Our first sourcing trip to Morocco, October 2021, I travelled with my new husband and using our honeymoon as an excuse for a sourcing trip and some autumn sun, we ventured back to Marrakech for the first time in 5 years, then travelled across the country by train to Fez where we arranged to meet some artisans both in the country and the city. Travel along with us as you read my travel diary...
Touching down in Marrakech after an early start (3am - that was fun in the Mancunian pouring rain!) we notice just how different the airport looks, very impressive architecture and extremely quiet. We get the feeling tourism hasn't picked up again here yet, but we will see when we get into the city.
Arriving in Riad Utopia we are exhausted from our travels but eager to get out into the souks to see if Marrakech has changed at all, and if the city has picked up again post pandemic. We chat with our very friendly host Adil about why we are here and get some tips about where to head. He advices maybe we take today to suss out the prices of the Medina so we can compare to Fez and decide whether to buy upon our return to Marrakech in a few days time. Did we listen to his advice... Only somewhat..
We head down to a little square Adil had recommended where we can find metalwork that is produced in Marrakech rather than just sold in the souks. Immediately taking a liking to these beautiful miniature star lanterns available in lots of different colours - of course I had to buy some. My first purchase made, hours after arriving in the Red City. We enjoyed chatting with the shopkeeper and asking questions to the artisan who was soldering right there in the shop. Now understanding that a lot of the more toxic crafts cannot take place in the Medina, we admired the craftmanship that has been made in one of their workshops outside of the city. Hopefully a future contact we can work with from the UK!
After a lovely lunch in a secret spot called Kosy Club (nothing like the Cosy Club we have back at home, unless there were rooftop terraces and 40 degree heat) we felt rested and ready to make our way back to the main square. If you have not visited Marrakech before I will say that the Jeem El Feena can be pretty overwhelming for a tourist, we tend to stay away and have been advised that visiting with a guide is best for a hassle free visit. Tourism definitely isn't back to normal here, and this worked both with and against us, as we seemed to got hassled a lot but we also had some really great conversations with some locals who weren't necessarily trying to sell us something, but just wanted to chat with someone from another culture.
Winding through the streets we made a few more personal purchases (I'm a sucker for a good bag and the chance to flex my negotiating skills) and found another great little shop with some trinket dishes that were on my to buy list - perfect stocking fillers or gifts to stow away for upcoming birthdays - after some hard negotiations and a free camel as the shopkeeper took a liking to my blue eyes (a wooden camel, not a real one!) we thought it best we head back to our Riad before we spend too much money, plus we wanted to visit Le Jardin Secret before the end of the day.
I could ramble on with so many more stories from the day, but I am going to stop there - will update you all in a few days after a busy trip to Fez - currently on a nearly 7 hour train, a big trip but hopefully worth it!
Day 3 - From Bhalil to Sefrou and back to Fez
After a long day of travelling on the train from Marrakech to Fez, making friends with a lot of the locals on the train, we finally reached our resting point at the end of day 2 in a very charming guest house in Bhalil. We dined with our hosts Jalila and Naima, and although there was a slight French/English language barrier we still managed to learn a bit about each other and thoroughly enjoyed Naima's Berber cooking, our main of cinnamon chicken with pears cooked in a tagine was exquisite.
The next morning we travelled to an authentic town called Sefrou, there they don't tend to get many tourists. This made our experience so genuine, being out of the main cities where you are usually hassled as a tourist, Sefrou gave us an insight to what it is really like to live in Morocco.
The pastel coloured streets were so beautiful, seeing the artisans open up shop so late on a Sunday showed us the relaxed Moroccan mentality. Tailors threading spools of cotton with metres and metres running down the streets, locals gathering for their morning coffee and curious children approaching us to say bonjour - I'm so glad I brought a bag of Cadbury mini chocolates with me to offer them out.
Meeting the artisans of Sefrou made me emotional, which I was not expecting. They are incredibly humble, passionate, and proud to talk about their craft, many being trained by their families for generations.
Mustapha the weaver was the sweetest man I think I have ever met - 4th generation weaver, and what used to be a craft of 264 weavers in Sefrou, there are now only 5 left. Truly a dying craft. One rug will take him 3 days to make, and there he was wanting to gift me one for free after already giving me 40 minutes of his precious time to chat. I bought 2 from him and explained I would like to connect with him from the UK - a new friend made already!
I feel so moved by our experiences yesterday, Mustapha was one of only 6 artisans I spent time with yesterday morning, and today will bring me many more adventures... Until next time..
Day 5 - Deep into the Medina
Signing up for a guided tour in the Medina was a great decision, it is recommended by most Riad's but we didn't choose to do it the first time we visited Morocco. From what we had seen of Fez already, which was not a lot, we could already tell it was very different to Marrakech, both in its architecture and history.
Designed like a bowl, the further you go into the Medina, the further into the bottom of the bowl you are. Due to this structure, GPS is limited so you can't even rely on google maps to get you out! The winding streets are difficult to differentiate, and without a guide we were concerned we wouldn't know which way was left or right (even though I have been blessed with a husband who can usually lead us out of anywhere if we are lost).
Our guide Sadiki was a Fez native who trained for many years with different artisans as a child. The purpose of the tour was to explore the non touristic areas and go behind the scenes and spend some time with the artisans themselves as they work in the walls of the oldest walled city in Morocco. We chose this tour as it allowed us to ask questions, share stories and interact with the artisans on a personal level, being bespoke to us meant we could see crafts that we were really interested in, but I wanted to see it all! So we put on our walking shoes and off we went to explore.
Amongst all the artisans we met, I noticed a few things; perhaps my favourite is that a lot of them have photos of them in their youth, sitting in the exact same place they are working now, honing their craft. They are very proud of that and happily show it off. See the photo above of an instrument maker, who has been in the same workshop for over 30 years. He treats the animal leather and then attaches it to wooden instruments, weaving it together with thread made from the hide. Another artisan got out a laminated magazine article where he was featured in a German double page spread, years later still proud to show off this incredible achievement
Another similarity was that there are but a few people within the Medina who do the same skill as them. There is only one metalworker restoring and making the grates for windows, only 2 men are still carving horns into intricate pieces, one being in their 60's (pictured above) and the other in his 90's. In very few cases I got to meet their apprentices - and that's cause there no longer is one. The only one I met was where a man was training up his son who had left school at 16 to train in copperworking. There is a real issue with the craft not being passed on to the younger generation. I will dive into this topic in an upcoming blog post, and will also share how the government are trying to combat this for the future of the craft.
When you get to meet the artisans in their workshop, rather than just speaking to a shopkeeper in the Souks, you realise how much pride the local makers have for their product, their skill, their legacy. They will all happily share the knowledge they have in their craft, showing off the different techniques they have learnt, all so appreciative of our visit. There is a stark change in the Medina since covid 19, and tourism still hasn't picked up here. We were actually the first tour they had run this year, so a Welsh woman walking into their workshop was not a familiar sight given the circumstances. That being said they were still so willing to lend me their time, answer any questions, and although there was a language barrier, their spirit could be felt even without the help of an interpreter. I am so very passionate about travel to Morocco. Everyone needs to step outside their comfort zone, open their eyes to the world, and support the crafts that may die off in 20-30 years time if the government efforts do not prevail.
For more information on the artisan tour, please visit https://culturevultures.ma/fez-artisans/