Colorful and Enchanting Fez, Morocco
After my long nap in the back seat of Iddir's 4Runner, we found ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Fez. Iddir parked his car in the most inconspicuous street and takes our luggage out. Huh? Are we at our hotel? I was so confused, but Bonnie and I loyally followed Iddir. He knocks on this normal brown door and walks into a dark hallway. WHERE IS IDDIR TAKING US? haha but once we walked through the dark hallway towards the light, HOLY SHIT. High ceilings, lavish lanterns, colorful hand cut zellige styled tiles, intricate wood carved decor... Is this really where we are staying tonight?? and... how much more do we have to pay to stay here :mad: ........ HAHA just kidding (sorry that was the cheap Asian side of me talking). This right here, is what they call a Moroccan Riad. A riad is a traditional house or palace that is centered around an interior garden or courtyard, mostly inward focused for family privacy, especially privacy of women. Many riads are converted into beautiful hotels, like the one we were staying in tonight!
Even with jet lag taking over Bonnie's body, she was awake and alive through the overwhelming beauty of this place. We were given a cup of delicious Moroccan mint tea with cookies as we relaxed a little and enjoyed our surroundings. Iddir took our two heavy luggages up 3 very narrow, steep, swirling staircases to give us a giant key, like the keys you see in medieval times, to our room. OMG. SERIOUSLY? THIS IS OUR ROOM!? It was like a room straight out of the Disney Aladdin movie! haha Silk bed sheets, beautifully patterns cut out of all the metalware and wood accents on the bed frame, ceilings, lanterns, vibrant Berber patterns throughout the rugs and tapestries. I could really get used to this :lol: Bonnie and I had a mini photoshoot in our room haha but there was not another minute to waste, as our stomachs were demanding attention and we had another beautiful city to explore!
Bonnie purchased a Lonely Planet travel book for Morocco and was religiously carrying it with us to keep track of the names of places we were going to. I have had bad experiences with travel books, especially Rick Steve's. I used his travel books at the start of my Euro trip in 2011, even calling it the 'travel bible,' but I soon realized that everything in this book was extremely touristy and the restaurant recommendations were just terrible. I eventually threw that piece of shit away. After many of my travels, I have learned that out of all the travel books you can purchase, the tips and recommendations inside the Lonely Planet books are pretty useful for a more local and non-touristy experience. Bonnie and I were tired of eating the overpriced, touristy restaurants that we have been brought to, so we found a cheap suggestion given by the book.
Finding that the recommended restaurant was only about a 5 minute walk, Bonnie and I bravely power walked through dark alley ways to the restaurant, Thami's, in the old medina (this shit was scary, especially because Bonnie and I stood out and the shady men were staring at us). Thami's was literally a corner with tables set up in the middle of the street with a very friendly bald man welcoming us to sit. There were many other little restaurants along this street, but this smiling man made the whole difference. There were many locals eating here, which is a clear sign that this was THE poppin' place to eat. Moroccan meals always come with a lentil and eggplant dip, bread, and olives/cheese platter of some kind as an appetizer. Keep in mind that if you eat this, you will have to pay for them and sometimes these dishes are not the tastiest, nor the cleanest, and may have been recycled from the people before. Luckily this restaurant had some pretty good options! We ordered the Brochettes de Viande Haceé and Tajine de Kefta et tomates avec de oeuffs... all of this plus a giant bottle of water for only 100 DH, about 12 USD! I actually ordered our meal in French, which Bonnie, the happy bald man, and I were all shocked at how well I did it. My French friends would be proud :lol:. The food here was amazing! The meat brochettes were extremely moist, flavorful, and savory. The tajine was boiling hot, with a rich tomato based sauce... with fried egg on top, to die for!... SERIOUSLY, EVERYTHING with fried egg on top is awesome. Best meal so far! It was still a bit early, so Bonnie and I walked around exploring the medina where I shopped for traditional Moroccan wear. It was very dark and shady so we tried to keep to the better lit up streets and only on the streets we were familiar with to go back to the hotel.
The next morning, our local tour guide, Mr. Rajit, met us at the riad to start our day exploring Fez, the world's largest walled in cities. We went straight to the King's Palace (Dar El-Makhzen) where the entrance gate was just stunning. This location is actually the photo on the front/back cover of Lonely Planet Morocco book! The complicated, complex, tangled tile and metal work were just amazing. Looking at the gate as a whole was spectacular, but when you zoom in and focus on one little section, it's mind blowing. I was seriously in a state of euphoria as my eyes were anxiously and almost desperately trying to soak in all the details.
Our tour guide then took us to Fez el Jdid, or also known as "New Fez," around Mellah the Jewish Quarter of the city. There was nothing really exciting about this place and I honestly have no idea why we came here. It was "newer" and "cleaner" but that is relative to the rest of the city... which does not say much. It is not American "clean" or "new." The only thing really memorable about this place were the men who kept hollering at me and Bonnie. The tour guide would chuckle as men would holla things to us in Arabic and French as we passed by. Apparently one of the "compliments" we received was that I had "banana legs" and that my legs looked "nice like cheese.".... WTF. Nice like CHEESE!? Is that a fucking compliment? When I think of legs that look like cheese, they are NOT nice. They are cottage cheese legs. RUDE. Bonnie could not stop laughing!
We then drove up to the highest point to Fez Castle. There was a great view of the city from this point where you can visually see the juxtaposition of the old and new. This was interesting, but if you're limited with time, not worth the visit.
Our next stop was Les Poteries de Fès, or also known asPotter's House, to see the molding, glazing, and painting of ceramics and mosaics made all by hand. Les Poteries de Fès is extremely famous for producing blue and white Fassi pottery and piecing together mosaic tables and fountains in the classic zellijtiling style. It was fascinating and impressive to see how much detail and work goes into every little triangle or star cut out by hand using a hammer and every little stroke of the paint brush for all their ceramics. I could not believe how much effort and care goes into making one zellijtiling pattern.
At the end of the tour, we were shown into exhibit room with hundreds of exquisite ceramics to purchase. There was a young man assisting us picking out things we liked, but this helper guy was hitting on me literally the whole time we were there and he would NOT leave me alone! He really wanted a picture with me saying that I was one lucky girl since many girls want his picture, but he wants to take a picture with me instead. He was trying extremely hard to have a date with me, even committing to come to the US to see me. I would ask to see two plates, so he would pull them out and say, "Do you like this one?" points at plate 1, "or this one?" points at plate two, or "THIS ONE?" points at himself. Or if I am looking at spice holders, he would say "All these... free.... if you have coffee with me tonight." And it was like DUDE. GO AWAY. LET ME SHOP. Moroccan men are so persistent! Bonnie was amused and having so much fun taking photos of this dude harassing me while I shop. I ended up buying just a few plates, but I really wished I bought more! It's so hard to bring back breakable valuables when you are traveling, especially with the risk that they could crush traveling back home. These are once in a life time purchase, though, that you can cherish the rest of your life back at home!
After a successful trip to the Potter's House, we were taken to the old medina Fès el-Bali, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and considered one of the best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world! This medina is filled with maze like unpaved, narrow streets lined with fresh fruit, mounds of spices, intricately woven Berber carpets and many art objects common to Morocco. They literally sold everything, including bras, questionable meats like camel heads hanging from the ceiling and brains on a plate basking in the African heat with critters and flies everywhere, teas, breads, clothes from China, belts, etc. The smell here was just as intolerable as the souqs in Meknes, but it was something Bonnie and I eventually got used to. We accepted this smell as everywhere we have been so far smells like this.
It's so amazing to see how this town continues to preserve the life style, skills, and culture from the beginning until now without being affected of evolving modern times. I have walked through many historic buildings and areas all over Europe, but Fez is the oldest city still in use I have ever got to explore (dating back to 700 AD!). All the streets are so confined that no cars or even bikes are allowed. All merchandise is carried throughout the restricted passage ways on someone's back or by donkey. This also leaves a lot of donkey shit on the ground you must be careful of as you walk through the medina! Some of the architecture and building are so old that there are makeshift structures to help from building collapse. But even without modern transport or architecture, the city still strives and maintains its culture.
What I found the most spectacular about Fez is that through all the dirt and grim of this old city, there are hidden gems everywhere, just as long as you know where to look. We walked up to Kairaouine Mosque and University, the world's oldest and Africa's largest mosque and university. Non-muslims are forbidden to go in. You can only view through the small, yet opulent entrance way, getting a glimpse of the the open, impressive courtyard as a tease, leaving you wanting more, wondering what was inside?
Luckily, right in the heart of the medina and across Kairaoune Mosque, is the Medersa el-Attarine (10 DH for entrance), used for teaching. My curiosity of the Kairaoune was silenced right as I stepped into the main entrance as I was awestruck. Zellig tiles galore, traditional merenid patterns, sophisticated cedar mashrabiyyas (lattice screen) and stucco carvings, carved passages of the Quran in plaster. This was probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever stepped foot in, just completely speechless. There are only a certain amount of people allowed inside at one time, so this is a great place to have a photo-op with no one photo bombing you! Unfortunately, our tour guide really sucked and took horrible photos with our heads cut out or extremely crooked. Really dude? Really? pissed me and Bonnie off haha.
Afterwards, our tour guide walked us to the carpet co-op. They have about 1370 women (including divorcees, singles, widows) who hand weave these beautiful carpets. When we came in, we were welcomed with an American accent man and served ice cold water, pictures taken for us, snacks, etc. After the carpet seller's speech of how the carpets are made, the purpose of the co-op, how we are helping these women, helpers flocked into the main room to unroll literally 80+ carpets in front of us for "our viewing pleasure." No matter how much Bonnie and I insisted to stop, since we had no intention to buy a carpet, they kept unrolling and unrolling and unrolling. These carpet sellers are seriously "masters at their own game" as Lonely Planet puts it. We were seriously feeling pressured to buy one, but even a 1m x 3m carpet costs 3200 DH (approximately 400 USD)!!!!! HOLY FUCK. They kept on saying that this was the "student price" for us, but that is still a stretch for working people. Bonnie and I stood firm with not buying a carpet and the carpet seller got pissed off, basically kicking us out. This experience was so disturbing that it left a very sour taste in our mouths and minds. Me and Bonnie were really affected by the way they treated us. Why would these people treat us so rudely, when all we wanted was to take pretty photos!? SO RUDE! If you have no intention of buying a rug, I really advise you to not even go in. Tell your local guide, NO.
With the local guides, they receive commission from your purchase at the co-op. Because of this, you feel pressure from not only the sellers of the merchandise, but also from the local guide to buy something. The second you step into any co-op, the price of the merchandise increases immensely to cover this commission. When you are traveling throughout Morocco, please keep strong and firm if you do not want to buy anything. Also, don't let the way these people treat you ruin your trip.
Although Bonnie and I were distressed from the carpet co-op, we could not and did not let that bother us any longer. We instead proceeded with our tour with open minds and hearts to enjoy the rest of our day in Fez. We walked through the leather souq to get to the oldest and largest tannery in the world. This tannery actually dates back to at least nine centuries! The first thing you will notice is the smell. OMFG. SHIT. EVERYWHERE. That is what it smells like and what you are actually smelling. Fortunately, there's a man at the entrance passing out sprigs of mint to mask your smell for the duration of your tour up the balcony to view all the action in the tannery. The process and site has not changed since the 11th century in which skins of sheep/goat/camel are manually softened using acidic pigeon poop (Told you, you are seriously smelling shit). Then the hides are then soaked in natural dyes from henna, mint, saffron and dried with the beating hot Moroccan sun. Of course at the end of the tour, there were like 4-5 floors of just exhibition rooms for you to buy their shit. Again, pressure, pressure.
We were taken to an agave fabric co-op to see how scarves and tapestries were weaved, but Bonnie and I could not give less of a shit. We were tired of people trying to pressure us to buy things so we just expressed no interest in any of the merchandise. Instead, we took pretty photos very quickly and got the fuck out.
Mr. Rajit took us to another touristy restaurant with an expensive set menu (probably gets commission for taking us there), but lucky for him, there was a nice terrance at the top with a great view. If it wasn't for the terrace, Bonnie and I would have bit his head off haha.We had the typical chicken tagine and an omelette that we enjoyed very much. Maybe Bonnie and I were just HANGRY and taking it out on Mr. Rajit, but to my knowledge, he sucked. haha If you ever get a local tour guide in Fez and his name is Mr. Rajit, refuse.
Despite the pressure from the carpet sellers and the terrible service of our local tour guide, Fez is such a beautiful, colorful, and enchanting city filled with tradition and culture. Don't let the pressure keep you away from here. Be firm and keep a light, open mind when coming here with a local tour guide. I honestly would not mind coming back to this city and getting lost in the medina on my own. I'll be back, Fez.
Now we start the next leg of our journey, driving toward the Sahara Desert through the High Atlas Mountains!