Touring Ancient Fez, Morocco

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Our drive to Fez was just as beautiful as our other drives. Instead of desert and stone mountains we experienced mountains covered in evergreens, valleys full of sheep and shepherds, and towns which looked like Swiss villages. The views were just as spectacular as the views from Merzouga, making our journey even longer due to all the stops for photo ops. We stopped in a valley with a little pond, roaming sheep and a small nomad camp. The minute we got out of the van to take pictures four nomad children started running from the camp, down the road to greet us. They were asking for money and once we gave them a little they invited us to tea in their tent, which unfortunately we did not have time to accept. While our driver was talking to them one of the girls was looking at me and asked me to give her my sunglasses. When I told her I could not she looked me up and down to see if there was anything else she wanted. I tried to think of something else I had to give her but we seemed to agree silently that there was not. They let us take their picture and then they were on their way back to camp to run in the beautiful valley.

We approached Fez with trepidation after our experience in Marrakech. Again we were staying in the old medina and didn’t know what to expect. We were determined not to let that experience influence our experience in Fez. As we approached the old medina the traffic was quite heavy, yet a man on a scooter managed to pull up next to our van and ask our driver to set him up as our guide. We politely refused thinking he would leave it at that. However, he did not. He proceeded to follow us, yelling in the window and trying to find out where we were staying. Eventually, after many attempts, and tapping of our windows at red lights he gave up and moved on. This made all of us, including our driver, a bit uncomfortable. We shook it off as just a crazy guy looking for work.

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Once again we were staying in a very nice riad, which was good because we ended up spending a great deal of time inside due to 106 degree weather or just being tired of saying “No” to young men. On our first morning we met a great American family and all of us went with the hotel manager to the souk to shop. The family was tired of being harassed and didn’t want to shop alone. It was a fun morning. We were told stories of how the manager (a woman) had been so harassed by a shop owner who was angry she was standing in his doorway that he started an argument with her, then other men gathered around her until she had to call her husband to help her out of the situation (she is a Moroccan woman). This, along with warnings that people were very edgy from giving up drugs and cigarettes during the day for Ramadan, enforced the idea we needed a guide to learn the layout of the city.

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Again this turned out to be an excellent decision. Our guide was so knowledgeable and friendly. We experienced the city with him in a way we never could have on our own. He showed us the oldest University in the world, University Al Karouin, founded in 859 by a woman,  Fatima Al-Fihri, which was quite beautiful with intricate tile, wood and plaster work. The story goes that the King at the time made it so beautiful to teach the people of Fez a lesson. He had married a woman who was either a prostitute or some kind of dancer. The people didn’t approve. So he refurbished the University in such a beautiful way, spending a great deal of money, that the people were in awe. Afterwards he told the people, You see everything has the ability to be grand and beautiful. It was a lesson to teach them to give his wife a chance.

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We visited the food markets with our guide who helped us have an amazing experience. The market was an incredible experience with beautiful fruits, nuts and other food. The people overall were very kind and eager to help us understand what different foods were. I had to break down and get water, which we tried never to drink in public out of respect, while standing in the market an older man came and tried to hit the water out of my arm shaking his finger at me because it was Ramadan. This was very unusual. The Moroccans were normally very tolerant of the non-muslims eating and drinking during the day.

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One of the things we loved in Fez was how tiny some of the 9,000 alleyways were, some requiring us to bend down to walk through, and some of them being so narrow J. could barely fit through them. In Fez there are so many artisans still making jewelry, large metal objects, sewing (all done by the men), and wood work in small shops along the alleyways. They were so proud to show us their work and many of them were happy to allow us to take their pictures without paying them. (Always ask first in Morocco, it is very disrespectful not to.)

On the first day J. went out on his own to buy a few things. There were men on the street who yelled at him to get back in his hotel where he belonged. Later that day we went out and were harassed by young men. We went back to the hotel and the manager went out, yelled at them to leave us alone and they did for the rest of our time there.

We found delicious food at two restaurants near our Riad (The Ruined Garden & Fez Cafe) where we ate most of our meals. They were both set in garden areas inside of old Riads.

We found the souk and the market to be a much easier place to be than in Marrakech. The people did not harass us to buy from them, they allowed us to look in peace at the shoes, clothes, jewelry, leather goods and amazing silver pieces. They did not say anything to us when we were walking around. There were still the guys who would follow tourists around harassing them to let them be guides or show them how to get somewhere but they were much less aggressive than in Marrakech.

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In one square famous for being the place where students and writers would come to work J. was helping some men push a large metal pot and our guide was approached by a very funny man who asked how many camels it would take to buy me as his wife.

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One day we toured a ceramic co-op outside of the medina. Here there are people making ceramic dishes, mosaic pieces, hand painting and selling items. To watch them hand paint the tiles and ceramic pieces freehand using only a small brush was absolutely incredible. There were several rooms with men sitting on the floors piecing together gorgeous mosaic pieces following hand drawn patterns on large boards. It was stunning to watch how beautifully and perfectly they worked.

We spent a lot of time talking to our guide about Muslim extremists, Islam and the Quran. He told us in the Quran there is a passage which states that Muslims are to protect and be kind to the people of the books (meaning the Quran and the Bible). They are just as sad as we are that there is such a strain on understanding of the true teachings of the Quran.

The architecture of the city never disappointed. We spent some time in antique shops, which just blew our minds. The old doors, mosaics, silver pieces and furniture were so exceptional. It was truly the first time it broke my heart not to have a home to ship things to. It is absolutely incredible to walk down the streets and find men crafting huge wood doors as they did hundreds of years ago, using hand tools, creativity and hard work, in small workshops tucked into small streets and alleways. There is no way to describe the wonder of these discoveries.

While we found the medina in Fez to be quite intimidating the people overall were much kinder and gentler than in Marrakech. I felt lucky to be there during Ramadan so we were able to walk through the market and the souk without being crowded by tourists.

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This is a window in the medina. It is designed this way so women could look out without being seen. This allowed them to not have to cover up while in their homes.

If you are traveling to Morocco or even just dreaming about it check out my post on the Do’s, Dont’s and Things to Know.

2 thoughts on “Touring Ancient Fez, Morocco

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  1. Which riad did you stay in? It looks like you were in the same part of the medina as we were. We also ate at the Ruined Garden. I’m glad that you had a good time in Fez, other than Jim’s horrible experience of being yelled at!

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