We arrived in the UNESCO listed town of Fez (Fes) via train, which we have taken to referring to as the Marrakech Express. It was a pleasant half day journey in the second class carriage. It was clean, comfortable and thankfully air-conditioned as it was a scorching, 40C, in Morocco and the train was full for most of the trip. The train from Marrakech heads towards Casablanca and then along the coast, through Rabat, before winding it’s way up into the hills surrounding Fez. The fabled city finally appears on the horizon, shimmering white under the unforgiving sunshine.
We had deliberately kept our travel plans fairly flexible in Morocco, as we were unsure what to expect, or how long we might need at each location and while this seemed like a good plan, sometimes it comes unstuck. The day before we headed to Fez we realised that we actually did not have any accomodation booked, as Cath had mixed up the date of leaving Marrakech and getting to Fez, oops! Anyway it turned out not to be such a bad thing as we decided that we would have a night of luxury at a nice hotel, the Palais Medina and Spa (with a pool), before heading to our booked Airbnb accomodation in the Fez medina.
We ignored the taxi drivers at the train station, much to their annoyance and set off on the 1.5km walk to the hotel, which seemed like a good idea as we wanted to stretch our legs after sitting in the train all day. What we hadn’t factored in was the heat. We may be Aussies and apparently used to hot weather but we are the soft ‘down south’ kind of Aussies who do not enjoy 40C heat. Anyway within the hour we were checked in and cooling off in the pool.
The hotel overlooks the medina of Fez and we had every intention of having a quick swim and heading out in the evening for some exploring and a bite to eat, BUT we were waylaid; the combination of a swimming pool and drinks was too tempting and we spent the evening lounging, drinking and nibbling. We even ordered room service, which we never do due to the cost, but in for a penny…….
Breakfast was included in our stay and so it was that we had to arise reasonably early, well early for us i.e. before 10 a.m. The breakfast was reasonable for a buffet and with full bellies we were off on that very much delayed foray into Fez.
You would NOT believe it, we had ventured a few hundred metres up the hill toward the medina gate, visible from our hotel room when we were again “stung” by a helpful man. We were standing on a corner trying to decide which way to walk when he stopped on his motorbike, said hello and proceeded to give us directions, next minute he was hailing us a taxi, promising a “local price” and harrying us in. Now the driver and his navigator appeared to speak some English when we got in the taxi and having agreed to go to the medina ‘blue gate’ for 10 dhs we set off. Within minutes we were clearly not heading toward the medina but up into the hills surrounding the old town and toward the tile manufacturers, and would you believe it, it was the last day to see (apparently). We demanded to know where we were going and all of a sudden, the best they could say was “Non parle Anglais” which also appeared to be the only French they spoke. Ha, a likely story! So it was with some forceful broken French and a burst of obviously grumpy English, we had them turned around and headed back toward the medina. Upon arriving we handed over the 10dhs much to their obvious disgust and strode off in the direction that appeared to be medina. God only knows where we had been dropped off!
Now the story just gets better. Who should appear but the “helpful” man on the motor bike, the poor thing took his life into his own hands by hounding us as we strode along. He was right up in our faces, demanding to be our guide for the day. Cath has a slightly Irish temper and after the third “Non monsieur, merci, non” she lost it, turned around, stood to her full height (not very tall but taller than him), pointed into his face and loudly said ” I have said no to you 3 times, you are now harassing us, if you do not stop I will go to the police!!!!” Magically he melted into the crowd.
Now, we realised and understood that many people in Morocco rely on tourists to make a living. Their lives are hard and they are not wealthy by any means, but this behaviour needs to be reined in. To put it simply they are a menace and we were left thinking that all the honest, hard working men and women get a bad rap from these liars, cheats and rip off merchants. Not only that but it is quite an awful feeling to distrust everyone you meet, after several experiences with these hasslers; that is not how or why we choose to travel and it took some time to digest that feeling.
Eventually we found our way down the winding streets into the souks and were amazed at how tight and narrow the streets were, covered with intricately carved wooden panels and vines keeping it cool during the middle of the hot day. In every direction there are fountains with incredible tiling, mosques and a plethora of stalls selling pretty much anything and everything. It is cleaner and appears more organised than Marrakech and slightly less frantic as the motorbikes are unable to get up and down the stairways, so all you have to worry about is the occasionally donkey team and cart. It also appeared a more relaxed city than Marrakech, with stall holders not really interested in hassling for a sale. We did purchase a couple of Berber style hats, which even Cath consented to wear. The sun is ferocious during May.
We meandered with little direction or intent, enjoying the regular surprises that are thrown up in the old towns of Morocco, where one minute you are fighting your way through a narrow street and the next in a wide open square marvelling at the incredible tiling and soaring minarets of yet another mosque, until our stomachs told us that it was lunch time. Cath, ever the researcher had found out about a ‘must visit’ restaurant and as luck would have it, we saw a sign pointing to it. Right on cue!
As we entered the The Ruined Garden, through what appeared to be a hole in the wall, we were greeted by a flamboyant and very busy Englishman, the place was packed but no problem, within a quick minute we were seated at a delightful garden table under the cover of creepers and trees. The shade was very much welcome after a hot morning in the sun. We enjoyed a long relaxing lunch before heading for home, via the very conveniently located (right next to the hotel) Carrefour Label’ Vie Cave a Vin. We can very much recommend the Moroccan Gris, it is cheap and when cold very quaffable. The rest of the day was spent by the pool again and happily we found that the guys at the hotel make a mean mojito, which we enjoyed a taste of before retiring to the balcony of our room with a nice cold wine, to watch the sun set over the hills . Gosh we sound lazy don’t we? It was very nice to have some peace and quiet, away from the mayhem of the medina though.
Our last day in Fez meant that we needed to organise bus tickets to travel to Chefchaouen, the Blue City in the Rif Valley. So it was that we headed away from the medina into the ‘new town’. Although a bit of a hill climb was required, it was an enjoyable amble through modernish streets, some in disrepair, but with a lot of charm and evidence of the once wealthy, thriving city Fez must have been. Fez is not only known as the home of the world famous hat but is the cultural capital of Morocco. The CTM bus station was easy to find and the tickets easy to purchase, although it is recommended to buy them at least 24 hours before travelling; they sell out fast and while there is a website, we couldn’t get it to work.
In the afternoon we dragged ourselves away from the pool to visit some sites; the Jewish Quarter, the Jnan Sbil Jardin and the world’s oldest university and library (which Cath was super keen to see being both a bibliophile and a bit of a feminist), the University of Al Quaraouiyine. The University was established in the 6th century by a woman and whilst it is not open to tourists, the library is. We headed up the hill from the hotel towards the King’s Palace and along a broad boulevard which led us into the Jewish Quarter, Bar Mellah of the medina. It is recommended that you take a guided tour of this area but we were happy to wander on our own, another mistake as before long we were accosted by a young man, who spoke excellent English and was very quick to start leading us to see his father, who is the custodian of the Synagogue, claiming “I am not a guide, there is no charge”. Before leaving the hotel we had specifically discussed that we would not speak to or accept assistance from any more “helpers” but Ian was keen to believe in this ‘student’ and with a warning glare from Cath we followed along. And yes you guessed it, after about 15 minutes of leading us to nowhere special, he asked for 200 Dhs, “to fund my studies”. Yet another example of us wanting to believe in the honesty of local people and getting taken for ride!!! We gave him 20dhs and headed in what we imagined was the right direction to the University and Gardens.
We arrived at the gardens somewhat jaded and a bit cranky to find it closed due to a music festival taking place later in the evening and it all became a bit to hard to continue in the heat and noise of the medina. Both Fez and Marrakech can be exhausting cities and encouraged by the site of the hotel and pool just outside the gates we headed off for some relaxation, cooling of tempers and to prepare for our trip to Chefchaouen.
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