October 6, 2013
In Fez I shed my tourist trappings and lived like a resident, thanks to my friend M who generously placed her restored Riad at my disposal during my stay. Unfortunately M was tied up with work and couldn’t join me but she corralled two locals to help me out. I needed it!
The Fez train station where I met my young guide was the last bit of modernity I saw during my four-day stay. We took a taxi to the entrance of the medina where I was led through an impenetrable maze of streets to my Riad. M had already explained that I would have to walk behind my guide as he was not an “official” guide. What? Apparently Fez authorities had enough of the local kids claiming to be guides and pestering (or worse) hapless tourists. For several years it has been a crime (!) for a local to walk with a tourist.
I tried to memorize each turn along the narrow streets but it was hopeless. We arrived at the Riad and when he opened the door I couldn’t believe I was actually going to stay there. It was fit for the legendary Almoravid queen, Zainab Nafzaouia.
Typical of the style, this 500-year old residence was structured as two floors around a tiled courtyard, open to the sky.
Plus there’s a rooftop terrace with a view over Fez!
But of course I wanted to explore Fez as well. First I needed a strategy to avoid getting hopelessly and eternally lost in Fez’s 9400 streets. By streets, I mean alleys, lanes, dead-ends and corridors hardly wide enough for a donkey. My young guide had helpfully given me his phone number to call after I finished lunch so he could show me back to the Riad. When my phone ran out of juice I realized how helpless I was as I had no idea how to to find the street that was only about 500m away. Someone from the restaurant was able to lead me back and I resolved to keep the phone fully charged at all times.
I realized that Fez was organized according to crafts activities and markets and I was in the “djellaba sewing” neighborhood which was at the end of the dried fruit stalls and not far from the bridal wear street.
M strongly recommended I hire an official guide for a half-day which I did. This personable fellow took me to Fez’s major highlights that recalled the city’s glory days as a religious, cultural and intellectual center. We examined the stucco, cedarwood and tiles at the Medersa el-Attarine,
As I didn’t specify a “no shopping” tour, we stopped in a fair amount of shops. I didn’t mind as it gave me a chance to rest, cool off and drink mint tea. Besides some of the shopping stops gave interesting background on Fez’s famous crafts such as silk and pottery. The best was the tanneries stop. Tanning here is still done the old-fashioned way with vats of natural dye.
I spent the rest of the day exploring on my own which included dodging the donkeys that were trudging around everywhere and absurdly overburdened
and trying to find my way back by taking pictures of vivid streets and signs
At first Fez is overwhelming. A lot of places claim to be a “trip back in time” but, except for electricity and plumbing, Fez really is a throwback to medieval life . There was something fascinating on every street whether it was carpenters banging out bridal thrones, knives being sharpened on a whetstone, men making silk thread out of agave, stalls selling mysterious gelatinous edibles. Contrary to what I had been led to expect, I was not harassed or harangued on the street except near the tanneries where the sales pitches became more high pressure.
After a highly productive morning buying carpets in a shop recommended by M, I finished off my stay and prepared for the trip back by a session in a local hammam. Although no one spoke anything other than Darija I managed to get scrubbed and rubbed while an attendant lugged over plastic buckets of steaming water. The rooms were clean but basic. As for the other women, all I can say is that djallabas hide a multitude of carb-related sins.
I took the 8-hour train back to Marrakech and spent my final night in the Gueliz or new part of Marrakech which I liked a lot. I especially liked that the taxi driver can deposit you at the doorstep of the hotel without having to bumble through the Medina streets. I stayed at the Hotel Les Trois Palmiers which was excellent value for money.