I am literally about to fall asleep as I write this but Mom said I would regret it if I don’t write anything about Fez, and that’s probably true, but I also think she really just wants me to write, but whatever; I’m writing. Warning: this will be a long one.
FES. I really have no idea where to start. I’m sitting on my bed, yes you heard me, BED, not couch thing covered with a sheet, but a bed, staring out of one of our three double doored windows facing into the most peaceful and serene courtyard in the world. We are at Riad Laaroussa in the Gray Suite, and there are no words to describe how amazing this place is. The streets of the Medina are so crazy and wild, and this enormous and beautiful Riad is tucked away behind simple doors that you would never really notice, but open up to paradise.
But I’ll start at the beginning.
We woke up back in our little purple room in the Rabat Medina and made our way to the Rabat-Ville train station. The station is clean and well organized, unlike the rest of Morocco, and before long we were sitting in a little train compartment headed to Fes! It was really interesting to drive past the outskirts of Rabat, and see everything from beautiful stately homes to a very run down shantytown. For the first part we had the compartment to ourselves, so we made ourselves comfortable.
About halfway through the trip a man came in and sat with us, and started talking with us in French. He asked if we were from France, which totally boosted my confidence with speaking French, and when we said Vancouver, he told us about how he had recently been to Seattle. He said he had very poor English, but once he found out that Mom doesn’t really speak French he switched over to pretty fluent English. He told us that he is a driver for tours that go into the desert, and gave us his card, and then started talking about his friend who is a guide in Rabat. I was totally skeptical and didn’t like him at all. We had been warned about fake guides in Fes, and I just didn’t trust this guy at all. But he was charming and talkative and didn’t like taking no for an answer, and soon we found ourselves agreeing to meet with his friend at the train station. Well, it wasn’t really us agreeing. It was more just that he arranged it and we didn’t know what to do except to go along with it. I really didn’t like him, so I slept the rest of the train ride. We figured that if we met the guy and didn’t like him we could just say no.
So we got off the train and suddenly we were following this little man in a purple shirt named Hassan who was apparently all the rave among tourism in Fes. Lucky us. We were happy to have his help, though, finding our way to the Riad! He helped us find a cheap taxi to the Old Medina, and once we got there led us in through this beautiful blue gate into the Medina. The Medina of Fes is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I can see why. It is the largest and oldest Medina in Morocco, with 9400 streets hosting 350000 people. That many roads and that many people also means that it is the most confusing Medina in Morocco! We were grateful to have Hassan to follow through the busy streets, all sloping downwards. The entire Medina is on a hill side, and everyone says if you get lost, just head down and you’ll eventually make it out of the Medina. It sounds like sound advice, but after seeing the winding streets, I think if I got lost all I’d do is panic.
By the time Hassan led us through the large, but simple, double wooden doors into Riad Laaroussa, we were ready to drop our bags and sit down for a second. Stepping into the Riad felt like stumbling upon a desert oasis after trekking through the Sahara for five days without water. All the noise and bustle and crowds faded away, and we were in this sanctuary. We were welcomed into this beautiful quiet garden, the loudest noise being a few birds chirping melodically in the orange trees. The contrast was so intense, and it was really hard to believe that something like this could exist in all the chaos outside. Even now, if I didn’t know first hand, I’d never believe that we’re in the middle of the Medina right now.
A woman brought us up to the Grey Suite, which they gave us instead of the blue room because it was empty for the night at no extra charge. It was up three little flights of stairs, and wow, it was worth it. We walked up the last few stairs into this beautiful open room, with three huge windows facing out to the courtyard. The bathroom is my favorite part because there’s a shower! Not a small shower head over a toilet, but a real live beautiful shower. The bathroom is bigger than our bedroom back home in Rabat! They then sat us down in these cute little chairs facing into the courtyard, and brought us some tea and cookies while we filled out a few forms. Hassan waited patiently while we took it all in. It was so beautiful. We finished out tea, and then we were ready to take on Fes.
Fes is incredible. The medina is a lot bigger than ours, and is on this enormous hill on the edge of the Atlas Mountains, all sloping downward. The streets are crazy, and there seems to be absolutely no order in what direction they go in. As we followed Hassan through the streets and tried our best to keep up, we had to watch out for donkeys and horses, which are used to carry heavy loads since cars don’t fit down the tiny winding streets. Fes definitely feels more touristy than Rabat, but it’s also very authentic and exotic and interesting. I’d say Rabat is a bit more “livable” while Fes is much more of an adventure. Fes is known for its handicrafts, so walking down the street you see so many things that you want to buy! The Medina is sort of divided into sections, with certain streets dedicated to certain sectors. For example, we wandered through the metalwork section where there was stall after stall of blacksmiths, and then there was the street where they dye wool, and it was full of different colored wool hanging from everything on the little street. So there is some sort of order, but you probably wouldn’t totally understand the order unless you lived here.
Hassan took us to this old beautiful building that reminded me a little bit of our Riad that was used as a Coranic school to teach Imams. Teenagers would come around 15 years old and they stayed at the school for twelve years, until they finally returned home as Imams. Now it’s a sort of museum, but walking around you can imagine young guys studying there way back when. It used to be the only Coranic school in the region, so people would come from all over. The ceiling was particularly beautiful, hand carved out of cedar with the most beautiful designs.
Next, we followed Hassan through the winding bustling streets to this amazing building with every inch covered in beautiful Moroccan carpets. It’s so strange because the little winding streets are so tiny, so you’d really never imagine to find these huge buildings on the other side of the simple little doors you see on the street. Hassan said it’s this way because traditionally, the outside of your house wasn’t important at all, and it was the inside that mattered. The built the Medinas this way so that they would have a lot of space inside, rather than outside.
Hassan handed us off to this other guy who we followed all the way to the top of the building, where he promised us a beautiful view of the city. I swear, every inch of this place was covered in carpets. We finally got to
the top, and were greeted with the most amazing view of all of Fes. It was incredible. On the roof there was also this enormous loom, where two women were sitting and weaving carpets! They invited us over to see, and let me sit down and try! The knot they we doing was quite simple, as in, I could figure it out my first try, but it’s not the knot that’s impressive, it’s the speed at which they do it! In the time that I did three little knots another woman had done entire rows! I can’t imagine making a whole rug! Some of them are crazy, and take five years to complete with a million little knots in a tiny little space. We admired the views for a little while longer, and the guy helping us let us stand on plastic chairs to get a better view! It was really spectacular.
We knew there must be a catch for this really cool experience, and that came in the form of a rug salesmen. He sat us down on beautiful couches and brought us water, and started his pitch. It was funny how fluent he was in selling rugs. “No pressure, no pressure,” he always said to start, “Ijust want to show.” Slowly it would turn into, “In case you want to buy, no pressure, no pressure…”. Suddenly we were looking at a pricing chart, and then men were rolling rug after rug after rug of all different colours and sizes out in front of us, and we were asked to point out our favorites. Then it became, “No pressure, but if you were to buy, what price would you like to pay?”. And then he said, “You name your price, if I like it you can have it. No insult.” It was so funny how quickly it escalated, and all of the sudden Mom was being asked to buy a $2000 rug. Although “No Pressure” seems to be the key word he had learned, we definitely felt the pressure! I can see how people end up coming home with beautiful Moroccan rugs, but luckily we didn’t get sucked in!
Next we went to a place where they make silk from Agave plants. It’s really interesting because women make the rugs, but men make all the silk and made all the women’s clothes! At this place we met a man who was using this other kind of loom to spin silk from this plant, and it was really beautiful. Mom was, of course, very happy to be surrounded by all the beautiful scarves, and, of course, couldn’t help buying a really pretty one with lots of colours. I ended up buying this beautiful red and orange fabric that I hope to turn into a duvet or a comforter for my room in Ottawa – Holly, if you’re reading this, that will be your job (please)!
We also went to a little spice place where they showed us Moroccan Argan oil, and a few other local Moroccan products that were really nice. We got to smell all the different spices, which was really fun. I think Paprika is my favorite.
I’m sort of jumping from place to place here, but try imagine that walking between each of these places we we in the heart of the Fes Medina, side stepping donkeys and kittens and walking past the blacksmiths who are busy at work, and ducking under homemade looms that stretch across the length of the streets. It’s impossible to describe it all, but try to imagine!
Finally we went to the Tannery, which was one of my main inspirations for coming to Fes. It was so incredible. The Tanneries are where they treat and dye leather, but it’s all done outside in these giant clay vats that are all sort of attached together. There’s ones for cleaning, ones for colouring, ones for drying… It takes about two months to properly make one piece of usable leather. This was the oldest Tannery in Morocco, and it was absolutely amazing. They gave us mint leaves to smell while we walked around, because the tanneries smell awful, and we were taken up to the rooftop to look down on all these wells full of dye and other things like that. Men stood on the edges of the vats that were just wide enough to stand on, and they seemed to be working really hard. It’s so hard to explain, but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
After, we were of course taken to see the leather products. There was leather from goats, dromedaries, sheep, and cows, and it’s interesting because they buy all the leather from the local butcher, so they don’t actually go out and kill animals for the leather; they buy it from the butcher where the meat is used for food. The dromedary leather is bought from the Sahara, but is also from animals that are used for food. I found the bag of my dreams. It was so beautiful, and I bargained with him from 1100 MAD to 450MAD, but we didn’t have that much with us so a guy from the store came with us to a bank machine to get the money out. Surprise, though, because the bank machines were all empty and no one bothered filling them up during Ramadan! At first we thought it was our cards, so we went to two different machines, but in the end we couldn’t get money out and I had to give the bag of my dreams back to the leathery salesman. That was slightly heartbreaking.
That was the end of our tour through the crazy Fes Medina. I feel like my description was far from adequate, but there was just so much going on and it’s impossible to describe it all! My favorite part of this Medina is the donkeys everywhere. Hopefully the pictures will give a better sense of what I’m trying to describe!
After that we came back to our Riad for a bit. Normally around that time is our nap time, but there was definitely not enough time for that! Instead we sat in the courtyard and had some tea and cookies, which is one of the most peaceful beautiful things in the world. There’s a little fountain in the courtyard, surrounded by little orange trees full of birds. We sat and sipped our tea and watched the Riad’s cat chase around all the little birds. It’s so crazy because when you look up from the courtyard there’s all these beautiful wooden doors and intricately decorated walls and columns – it’s all so beautiful. Heaven on earth.
Karim, who works at the Riad and is one of the nicest men in the world, helped us organize our dinner plans at a place called The Ruined Garden at 8pm with two other guests from the Riad who are also mother and daughter.
We weren’t sure if we could even eat because we didn’t have any money, so right before dinner we ran to the bank machine to try again with my cards. That was a mistake, because it was right around the call the prayer, so the streets were quite empty. The harassment in Fes is a bit more aggressive, and they know a few more English words than the guys in Rabat. But we got back to the Riad safe and sound, just in time to head out to dinner with Ebe and Helen from New Zealand! It was cool to meet another mother daughter pair, and they we really really nice! A man from the Riad walked the four of us to the restaurant, and we were greeted by Robert, a man from London who runs this restaurant and a Riad of his own. It was one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to! The name, The Ruined Garden, is quite literal because the restaurant sits in these old ruins. There were trees strategically planted all around, and these large fabric overhangs to give it the feel of a more enclosed space, even though it was completely open. Tables and chairs were sort of placed wherever they fit, but it looked very nice, and sitting there at our little table, we were sitting in the middle of the most spectacular ruins.
We sat at the table over from Ebe and Helen, so it was sort of like we were all sitting together, and we talked with them a lot, as well as with Robert, who runs the restaurant. It was really interesting to talk with them about Morocco. Robert has been in Fes for three years, and his life here sounds so interesting! He said that in the 80s there was a bit of an uprising in Fes, and the King got mad and ignored Fes after that, so it sort of fell to poverty. Until very recently the Fes Medina was falling apart, but since UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, there have been some restorations to make the buildings livable and safe. Robert made us a fig salad, and this really interesting donut thing with egg and smoked salmon that sounds really strange but was really incredible.
I also made a different friend at dinner named Sam, who is a beautiful orange cat that came over and sat on my lap at the beginning of dinner, and fell asleep and sat there for the entire meal! I usually hate cats, but I loved this one! He always hangs around there, I guess, and he’s named Sam. He sort of wandered over and then slowly got closer and closer, until he curled up on my lap and didn’t budge for the whole time. Robert said that Sam is the first friend he made in Fes.
After dinner, we came back to our beautiful Grey Suite, where we showered in a real shower that didn’t have a toilet in it, and then got into our real bed with real sheets and a real comfortable. They had lit candles all around our room, and it was so nice! I love love love our host family and our little room in the Rabat Medina, but this is such a nice peaceful break. I know we’ll be sleeping well tonight!