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Magical Morocco, Part II: Fes

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: March 2007

Continued from Magical Morocco, Part I

After an uneventful flight from Errachidia to Casablanca with the same ebullient group of Spaniards we'd met on the flight down, we grabbed breakfast at the Casablanca airport and caught the train to the Casa Voyageurs station, where we would transfer to Fes. We found quite a crowd -- apparently the buses up here were on strike too. An English-speaking tour guide came up to us and advised us that we'd be much likelier to get a seat if we upgraded our second-class tickets to first class. We were naturally a little skeptical -- what does this guy get out of this? we had to wonder -- but we figured we'd just see how much the upgrade would cost since there were an awful lot of people around. He and SO went into the station to see what could be done while I waited out on the platform with our bags.

I waited by myself for about 15 minutes, during which I progressed from sanguine ("what a pretty day!") to suspicious ("this guy must be trying to rip us off!") to paranoid ("where the heck is SO? What if they kidnap him?" -- this last in a voice eerily reminiscent of SO's mother). They did come back, of course, saying that we'd have to upgrade on the train. Long story short, we went straight to the first-class cabin and were able to buy the upgrade from the conductor -- and the tour guide walked away before we'd even tipped him, so I guess he didn't get anything out of it after all.

We arrived four and a half hours later in a busy Fes train station, where we were immediately greeted with numerous offers of taxis and tours. One guy found us a petit taxi and told us he'd walk us to our hotel, Dar Seffarine, which was just inside one of the gates of the medina. We knew how difficult it would be to navigate within the medina (the original walled city, consisting of several thousand twisting streets and alleys), so we figured it wouldn't hurt to have someone help us find our way.

However, our would-be guide actually seemed to sprint more than walk -- we could barely keep up, laden down as we were with our bags. We learned later that Fes has been cracking down on so-called "faux" guides, or non-licensed guides, over the past few years. If this guy were caught leading us around, he could go to jail for three months. So he was trying to stay far enough ahead of us that it wouldn't look like he was actually leading us. We passed through only the briefest bit of the medina before the guide turned down a rather dark alley and left us at the nondescript door of the hotel.

Inside we discovered an exquisite little riad, or restored palace home, with a truly breathtaking central courtyard -- every inch was tiled or carved or painted. All the rooms had doors or windows opening onto this courtyard and were furnished with handcrafted wooden beds/chairs/desks, heavy wood doors with traditional metal bolts, and intricately detailed metal lanterns. There are no locks on the doors, just the sliding bolts, and with everything opening onto the courtyard we really felt like we were in someone's home (or palace, really) rather than a hotel.

We dropped off our stuff and took a cab to the Dar Batha Museum, which our guidebook indicated would be open. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case -- so instead we decided to get an early dinner at Le Kasbah, right near the Bab El-Jeloud gate of the medina. Talk about a tourist trap -- everyone in there had a medina map, the same Lonely Planet guidebook we had, or both -- but the food was good and cheap. SO had a beef tajine, while I had couscous with chicken and vegetables. Delicious, and only about $13 for both of us including a shared bottle of water and the tip.

We wandered our way back toward our guesthouse through the narrow streets of the medina. It was an overwhelming feast for the senses; my eyes were actually tired at the end of the night from trying to take it all in. In the souqs were wares and handicrafts of all kinds -- pottery, metalwork, leather handbags and belts, a dizzying array of shoes and slippers, cell phones, spices, pastries, candy, mirrors, ancient-looking televisions ... you name it. Interesting smells wafted from the food stalls and side streets, and traffic streamed in both directions -- women in headscarves, men in jeans, camera-toting tourists, stray cats, and sad-eyed donkeys laden down with soda cases. A couple of mosques had their doors cracked open, allowing us brief, tantalizing glimpses of the mosaics inside.

We had every intention of sticking to the main byways and going straight back to the guesthouse, but we inadvertently made a left instead of a right and ended up winding along an unexpected side street. I got a little concerned after a bit because night was falling fast, but we did eventually find the right path to the Seffarine square, just a minute's walk from our guesthouse.

Back at Dar Seffarine, we headed up to the rooftop terrace to watch evening fall over the ancient roofs and minarets of the medina. While we were there, we heard the evening call to prayer echo over the rooftops from mosques around the city -- one of the most eerily beautiful sounds I've ever heard. Just then, sitting on top of the world in one of the earth's oldest cities, I had one of those moments where you really realize why you go through all the hassles and expenses of travel. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be there.

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of roosters crowing and cats squalling. We were early for communal breakfast, so we went back to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the morning sunshine and watch the city wake up. Then we had a nice breakfast with the riad's other guests -- who hailed from Britain, Australia, Libya and Sri Lanka. Made for some interesting discussion! The meal was good too -- breads, fried eggs, orange slices with cinnamon, and a tomato/pepper dish.

After breakfast SO and I joined three other guests for a full-day tour of the medina with Hassan, a guide we hired through our guesthouse. Only a few minutes into the tour I lost track of where we were; we never would have found half the sights we did without Hassan, so I was glad we'd made the decision to do the tour. We started with a quick peek into the Kairaouine Mosque/University, which is one of the biggest universities in the Arab world (second only to one in Cairo, I believe). As non-Muslims we could only see the courtyard and a bit of the enormous library, but again there were lovely mosaics (in blue, the imperial color of Fes, and green, the color of Islam).

We also visited the Medersa Sahrij, which was once a theological school. The medersa was set up a bit like the inner courtyard of our guesthouse -- and indeed, it seemed that this design was a staple of architecture within the medina. This courtyard had a rectangular pool in the center and a very small mosque toward the back (so that students could pray without having to leave the school). Throughout the courtyard were the magnificent mosaics and cedar woodwork that we'd see over and over again during our day in Fes. We were also able to climb to the second level and take a peek into the tiny rooms (cells, really) where the students once lived.

Several twisty, turny lanes later and we were at the Nejjarine Museum, which offered wooden handicrafts and tools, including some ornately decorated doors and chests. It also had a lovely central courtyard, which Hassan explained was a converted "funduq" -- a place where caravans once stopped to rest for the night. The travelers would trade their goods on the lower level and then take a room on the second or third floor overlooking the courtyard. We realized then that this was what our riad was modeled after -- cool! Besides the museum, we saw several other old funduqs around the medina, many of them looking rather dilapidated; clearly, there isn't money available to restore them all.

Other stops along the tour included a quick peek inside Zawiya Moulay Idriss II, a mosque and mausoleum where Moulay Idriss II (a major figure in Moroccan history) is buried. As usual, we could glance inside the mausoleum but not enter; ditto for the mosque next door, where we saw one man repeatedly bathing his face and hands at a central fountain while other folks sat or prayed on mats around the tiled floor. It felt a bit invasive to peer into these sacred places, but our Libyan companion pointed out that there's no place in the Koran that bans non-Muslims from mosques -- and that in places like Tunisia, non-Muslims are permitted into the mosques. He also told us that he was actually kicked out of a Moroccan mosque himself even though he is Muslim, just because he was looking around rather than praying. (His argument that the mosques wouldn't be so beautifully decorated if they weren't meant to be looked at didn't go over too well.)

We also stopped at a traditional riad, now (I believe) a school of handicrafts. This place was ridiculously ornate -- you had to pass through about eight different gates/doors before you even got to the main room, which was carved and mosaic-ed from floor to ceiling. It overlooked a double-terraced garden with orange trees, a well and a courtyard with a fountain. We went down to the garden and were showered with a sudden fall of oranges from the trees, but when we tried one it proved dreadfully sour -- our punishment for stealing fruit, I suppose!

One of our more intriguing stops of the day was the city's famous tanneries, which were smelly but not as bad as I'd feared. (Pigeon droppings are one of the ingredients in the dyes.) It's an area filled with large round pits, some containing variously colored dyes, others containing lye and bleach to strip the hair off the animal skins. I could only imagine what a miserable job this must be in the summertime -- baking in the hot sun and literally going up to your bare knees in these smelly dyes.

We also checked out a few other craft-y places, including one place selling Berber carpets and another peddling woven fabrics. It was at this latter place that I did my first real haggling, over a vibrant red and orange bit of silk I wanted for my mother. The shopkeeper started us off: "Normally this would be 1,200 dirhams, but for you, 1,100." That's over $120 -- I love you, Mom, but no way was I paying that! He started tossing around numbers like 700, 800, still way too much. My tour companions asked how much I was willing to pay, and I said 300 (about $33 or so) -- at which point the shopkeeper put down my colorful fabric sample and held up a plain white piece, implying that that's all I could get for that price. It took a group effort among all five of us on our tour (and a mass exodus from the shop at one point), but we did finally get the price down around 350 dirhams (about $40), which felt about right to me. (And Mom loved the fabric when I got it home, so it was all worth it!)

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