were (thankfully!) handed a very helpful sprig of mint… so that we could crush it up and smell it.  The tannery absolutely reeks as a result of the processes and materials use to tan the leather. From a balcony overlooking the tannery, you can see numerous stone pits filled with different coloured dyes and liquids. Hides of cows, sheep, goats, and camels are processed here – the first step is to soak them in a series of white liquids – this first stage of the process uses a liquid that is a varying mixture of cow urine, pigeon shit, quicklime, salt, and water.  This cleans the often very tough skins, and it normally takes about two or three days.  After the cleaning and scraping, they are soaked in various dyeing solutions.  The tannery uses many natural colourants such as poppy for red, indigo for blue, and henna for orange – same as they have used since the 11thC. After the skins are dyed, they get spread out on rooftops for sun drying. The leather then gets sold to various craftsmen who use it to make Morocco’s famous leather goods:  bags, coats, shoes, and slippers. The entire leather production process in Morocco is done completely by manual labour and uses no modern machinery.  They have retained methods that are unchanged since the medieval period… which is just amazing but also completely nuts. Thank the gods for that spring of mint – the stench was enough to turn your stomcah.  I can’t imagine how anyone survives a visit up here in the summer, and I really don’t know how anyone survives working down there their whole life! I love all these colourful ottomans… you buy them unstuffed and take them home and can stuf them with wadding, wool, rags, hair, whaterver you want. They’re not particularly small to transport though.Deep in the heart of the medina is the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II religious complex.  It’s a shrine, a mosque and temple dedicated to the tomb of Idris II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 (or Moulay Idris II when you include his sharifian title).  He was considered the founder of the city of Fes and the first Moroccan Islamic state. The shrine is UNESCO listed and is one of the holiest shrines in Morocco. Men performing their ablutions prior to prayer. There are multiple doors to the enormous religious complex and madras (religious university) which allow glimpses of life inside. After this we took a well earned break for lunch – we had been walking the medina for a hectic three and a half hours… hectic because the place is packed shoulder to shoulder/cheek to jowl in many places.  The ground is uneven and often slippery, it’s winding and there are ramps up and down all over the place, it’s easy to get lost and/or trampled by oncoming donkeys or men with handcarts.  There is no dwardling in the medina without creating a traffic hazzard.  It literally feels like there is no place to ‘be’ most of the time.

We went to a restaurant for lunch, called ‘Le Patio Bleu’ – there is plenty of delicious looking very cheap street food in the medina, but with a fairly long bus trip lined up for tomorrow, there’s no way I was going to risk that!  So clean bathrooms and a higher probability of decent food handling practices were a priority.  We had a wonderful lunch with a few of the other people in the group… starting with colourful ‘salads’ (a salad here appears to be any dish that consists of putting things together and can be hot or cold and huge or tiny?!).
And also included some fabulous local dishes – a chicken pastille (chicken pie – shredded chicken with fruit and covered in cinamon and sugar), meatballs served with egg (this is rapidly turning into one of my fav Moroccan dishes), a beef tagine with almonds and prunes and some mixed grill skewers.  Everything we’ve had here (with the exception of that first bland touristy restaurant) has been delicious. After a wonderful shared lunch, we ventured back into the medina to have a few more glimpses into the various gates leading to the mosque and mausoleum complex.  The artwork and elaborate decoration on the doorways, walls everywhere you look is astounding. There are public fountains scattered throughout the medina, and while the water is safe for locals, tourists generally don’t have the constitution to deal with it… so it’s best avoided. Also connected to the mosque and mausoleaum complex is the University of al-Qarawiyyin which is THE oldest existing, continually operating higher educational institution in the world (according to both UNESCO and Guinness World Records).  It was founded by in 859 AD with an associated madrasa, and subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world. It was only incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963, but has been a formal institute of learning that entire time. The small windows above are cells for the scholars who lived here… each has a bare room approximately 2m x 2m where they would dedicate themselves to Islamic religious and legal studies with a heavy emphasis on Classical Arabic grammar and linguistics and Maliki law.  Some other non-Islamic studies are now also offered such as French and English. We went upstairs to see the old student’s rooms, and were somewhat perturbed to notice that there were only locks on the doors on the outside of each room and small slots at eye level in each door… it felt more like a luxiourious detention centre than a student/monk’s type cell…? After our visit to the monastery, we made our way deep into the textiles sector of the medina – now THIS, I was really looking forward to. I was hoping to gain some insight into the sabra silk situation and find out whether it is made from the agave plant or no.  We saw a demonstration of someone weaving on an old treadle loom, and the man who seemed to run/own the shop handed around pieces of agave and told us the sabra silk is made from agave fibres.  It certainly seems fibrous enough to create a thread – but we weren’t offered any more information than that.  From there it was ‘on with the hard sell’, which was a bit unfortunate as we hadn’t experienced this in the ceramics workshop or the tannery.  The ‘sabra silk’ items were mostly tablecloths and other durable items that most definitely felt somewhat ‘plasticy’ so I dare say it was all rayon and roughly woven at that.  There was also loads and loads of pashmina and various garments, huge cotton tassels – no doubt all of which was imported. I would have loved to had a good look around and dig into the piles and piles of fabric and textiles, but myself and two of the other women in the group were being harrassed by the men in the store and became extremely uncomfortable.  Mr K literally had to physically insert himself between one lady and a man who was being decidedly agressive with one of our new friends.  Oddly it was the only time all day that we had been creeped out and we all wanted to get out of there asap.

I know if I had been wandering the medina by myself, without a guide, that the ‘creeped out’ by unwanted attention or overly pushy sales tactics would have happened numerous times before now – it was just totally unexpected when you’re in one of the stores chosen by the tour company to offer a safe and relaxed shopping experience.  Having travelled to Turkey, Pakistan and other countries with these sorts of shopping environments, I am somewhat used to it and know how to deflect this sort of attention – but this was seriously creepy and I felt unsafe even though I was there with my husband and at least half a dozen other men from our tour.  Not good at all – so we made a point of offering some feedback to Mustafa and Samirr.  Turns out they knew who the men were (Mr K had the forethought to snap some photos) and they don’t even work in the shop, they are just friends who hang around.  So they’re going to let the owner know that these men are literally driving away their trade – there’s no way I would have left there without a handful of pashmina (historically speaking, it seems a dead certainty) if we had felt comfortable and taken our time to shop around.
After this we were pretty much all medina’d out.  Some of our group went on their own to find some more shopping and hunt for bargains, and some of us head back to the hotel to rest our weary feet.  All up, it was an amazing day with so many sights and so much to see, but now I’m fucking exhausted!  So it was back to the hotel for me for a chill evening of writing.

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and we are heading to Chefchaouen – the Blue City.