But this relief from the hard sell routine didn’t last long because as we walked through the dusty back alleys Hussein suddenly declared that he knew a shortcut and knocked on a wooden door with flaking blue paint and rusty red hinges and as it creaked open and we were invited inside it was obvious that this was not a sudden shortcut recollection at all and that we were inside another shop and I was beginning to detect a pattern here and for someone not generally very keen on shops it was not very pleasant discovery because the truth was that we had been duped into a shopping tour! I shared this suspicion with the others and the girls just smirked in a knowing sort of way.
This time it was an antique and jewelry shop and the owner, a Berber of course, offered us mint tea and said that he would be offended if we said no and invited us to look around the shop while the kettle boiled. I’d had enough tea already so wasn’t looking forward to any more but luckily Micky came to the rescue and after a bit of bartering bought some silver (well, perhaps it was silver) bracelets and after the deal was done we were allowed to leave and as the kettle whistled to an empty shop everyone seemed relieved to forget about the tea.
There was no attempt by Hussein to disguise the true purpose of our tour now as he rushed us past things that might have been interesting to see with indecent haste because there were no shops and presumably no commission to be earned straight into another shop selling embroidered table cloths and napkins which we escaped from quite quickly but only directly into another one selling bedspreads and brightly coloured scarves and handkerchiefs. Here the owner had a more effective sales technique where he corralled us all into a corner in the back of the shop with no easy escape route and kept banging on and showing samples in the hope that eventually one of us would lose the will to live and get a wallet out and it worked because after a few minutes we felt obliged to buy a couple of inexpensive scarves before elbowing our way towards the door.
Outside there was a saddle makers shop but we didn’t stop and I can only assume that this was because Hussein didn’t have a deal going there because of the fact that not many tourists are in the market for buying leather saddles in Fez on account of the difficulty in getting them home because of the Ryanair personal baggage allowance restrictions.
It was lunchtime now and Hussein led us straight into another trap – a Berber restaurant where before we knew it we were sat down and ordering off the menu of the day whether we wanted it or not. Actually it was rather nice and we enjoyed a selection of salad dishes for a shared starter and then a main course, most of us had some sort of traditional chicken pastry pie, and then fruit to finish. It was good but there was a shock to come because the bill came to about £150 which is about three times what we are usually prepared to pay for lunch and that presumably included a healthy percentage for our guide.
The first stop after lunch was a spice and argan oil shop. Argan oil is valued for its nutritive, cosmetic and numerous medicinal properties but is one of the rarest oils in the world due the small and very specific growing areas because it is produced from the kernels of the argan tree which are only found in Morocco. By this time we were becoming rather sceptical about whether this was authentic or simply a set-up for the tourists and when we saw the girl who was going to give the demonstration being rushed into position and bundled into traditional clothing we were certain that we were being had!
Naturally there was a shop attached and after the lesson on argan oil production we were invited to look around and try some samples. Actually it really was rather good but also terribly expensive so once again we apologised for not making a purchase and slipped out and away from the hard sell routine as quickly as we could. It’s a real nuisance and a shame because it rules out any sort of browsing in the shops of the souks. There seems to be a collective ethos which is determined to separate visitors from their cash as quickly as they can. There is no understanding that most tourists have a budget and no comprehension of or concessions made to the European or western style of shopping.
Next it was a tannery and the price to pay for a rooftop view of the famous limestone dye pits was another difficult twenty minutes in a leather shop selling coats, jackets, slippers and bags. I didn’t think we were going to get out of there very easily but again Micky was our saviour when he negotiated the purchase of a belt and we were able to get away. Abdul was waiting for us outside the tannery and he loaded us up into the taxi and we set off for the other end of the souk.
We could have walked the short distance but this was no use to Hussein who really needed to keep us altogether because there was one last shop to visit. Abdul dropped us off at Fez’s most picturesque entrance, the Blue Gate, Bab Boujloud, blue on one side, the colour of Fez and green on the other, the Muslim colour of peace. We walked a short way into the souk which on account of this being Friday was disappointingly quiet and closing up for the day and then we ended up in a silversmiths shop where there were more invitations to look and buy but I think they sensed that we were all shopped-out by now and not in purchasing mood and so they let us go quite quickly.
Abdul drove us back to the Riad and then it was time to settle up with Hussein. We asked how much and he said there was no set price and we should pay what we thought the tour was worth. This was difficult for us because we had no idea so we pressed him for some clues on what he might expect and we decided on €60 which he seemed to be happy with. We said goodbye and he hurried off presumably back to the shops and the restaurant to pick up his commission on the sales and I expect Abdul was getting a cut as well because surprisingly there was no charge for his services today.
Back at the Riad we captured the sunset from the rooftop terrace and then we rested and played cards in anticipation of walking out later to a restaurant recommended by Hussein but after an hour or so it started to rain, not just light rain that you can walk out in but heavy driving rain which turned the alleys into streams of mud and made it impossible to go out, the sort of rain where you could be sure that the sales assistant in the carpet shop wouldn’t be attempting the three hour walk home. Luckily we weren’t that hungry after the big lunch so we sat and wasted the evening away, drank our duty free wine and some mint tea and simply enjoyed the company of good friends until it was time to go to bed because, weather permitting, tomorrow we were going on a day trip out of the city.