The beginning of our Moroccan road trip (Morocco, part 2)

June 15 – 18

We spent our first two days in Morocco in Fès, the second largest city in the country and one of its four imperial cities. It was very hot and we felt overwhelmed as soon as we entered the medina (the old, walled part of the city). The driver who picked us up from the airport dropped us just outside the old wall where we were met by the manager of our riad (guest house).

The medina of Fès is a UNESCO World Heritage site and (supposedly) the largest pedestrian-only area in the world. It is made up of narrow, claustrophobic alleyways and “streets,” in some places only a meter or so wide. We were there during the holy month of Ramadan so the streets were mostly empty. But in the evenings when people started to come out and socialize, we could get a feeling of busy and crowded the city can get.

The streets seem like they sprouted organically off one another so do not follow any rhyme or reason that I noticed. In theory, the streets all have names but I don’t think I ever saw any signs posted. Google maps was not helpful to us in navigating the maze. As in so many Moroccan cities, on the outside the buildings are plain and beige but are often colorful and intricately decorated once you pass through the front door.

Our first afternoon in Fès we ventured out to wander around but only lasted about 45 minutes before feeling completely inundated with sights, smells, and claustrophobia. I think of all the places we visited in Morocco we felt the least safe in Fès. Which is not to say that we felt we were in any danger, but we were some of the only tourists and we stuck out like sore thumbs, attracting a fair amount of stares and some possibly-malicious comments about how we should wander any further down a particular street. We retreated to our riad to decompress. In retrospect, starting our tour of Morocco in Fès was not the way to go.

The next day we had a very nice woman as our guide. I’m glad we had one woman guide during our tour because she was able to give us a different perspective of domestic life in Morocco that our male guides didn’t. She told us about how most homes have two doors: a large one used only for major events (weddings, funerals, etc.) and a smaller one set into the large one that is used on a daily basis. She explained how each door has a separate knocker with a distinct sound so that the inhabitants can tell if the guest is family or stranger; this is especially helpful to the women in the household, she told us, because if the visitors are family the women don’t have to put their headscarfs or cover themselves to answer the door. I got the feeling that the separation of gender roles is such that it wouldn’t have occurred to our male guide to mention something like that.

Some highlights from Fès:

  • Hearing the cannon go off exactly when the sun went down to signify the end of fasting for the day, and then all the calls to prayer from the minarets starting in perfect unison.

  • Watching the sunsets from the roof of our riad.

  • Visiting a ceramic workshop and seeing how they make mosaics—craftsmen chip each individual piece by hand.

  • Seeing all of the Andalusian-style architecture (mosaic on the bottom, carved plaster above that, carved and painted cedar wood in the ceiling) in all of the historic buildings.

  • Seeing the leather tanneries…smelling them was less exciting (the white pools are full of pigeon droppings which they use as a lye to tan the leather before dyeing it; it is…pungent).

From Fès our main guide and driver (Mohammed and Yosef, respectively; we met three different Yosefs associated with the tour group which was not at all confusing!) picked us up and we headed towards Chefchaouen, a city nestled in the Rif Mountains north of Fès. On our drive we got to see a lot of the country side including a lot of agriculture. It was cool to see the orchards planted with alternating fig and olive trees; I also saw a man herding turkeys which is something I’d never seen before.

Along the road to Chefchaouen, Yosef randomly pulled over on the side of a road and he and Mohammed jumped out without a word. They returned ten minutes later with bags full of fresh figs and yellow plums: they had been negotiating with the fruit sellers on the side of the road. We got to try some of their purchase and the fruit was very good! Mohammed told us that he and Yosef both come from the desert where they don’t have fruit like that so they like to get as much as they can when it’s available. We stopped a couple of other times for them to stock up on fruit, sometimes the fruit was too expensive and we just moved on. Mohammed also picked up some watermelon to bring to his mother because she can’t get it in the desert.

Chefchaouen is very different from Fès: It’s much, much smaller, it’s in the mountains, and the medina almost exclusively caters to tourists. All of the stucco buildings are painted various shades of blue which make it a very cool city to wander around, your eyes aren’t sure where the walls end and the sky begins.

We spent the night in Chefchaouen and then headed back south. We stopped at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis where we had a local guide walk us around the ruins. It was incredible to see the ingenuity of the people from 400 BC and how they still have influence on our lives today (indoor plumbing, penis jokes, etc.). There are also many mosaics, almost completely intact, adorning the floors of the city’s major mansions. Our guide was knowledgeable and kind of reminded me of my uncle Tony in how he told us all of the Latin roots of common English roots, but it was 105 F and there was no respite from the hot sun so he rushed us through it all.

On our way from Volubilis to Midelt where we spent the night, we drove through the cedar forests of Azrou where we got to see macaque monkeys. It was pretty fun! They come to the edge of the road because they know people will stop to feed them which doesn’t seem like the most environmentally conscious thing in the world, but they were very cute and we got to see some little babies riding on their mothers’ backs.

I think we were the only guests, plus Mohammed and Yosef, staying at the hotel in Midelt… It was a bit lonely and eerie, especially since we were the only ones in the dining room and that was the first day that Martin felt sick. Fun times!

Up next from Morocco: sandstorms in the desert, movie “realism,” palm tree forests, Yunkai (from GoT…), and Marrakech!

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