From down & dirty to squeaky clean

Day 8
Fes, Morocco

In a city so steeped in history, it’s not surprising that the Fassi people have clung to many of the traditions and practices developed in medieval times. Our riad, Dar Seffarine, is just a couple steps from Place as-Seffarine, where metalworkers shape bowls, pans and plates and the air rings out with the sound of hammers pounding metal. (Note: Tourists in photo background are not metalworkers.)

This morning, we ventured into the medina to witness one of Fes’ most iconic sights — its tanneries. Like the metal artisans, the tannery workers produce leather goods much in the same way they did hundreds of years ago. Finding the area wasn’t difficult (“just follow your noses”) and we were soon ushered onto the roof of one merchant, who explained to us the leather-making process. Fresh camel, goat and cow hides are brought in by donkey and then cleaned.

After drying, they are placed in these dye pits (indigo, saffron and poppy are used for color):

Next, workers shape and smooth the hides …

… after which, they are sewn into shoes, belts, bags — you name it — by artisans.

Over hundreds of years, not much has changed in this 30-day process. The tanneries remain organized according to ancient guild principles and components of the process, like the use of pigeon poop and cow urine, continue — thus the wretched smell.

Charlotte bought some killer navy ballet flats for about $20USD (we’re getting good at bargaining) and then we grabbed a cab to Bab Bou Jeloud, the main gate to the medina.

On a self-guided tour, we saw stalls of traditional blue and white pottery, worshippers at the Kairaouine Mosque & University (which claims to be the world’s oldest — take that Harvard!) and Fassis in the henna souq.

Exhausted from walking the narrow alleys and feeling filthy from the grime, dust and dirt, we took a taxi to the Ville Nouvelle for a scrub and massage at Nausikaa Spa, a traditional hammam (Arab bath). While an upscale spot, it was certainly not in our Lonely Planet, and we were one of the few non-locals there.

Spas tend to be awkward experiences for men. We don’t know where to go. What to do. And those slippers! Imagine now a spa where you don’t speak the language and haven’t got a clue what a “scrub” really is — needless to say, even Charlotte, a seasoned spa veteran, was at a loss.

In case you ever find yourself in our position, we wanted to pass on these words of advice:

  • Men don’t go naked — women can if they’re feeling particularly adventurous.
  • You’re supposed to bring a scrubber. We didn’t know what scrubbers were. Extras should be on hand if you’re clueless like us.
  • You’ll have no idea what is happening, how to enter the bathing room or where to go or wait. Pointing and smiling tends to work just fine.
  • The order of treatment should go something like this: undress (or put on bathing suit), shower, get covered in black soap (made from the resin of olives — yum!), bake in steam room until golden brown, lie on marble slab and be scrubbed hardcore and then rinsed by the attendant, sit in cool plunge pool. Relax, repeat, wonder what just happened.

The majority of people who live in Fes do not have running water in their homes. The streets are covered in dust, flies and donkey dung. Yet, after today’s bath, it’s safe to say that we’ve never felt cleaner. Go figure.

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