Arriving In And Exploring Fez, Morocco

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

11.4.09                  Arriving In And Exploring Fez, Morocco

Disney World is to Florida as Marrakesh is to Morocco – it's an inherent part of the territory, and you’ve got to see it in all its glory and craziness while you’re visiting – but then get the hell out of there!!!  After being in Fez for less than 24 hours, I think I can safely say that I’m a little bit in love with it.  It’s such a different place – and feels more like the "true" Morocco.  The people are friendlier, the experiences are more authentic.  We have had an amazing day today.

We arrived in Fez (sometimes spelled “Fes”), Morocco, about 2:30am today, after a 7+ hour train ride from Marrakesh.  The journey was quite enjoyable, given the 1st class cabins (hah), but it was a long ride well into the night, so we were very tired upon arrival!  The driver lined up by our riad was there to greet us and take us to our home for the next 2 ˝ nights (last night being the ˝ night!). 

To get to the main door of our riad, you have to park about 20m away and walk through an archway (part of the walls of the Medina) and down a narrow back alley.  The driver helped us haul our bags to the riad entrance, and then he used the knocker on the giant, metal front doors.  We heard a grunted “Ehhhh??!!” in reply.  After a few more seconds, the driver knocked again.  We heard another “Ehhhh??!!”, followed by the muffled sounds of someone waking up. 

Soon, a very, very old man in a tented Moroccan-knit cap and traditional robes opened the door.  He motioned to us to enter, and we did.  He then began a fight with one of our two big suitcases (each weighs just under 50lbs – the sum total of clothing/misc. for each of us for 11 weeks), attempting to pick it up and groaning and grunting with the effort.  Murray motioned for him to leave the suitcase, but this man refused!  He finally got the thing picked up, and then led us past the reception room to a narrow, winding, mosaic staircase.  As he led the way up two flights of tall, narrow stairs – me following him and Murray following me – he nearly fell backward with each twist and turn in the staircase, his heels rocking back on the edge of each step!  I had to put my hand out to steady the small of his back.  I had visions of this night watchman (Achmed, a really nice guy, as we later learned) falling backward and him, myself, and Murray – plus all of our luggage – becoming riad dominoes down the stairs!

Yet.  We made it safely to our room, dropped our bags, and quickly and wearily crawled into bed.  Of course, it took both Murray and me a while to finally fall asleep…

 We woke up around 8:15am this morning, only because someone was calling out a random, repeated phrase in Arabic somewhere outside but within earshot of our riad window.  Once up, however, we had the chance to really appreciate our new guesthouse, the Riad Dar Dmana.  It is absolutely stunning!  We have a huge king-size room, lavishly decorated with hand-painted mosaic flooring and gorgeous, antique Moroccan furniture.  The bathroom is also quite large, with more mosaic tiling, a huge shower/tub, and a beautiful ceramic basin sink. 

As I wrote before, “riad” means a guesthouse of Moroccan hospitality.  “Dar” means house, and “Dmana” means a wise old woman.  (We are staying in the “Zineb” room, but I have no idea what that means…)  The guesthouse itself is four stories high – the first story contains a double-high covered courtyard (glass atrium roof, with a hand-painted wood centerpiece), and the top two stories contain only fourteen rooms and suites!  The courtyard itself, housing a restaurant/lounge area, resembles a royal palace.  More hand-painted mosaic tiling; huge, intricate woodwork detail; palatial columns and arched doorways throughout; low tables surrounded by rich fabric seats and cushions; and other antique touches here and there.  The entire place has incredibly Moroccan stylings, but also contains all the mod cons.  It is, by far, the nicest place we’ve stayed in since beginning our 11-week trek – and generally, one of the most pleasant places I’ve ever stayed at, anywhere!

[Note: many people have asked me about the level of comfort we are choosing on this big trip of ours.  My answer – coach airplane tickets everywhere, and accommodations that are above bunk-bed hostels but fairly modest otherwise (e.g., private double bedrooms, but we’re willing to share a bathroom).  Morocco is a fairly expensive country, especially regarding accommodations – and we are in the high season here right now – but still our current Riad Dar Dmana is considered a mid-range accommodation.  We are doing our best to keep this a mid-range trip, accommodation- and transportation-wise, as both of us would rather spend our money on the sights and all the good food!  Hah.]

Also, Riad Dar Dmana has BOTH an included breakfast and Wi-Fi (hallelujah!), so we have struck gold here.  Murray went down to breakfast before I was ready – when I left our room and looked over the balcony into the courtyard, there he was sitting, surrounding by gorgeous food!  The riad served us a feast – crusty bread, crepes, thick maize bread rounds, fresh apricot jam and honey, marinated olives, fresh Moroccan mint tea, café con leche, freshly-squeezed orange juice, and chocolate cake squares topped with freshly-grated coconut!  What a wonderful start to any day!  (Good thing, too, as I was STARVING by the time we woke up.  Dinner off of the train’s tea cart last night didn’t do much for me.)

As we were enjoying our lavish breakfast, we got a phone call from the general manager of the riad (with whom we’d booked this accommodation over email).  To “welcome” us to Fez, he had lined up a tour guide who was going to take us around the sights for free for an hour this morning! 

Ok.  We had done some reading in our guidebook about Moroccan tour guides – both official and unofficial ones – and knew that problems could accompany any such offered tour guide services.  We were on guard to be skeptical of the “free” bit – and we were on guard as to this tour guide leading us into various shops (hand woven rugs, leather goods shops, etc.) full of slick salesmen, where any purchases we made of inflated-price goods would give a nice commission to our guide

We met Khalifi “Sayid” Mohammed (a descendant of the actual Mohammed, as we were quickly told!) in the reception area of our riad around 10:00am.  While skeptical of what we were getting into, we were drawn to him as well.  He was warm, and charismatic, and likable.  He ALSO was slick, in his own way – and fit, in part, that stereotype of the smooth-talking, swindling Arabic businessman! 

At any rate, we went for it!  We left the riad with Sayid and jumped in his car.  Instantly, we were off to the sites – and before we knew it, several hours had passed.  (We had long since determined that we would be paying for the privilege of Sayid by the end of the day, and we decided that we were enjoying the experience so much that he was worth it!)  So ensued the most interesting, and busy, and tiring day of our entire trip so far!  (When I asked Murray if he felt the same way about today, his answer was, “Easily.”)  It was great having someone “in the know” whiz us around in his car and conveniently take us to all the big sites and places.  As a result, we saw and did (and learned) an enormous amount today (so much so that I can only write about the highlights – much is already forgotten or was never known in the first place!).

Fez is split into three parts – Fez el-Bali, the core of the Medina (old city); Fez el-Jdid in the center, containing the Royal Palace and the Jewish Quarter (also called the “new medina”, although perhaps only in Fez can one find a “new city” that is more than 700 years old!); and Ville Nouvelle in the southwest (actually, the fairly “new” part of the city, containing Fez’s administrative area).  Our riad is located just outside of the Medina – we spent today in both the Medina and in the city center.

Our first stop was the Royal Palace, one of King Mohammed VI’s (the current king) 48 palaces in Morocco!  The front gates to the palace were enormous, and impressive – sculpted, arched doorways, surrounded by intricate mosaic work and fitted with huge, shiny, “hand-embroidered” bronze doors!  (In fact, one of these doorways graces the cover of our Moroccan “Lonely Planet” guidebook!) 

At the Royal Palace, Sayid quickly asked for our cameras – as he would at each site throughout the rest of the day (a sum total of at least one hundred times) – and said, “Let me take beautiful picture of you,” and then, when he had taken the picture(s), he would run up and say, “Look!  Look now!  Look at the beautiful picture I take of you!,” and he would keep on pestering us until we actually viewed the picture on our digital cameras in front of him (and when we’d look, by the way, most of the pictures were blurry – a combination of Sayid not holding the camera very still and trying to puff on a cigarette while taking the picture at the same time.  Hahaha.).  By the way, to Sayid, we were “Commandant Mooo-ray” and “Sister Anna”…

 From the Royal Palace, we drove (again, somewhat lunatic-like – although I would say slightly better traffic than Marrakesh) to Bourj Sud – a fortress built around the 16th century on top of a hill overlooking Fez, to monitor the potentially disloyal populace of Fez.  The panoramic views of Fez from Bourj Sud were stunning, and Sayid passed us off to an on-site tour guide who brought us through the interior of the fortress.  Inside there were mainly weaponry exhibits, as well as some art work.  There also was the entrance to a tunnel system, built probably earlier than the 16th century, which runs underground throughout Fez but now is in disuse.

I must stop this entry now and tell you another important thing about Sayid.  The guy.  Knows.  Everyone.  Seriously.  This “man about town” theme would continue all day, at every site we visited.  At Bourj Sud, he knew the gate guards, and the tour guides inside, and even the little old man, situated near the fortress entrance, selling Kodak batteries out of his little suitcase.  Through the winding and intricate marketplace streets we visited, Sayid knew literally hundreds of shop owners (or, more accurately, they knew him!), and random kids running around, and older ladies asking him for coins.  I swear he drew crowds wherever we went, too – everyone wanted a piece of Sayid.  I cannot even describe it so you know what I’m talking about.  His popularity and politician-like style was funny, and crazy, and also unsurprising – all part of the guy’s charm.

Anyway.  From Bourj Sud, we went on to a beautiful, partly-outdoors mosque also situated atop a hillside overlooking Fez, which is only used two times a year – at Ramadan, and during Id.  More great panoramic views, including some views of the never-ending ancient hillside tombs (cemeteries) surrounding Fez – and some nice sheep grazing nearby.  I never did find out the name of this mosque!

After the mosque, we drove through the Mellah, or the Jewish Quarter.  Sayid told us a lot about Jewish history in Morocco, which was very interesting.  In the 14th century, Fez el-Jdid became a refugee for Jews, and the Mellah was created by the sultan in order to provide further protection for the population that was moved there.  In turn, the Jews repaid the sultan with their loyalty during times of conflict.  While less than 200 Jews remain in the Mellah (most have long since moved to Ville Nouvelle, another part of Fez), old Jewish houses remain, their open balconies overlooking the streets in sharp contrast to Muslim architectural stylings.

From the Mellah, we headed into the Andalusian Quarter, also in Fez el-Jdid (the “new” medina).  Sayid took us through several (again!) narrow, winding streets and back alleys containing the maze of marketplace stands and stalls (thankfully, there were limited amounts of mopeds whizzing past!).  We saw so many things in this part of town – an old inn that used to house people and animals (caravanserai), and is now used as a livestock resting area in the center of all these markets; again, every kind of good and food for sale that you can think of!; live chickens, turkeys, and roosters, feet tied together with string, carried five at a time, waiting to be sold for meat; a snail stand (or escargots stand, if you will), selling bowlfuls of hot, steaming snails that you eat on the spot from a common bowl, rinsed out with water between each use; and too many mosques to count (according to Sayid, there are 420 mosques in Fez!).  One of the more notable mosques we saw, Jamaa Andalous, is an Andalusian mosque that was constructed by Andalusian immigrants around the 9th century.

Here’s another gem you should know about Sayid – everything he says is true, “I swear to God!”  He is good friends with Michael Douglas – he worked with him during the filming of “Jewel of the Nile” many years back – “he is such nice man, I swear to God!  Danny DeVito, not so nice – I swear to God!”  Sayid told us that he personally knows the Queen, and knows/has worked/is friends with Egypt’s most famous movie star, and he has even met Bill Clinton – “I swear to God, it’s true!”  We heard this phrase too many times to count throughout our day.  Really, it made everything Sayid said seem rather untrue!

While in the Andalusian Quarter, we also stopped and toured Medersa Sahrij, a school built in the 1320s by the then-sultan.  (You may know medersas by another name – madrasas.  These “ancient circles of learning” are located throughout Fez, and probably Morocco.)  This particular medersa has a central courtyard with a small pool and fountains, surrounded by high walls of mosaics and several smaller rooms (former classrooms).  The geometric, floral, and epigraphic motifs are central to this medersa’s architectural design.  Sayid took a lot of pictures of Murray and me at this site – most, of course, blurry!

Onward we plunged past the Waliya de Fez (central administrative building) and other sites on our way to Musee Batha – which, according to Sayid, is the best museum in all of Africa!  It is a stunning museum, housed in a converted 19th century summer palace.  A wide courtyard leads into extensive gardens in one direction, and in the other direction, columns and archways lead into the special collections.  Once we arrived at the museum, Sayid passed us off to yet another on-site tour guide, who privately took us through exhibits and collections of Moroccan arts and crafts, and historical artifacts including fine woodcarving, zellij and sculpted plaster, intricate Fassi embroidery, colorful Berber carpets, and antique farming tools and musical instruments.  And, while there were signs around prohibiting photography, this tour guide encouraged us to take as many pictures as we wanted – and also encouraged us to touch and feel the historical artifacts he pointed out to us (hello?!?!). It was quite the different museum experience!

Leaving the Batha Museum, we made a quick stop at the riad so that I could change into warmer clothes.  From there, we headed to the Merenid Tombs, again set high up on a hillside overlooking Fez.  The tombs are dramatic in their advanced state of ruin, although little remains of their fine original decoration.  Still, again the views of Fez from the Tombs was spectacular, and also we were able to see more of the cemeteries and tombs that line the lower hillsides of Fez.

Finally, early afternoon, we drove into Fez el-Beli, the core of the Medina (old city).  Today, around 150,000 Fassis (of Fez’s total population of around one million) still live within this maze of twisting alleys, blind turns, secret and low-ceilinged tunnels, and souqs/marketplaces.  It was during our tour through the Medina that we were especially grateful to Sayid!  He expertly navigated us through the confounding system, and even took us through interesting little side trips, like showing us how the hot water of the Medina is “made” (a very little, very old man, sitting outside a huge clay oven, feeding wood chips into the roaring fire all day long) and where intricate and elaborate wedding seats and palanquins are constructed.  We also came across countless ornate fountains, little plazas, and even more mosques spread throughout the Medina (again, non-Muslims are not allowed inside mosques, but during our time in the Medina, a few of the mosques we saw actually had their doors wide open so that we could see people praying inside.  Sayid grabbed my camera and even took a few pictures!). 

By nearly 2pm, I was ravenous, so Sayid navigated us through more tiny walkways and dirty tunnels until we reached a non-descript door.  When he knocked on the door and it opened, we were ushered into a gorgeous room with cathedral-high ceilings, decorated in the Moroccan style and full of tourists!  At Restaurant Asmae, Sayid graciously left us to enjoy lunch – a FEAST of four courses, starting with twelve different types of Moroccan salads (cold and hot – like cinnamon-infused beets, garlic white beans, curried lentils, picante olives, etc.); entrees that included curry couscous and Tagine with lamb, prunes, and almonds; “fruits of the season” – fresh mandarins and grapes as a palate cleanser; and, of course, Moroccan mint tea and pastries for dessert.  Stupendous meal!  After the waiter came around and sprinkled fresh rose water over our hands, we had to be rolled out of there.

Sayid showed up just as our meal was ending – at this point, it was nearly 4pm, and we were TIRED (remember – we had just arrived on this morning’s 2:30am train!).  Still, Sayid urged us to soldier on and see a few more things in the Medina, and we acquiesced.  We went to a few more mosques, and walked through the main plaza, Place as-Seffarine.  We also were shown a major cooperative carpet house, where we were served tea (we didn’t buy any carpets); a metalworks shop (where we bought two hand-embroidered metal plates); an antiques/woodworking shop (where we sat in a hand-carved Moroccan deck swing, but didn’t buy anything); an ancient remedies/potions/herbs and spices shop (where we bought small bags of two different “house spice mixtures” – one with 10 spices, for meats and couscous – and the other, a 42-spice mix for multi-use purposes); and finally, we went into the tanneries (where we bought an indigo leather tote bag and a burgundy leather shoulder bag, and had them shipped home to Australia!).

While all of these were interesting experiences that I could write more about, I will only mention the tanneries here, as they are worth mentioning alone.  We visited the Chouwara tanneries, one of the Medina’s most iconic sights (and smells!), through the entrance of a multi-level shop with narrow, winding mosaic staircases (is this a theme?!) leading up to a high terrace.  Immediately, we were given fresh sprigs of mint to hold under our noses, to guard against the rank odors of drying leather and dyes, as another on-site tour guide explained to us about the tannery process and about life in the leather district in general.

Like it or don’t like it, the leather industry in Morocco supports hundreds of families and has been a part of Moroccan culture for several millennia.  The tour guide explained to us that little has changed in the tanneries process since the beginning – donkeys still labor through the narrow Medina streets, carrying skins to dye pits; the skins are boiled, and washed many times through a water-generated wheel, and then soaked in various substances (like ash, pigeon poo, and cow urine!) over and over; and later, the skins are dyed in indigo, saffron, and poppy for added color.  Visiting and touring the tanneries was a very interesting experience – although the smell, at times, was tough to take…

It was after 6pm by the time we dragged Sayid out of the Medina and he drove us back to our riad.  (“Sayid, we have to go now – I am literally falling asleep on my feet,” I told him.  “OK, Sister Anna – but are you sure you don’t want to see Queen’s hotel overlooking Fez?  Very nice.  No?  Ok, ok, we go,” he finally replied.)  When we got back to our wonderful room at the riad, we collapsed!  Later in the evening, Murray left the riad with Achmed, who guided Murray to a good take-out shop nearby.  Murray brought huge, grilled sandwiches back to our room – along with a big bottle of bubbly, Limón Schweppes – and we had a nice picnic together before going to bed around 10:30pm.  We are sleeping in tomorrow, darn it.

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jenny b on

gorgeous photos- wish i was on your trip! miss you guys.... xo

Anty Sharobn on

You write so well it is almost like being there with yhou.

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