Where’s your lunchtime going to take you today? A great book can transport you to a faraway place (we’re talking further than that café you usually go to) and whet your appetite for new destinations. Our pick of the week? The exotic, possibility-packed country that is Morocco: it surprises and delights (and, ok, sometimes assaults) the senses, it’s sunny and warm more often than not – and it’s only a few hours’ flight away.
Get your lunchtime taster (in more ways than one) with this Fez vignette, written specially for the Smith Travel Blog by the French-Moroccan author of Colour of Maroc, Sophia Palmer. Illustrated by Sophia’s Mr Smith – Australian photographer Rob Palmer – the book is a vivid account of their tale-gathering, culture-exploring, people-meeting, country-roaming trip, packed with striking photography and the mouthwatering recipes that deliver North Africa on a plate.
Here, they visit the famous Fez tanneries, and even squeeze in a stay at a one of Smith’s romantic riad hotels in Morocco…
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People talk in Morocco. It’s said that the country’s number one sport is gossip. Importantly though, when Moroccans aren’t talking about each other, they are talking to each other – opinions, thoughts and feelings are shared with friends, family and strangers.
We met Simo (short for Sidi Mohammed), a young and very talkative local tannery owner from Fez, on a crowded train carriage. Simo was busy conducting two other simultaneous conversations with passengers sitting around our carriage as he shared his encyclopeadic knowledge of Fez with us.
‘Did you know Fez used to be the capital of Morocco?’
‘No, I didn’t, Simo.’
‘Yes, and it was founded in AD789, which makes it the oldest of the Moroccan imperial cities. It also has the oldest university in the world.’
‘Really? I didn’t know that.’
Not being convinced that Simo was the most reliable source, I later checked his facts, only to discover that he was exactly right.
‘In a world where modern cities are built and grow into huge cities within only a few years…’ – Simo begins to get philosophical, – ‘…you must spend time in a city like Fez which has soul and history. Did you know Fez is still referred to as the cultural heart of Morocco?’
‘No I didn’t. And what’s your favourite part of Fez, Simo?’ I ask.
Stepping off the train and bidding farewell to Simo, I genuinely thought that would be the last time we’d see him and as we set off up a narrow cobblestone lane that led off into the dark depths of what seemed like an archaic labyrinth – I was almost certain of it. A million residents still traverse the steep streets of this ancient Unesco-protected medina and our path seemed endless, hemmed in by the seemingly identical heavy walls that squeezed either side of it. With no distinct or memorable features I was beginning to wonder if we should have marked our route in chalk on the walls so we’d be able to retrace our steps if need be. Hope was reinstated by an unassuming door that looked slightly less unassuming than all the others. A timid knock on the heavy wood and the doors were heaved open, revealing the hidden secrets of Palais Amani. The decoratively tiled courtyard with its fountain and lush greenery couldn’t have been a bigger surprise!
Our next surprise came no longer than 20 minutes after putting our bags down when Simo called with the promise of showing us where all the fully laidened donkeys were headed. An employee of his met us at our door and guided us back through the endless laneways (the thought of chalking our route came to mind again) before handing us a bunch of mint each and taking us in through a very dark and narrow series of staircases. I began to doubt Simo’s intentions as visions of forced leather bag purchases began to flood mind but as we reached the top of the stairs there he was, proud as punch like a king presiding over his land.
As I clicked away from our vantage point, below men worked around the brilliant-hued vats of Fez’s famous tanneries, washing dying and drying a seemingly endless supply of animal skins that would soon be made into the colourful leather goods this city is renown for.
There was no pressure from Simo to buy up big in his leather store, he had genuinely just wanted to show us his Fez, a Fez brimming with stories and life.
‘Colour of Maroc’ by Rob and Sophia Palmer (£25; Murdoch Books) is out on 13 February 2014.
Inspired? Find your perfect stay among our collection of romantic riad hotels in Morocco.
*All photographs by Rob Palmer.