Morocco – Fez (and food poisoning, too)

It’s not a good omen if the bus driver is cleaning up vomit as you board your long-haul bus. Not a good omen at all. The drive from Chefchaouen to Fez was windy and never ending, but maktoob, our fate was written.

Arriving in Fez is to stumble upon a fever dream interpretation of the Arab World. At this point in the trip it takes a lot to jolt our senses but Fez was like sticking a paperclip in an electrical socket (or perhaps a Japanese bath). The smells, the heat, the absolute chaos of simultaneously avoiding teenaged touts and a slow moving donkey on 3 foot wide street – it’s overwhelming in the best way possible. The labyrinthine medina of Fez, called Fez el-Bali, was established around 800 AD and settled by refugees fleeing Moorish Cordoba. Fez el-Bali is the largest walled city in Morocco and thought to be the largest car-free urban area in the world. Getting lost is inevitable, and it was our main activity in Fez.

The City

My favorite thing about exploring Islamic-built cities is that you never know what’s behind the door. Never. You’ll be roaming a concrete maze of uninteresting buildings, then you open a door and find the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. The riads of Fez are a perfect encapsulation of this outerworld–innerworld dichotomy. A riad is a traditional Moroccan home with a high, windowless outer wall and an interior courtyard surrounded by various rooms. The courtyards are usually the centerpiece of the house and are richly decorated in stunning tile and woodwork. We stayed in a riad called Dar Skalli that was build in the 1300s – that is roughly 28 generations. So cool!

Fez el-Bali is home to the University of al-Qarawiyyin, which was founded in 859 AD and is the oldest continually operating university in the world. Much to my irritation, non-Muslims are not permitted inside so we just had to peek at the doors. As far as I could tell the mosques in the old city are also aren’t really interested in tourist visits. I’m sure they’d let you wander inside but it just seems a bit harram so I didn’t push it. A handful of madrassa’s do allow tourist visits (for a small fee of course) so we spent a few minutes in the Madrassa Bou Inania. It was built in 1351 and definitely gives you the feel of what these old religious buildings were like.

After two days of getting lost in the Medina, we booked a taxi to take us to the old bourjs, the towers, where you can view the old city. I don’t normally get excited over views, but this was spectacular. We visited Bourj Sud (South Tower) and Bourj Nord (North Tower) and we were able to get a sense of just how big the medina.

The Shopping

It is simultaneously good and very, very bad that Morocco is our last stop on the trip. I want to buy everything here and I kind of can since we’re heading home on an airline with insane baggage limits. Jeff and I are going to easily max out Qatar Airlines 100-lb per person baggage allowance. Good lord, that’s shameful. Shopping in Fez was my dream – good stuff to buy and very theatrical haggling. We ‘won’ some pretty blankets, a nice Berber platter, an adorable bronze kitten statue, and I even found the elusive ‘perfect leather jacket’. It’s baby camel leather… should I feel bad about that?

The leather jacket purchase was the culmination of doing exactly what you shouldn’t do in Morocco. First we got talked into following some hustler down a shady alley to view to the leather tanneries from his rooftop. He then handed us over to our next ‘friend’ who simply wanted to talk about some leather products. Just talk, lady! We then played out a ‘Pretty Women’-esq scene where Jeff and I tried on 100 leather jackets. Naturally, the last and most expensive jacket I tried on was perfect. After vigorous debating I played my trump card with the ‘walk away’. At the door my ‘friend’ cornered me and whispered angrily, “Fine, I’ll take your price. But be quiet. I’ll be at your hotel at 8:00 pm with the jacket and have cash.” See what I mean about stuff you shouldn’t do in Morocco? Anyway, after that thoroughly engaging negotiation I ended up with a fun new jacket and a ‘bonus’ handbag.

After all this time… food poisoning

It pains me to say this but the food in Morocco is kind of gross, and Fez food seems to be one standard deviation grosser than average. There is a certain Uzbek-ness to the meat here and every dish could benefit from some salt, spice, and herbs.

Throughout this trip we’ve been vigilant about three food rules: eat local food, eat at busy restaurants, only eat hot food. These rules have gotten us through SE Asia, India, and Central Asia with no problems. Regrettably, our resolve fell apart in Fez. The local food is grim, like spleen stuffed with ground meat grim. After surveying the options (anchovy sandwiches, a goat head stew, and said spleen) we settled on a tourist-centric café with hipster leanings. Bad things happened, and I hope that my digestive system will recover one day. Some food-borne bugs stay with you FOREVER and I have a suspicion that this little ‘souvenir’ will be as persistent as the norovirus of Burma 2013. Damn it, Morocco.

Last haircut of the trip

On our final ‘relax’ day in Fez Jeff got his last haircut of the trip. He’s had some hilarious adventures in hair along the way, but this guy did a great job. We’ll miss $1.50 haircuts at home…

Our time in Fez was eventful with all of the shopping, grooming, and almost dying from food poisoning, so we were ready for a something less chaotic. From Fez we headed to nature (weird) for a 3-day journey through the Sahara and Atlas mountains.

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