The distance from Tarifa to Tangier is only 20 miles or so, but the cultures are worlds apart. That becomes immediately apparent after docking when the Moroccan border guards come aboard the ferry to check passports and immigration cards. Steve wrote “photographer” as his occupation and got a stern look and was asked what newspaper he worked for. “Not press, weddings mostly.” The guards said something, laughed, and handed over the passport. After walking off the ferry there was another guard to check that the passports had been properly stamped.
If you do any advance reading about Morocco, you’ll certainly hear about how people are going to approach you try to “help” you or “guide” you or be your friend and then expect money for it. Well that’s all dead on. Before we were even outside the port building we were getting approached by men asking us where we were going, what we were doing, did we need to exchange money, would we like a tour of Tangier, and everything else you could imagine. We approached a row of taxis and had an old man lead us to his unmarked car where he opened the door and beckoned us in. …No thanks, we’ll at least get into a marked cab.
We only had a few minutes to get to the train station if we wanted to be on the early train leaving for Fes. The taxi driver was initially insistent on going slow and pointing out the sites as we went along, trying to get us to bite on a longer tour of Tangier, guided by him, of course. After the third “no thanks, just the train station” he finally gave up on that and spent the remaining five minutes of the ride offering to exchange money for me. It’s illegal to take much Moroccan currency out of the country, so you can’t get it ahead of time. He seemed genuinely sad that we knew we could get a better exchange rate at the train station’s ATM. He tried one more “you won’t make the train, take my Tangier tour” before we paid him. Ten minutes later we were in our compartment on the train ready to start the five hour trip to Fes.
The countryside passing on the way to Fes was striking, in both good and bad ways. There were lots of great landscapes full of hills and cropland, but much of the infrastructure was in horrible shape. Maybe we should have expected that, after all, we were going to Fes, which was founded in 859. Things are bound to get run down in a country that old. The age of things can be understood, but what stood out to both of us was the garbage. It was everywhere. Maybe we take modern landfills for granted, things which maybe they didn’t have. It’s as if the norm in every little town we passed was to take the garbage and just dump it in piles at the edge of town. Morocco – land of rustic desert landscapes and garbage piles.
The train ride passed without issue and we emerged out of the Fes station to be bombarded with another row of taxi drivers. We found a driver who must have smelled that we just got into the country because he took us to our destination and charged us easily four times what the fare should have been. Note to other people – do a little research beforehand, or just be insistent on finding a driver that will use the meter, even though most will outright lie (meter is broken, we don’t use meters here, meter doesn’t get used before 2pm, etc.). Granted, getting ripped off meant we paid about six dollars for our cab ride.
We got dropped off at Ain Azlitten, a “car park” at one of the entrances to the Fes medina. Fes is basically divided into the medina and the new town. The medina is the ancient walled city with a maze of pedestrian streets that cars can’t enter. We were staying just inside. At Ain Azlitten, a “security guard” walked with us to a cafe where we were to get help finding the place we were staying. The people at the cafe made sure we paid the guard for his security services. We were offered some traditional mint tea while we waited for another guide to lead us to Dar el Ma, the riad we would be staying in for the next four nights.
Mint tea – like liquid mint gum.
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard or garden. Ours was a place that an English couple bought and put a ton of work into restoring, so it was a beautiful mix of old and new that we had all to ourselves. There was a housekeeper that would come in every morning to make us breakfast and we had dinner on the terrace. Of all the places we booked, this was one we had been looking forward to.
Looking across the courtyard
Looking down into the courtyard
View from our terrace
In the evening we ventured back out to the Cafe Khmissa, the same cafe where we first had tea. They had a rooftop dining area where we ate chicken tagine and turkey skewers and had a small bottle of Moroccan wine. We were still new in country so we didn’t argue when they charged us what seemed like more than the menu prices had stated. Over the next couple days, we quickly learned that inside the medina, you haggle for everything, including things that on the surface have fixed prices. Everything.
We got up slowly and heard Houda, the housekeeper downstairs preparing breakfast. She gave us a tray of Moroccan food that we can’t name – a crepe-like roll, a bread made from semolina, and a fried egg (ok, we knew what the egg was). The owners kept a photo album and notebook near the breakfast table, the album showing the extent of the renovation process, and the notebook full of messages from previous guests from such far away places as Dayton, Ohio.
After eating we made our first foray into the medina. We thought Seville was difficult to navigate, but Fes was downright labyrinthine. A long series of winding, hilly streets, branching every which way with unexpected dead ends. We didn’t have a map and don’t really think it would’ve been of much help as if the streets were marked (many were not) then they were often marked in worn down signs written in arabic. We did our best to follow a series of red and brown signs pointing in the direction of the major entrance and exit of the medina and even then, we still got turned around a number of times.
The smell of mule crap was a major part of the atmosphere in some areas.
Adding to the confusion of the streets is the sheer number of people passing through. These are not sleepy neighborhoods, they’re lively and crowded, bordered on all sides with souqs (little shops) selling anything and everything you can imagine. If you stop to try to figure out where you are, you’re likely to get run over, by people or donkeys hauling leather to one of the tanneries. That or have some friendly person approach you and offer to guide you out, for a small fee (or a large one, depending on how well you negotiate).
Apart from always feeling lost (we’ve done that in plenty of cities) the atmosphere inside was so different than anything we’ve ever experienced. It was a people watcher’s dream. Never have we seen such a collection of interesting characters amassed in one spot. Old people in pristine white clothing struggling up the slopes. Women’s clothing ranging from what we might expect as typically attire, all the way to the fully covered garb that leaves only the eyes visible. All manner of infirm and disabled squatted in the streets waiting for alms. Little kids walked hand in hand dodging the regular piles of mule droppings… and occasionally not dodging them. A thousand faces leaned forward over stacks of books or spices or leather goods, as much eyeing us foreigners as we were eyeing them.
The souqs seemed loosely arranged by the sort of product they were selling. One street had modern consumer goods such as cell phones and electronic gadgets. Other streets focused on metal work, with many of the shops having tools for vendors to make their goods right then and there. There were streets selling nothing but shoes, others selling nothing but carpets, some with meat and produce, others just selling leather goods. There’s surely a way to figure out where you are just by noting what “district” you’re in, but it’d probably take a while to learn that “hey, I’m in the yellow shoe block, I should go left past the book sellers and through the meat market to get to the clothiers.”
One unfortunate thing was that people were generally not friendly to cameras. If you did take pictures, they wanted money. It was too crowded and busy to sit and people watch with a long lens, so most of the images taking inside the medina were shot from the hip (i.e. with the camera hanging on its strap and without looking through the viewfinder). So despite all of the interesting people and sights, it just wasn’t worth the headache of having people hassle you for coins if you have a camera with you.
The tanneries of the medina were supposedly one of the things to see while in the medina, so we followed signs toward that. As you get closer the number of guys on the street trying to coax you into some terrace for a view increases dramatically. A whole row of men tried to get us up onto one rooftop or another. We made a turn down a street that led straight to the main tannery and quickly realized that it was a regular roadway for the mules that carry hides in and out for processing, because the whole street was covered in waste and was full of little alcoves where they dropped off fly covered skins. We turned back before long to get out of the smell and the filth. That was a little too authentic of an experience…
Piles of hides headed for a tannery.
This mule was really fighting going down the steep street to the tannery.
We eventually made our way out of the north end of the medina, stood and admired the view of the town from the outside for a moment, then headed back the way we came. It doesn’t really get any easier the second time through. More trying to follow loosely labeled signs through throngs of people without getting separated or run over. After about two hours on the streets, we went back to the room.
Phew…. The medina is not for the faint of heart.
After a little break, we decided to trek out to one of the several modern grocery stores in the city. We walked back out to Ain Azlitten with hopes of catching a taxi, but apparently it’s not that regular of a stop. We waited there for a few minutes before walking out to the end of the street outside the car park where we waited again. Eventually a cab pulled up and stopped. There was a tan but Caucasian looking man in the front seat that we looked over as Steve tried to say the name of the supermarket we were trying to get to. While the driver understood that we were trying to go to a grocery store, we didn’t understand that there were more than one, some closer than others to town.
After a back and forth with some hand gesturing leaving us at a point where we still didn’t understand each other, the man in the passenger seat said something to the driver who then gestured us into the car. We got in and the other passenger turned around and said “English?” in a thick accent. It turns out that he was a Parisian who came to Fes to retire. He apologized for his broken English, and asked us what we were looking for. “Wine.” He laughed and said that it would be a little difficult, but still possible to find because we were only a couple weeks away from the start of Ramadan, and then told us that there was another grocery store much closer than the one we knew of that would get us what we wanted. He told the driver the new destination, and we were on our way. We would joke about French people being rude or snooty, but once again, a French person helped us when we would have otherwise been stuck.
We bought some chicken and vegetables for dinner, a few snacks, and several bottles of cheap Moroccan wine before catching a taxi back to the house. Jenny cooked dinner that we ate on the terrace, accompanied by the resident rooftop cat that was desperate for some food. That evening we sat on top of the city with a bottle of wine, overlooking a vista full of crumbling and uneven rooftops.
We had both been impacted by just how different the day’s experience was from anything else we’d ever seen. The medina wasn’t some tourist attraction, it was every day life for a large number of people. It was hot and dirty and difficult and you could see it on the worn out faces of the older people that crowded the streets. We had come to Morocco to get something entirely different from the western European experience, and that we got.
The city at night
The next morning is when it began. Steve started waking up early to go to the bathroom and Jenny followed. We knew that stomach problems and diarrhea were a possibility, but we thought we’d be ok by sticking to bottled water and fully cooked food. No such luck. Our second full day in Fes was spent in an aching, exhausted state, going between bed and bathroom. We stayed in for nearly the whole day. Only leaving in the evening because we knew we’d need to eat something, especially considering how…. empty… we were.
Walking up the main street we found Café Clock, a place recommended to us by our French taxi companion. He told us it was owned by an Englishman and was a hangout for English speaking types. It was a three story building with dining on every level and a concert taking place at the bottom. We sat on the roof listening to the clattering music while we waited for our lamb and camel burgers. Steve at every bit of his, Jenny didn’t touch hers.
Delicious camel burger
Musicians playing at the bottom of Cafe Clock
The next morning we still weren’t felling great, but the body aches had passed. We ate Jenny’s leftover lamb burger for lunch and went out for a short while to barter for a ring and a few postcards. And so went our time in Fes. We had hoped to hire a guide to take us around on one of those last two days, but the need to be within five minutes of a bathroom and constant stomach issues really hinders your willingness to go out.
Getting scraps from the butcher
We packed up and said goodbye to the lovely riad that was our home for four nights. An army of taxis awaited us outside the gate at Bab BouJloud, and before long we were at the train station getting tickets for the seven hour journey to Marrakesh. We wish we could say that the ride was pleasant, but there was a problem with the air conditioning on the train. Problem being – there simply wasn’t any in the car we were in. We cooked in our compartment alongside a trio of French people and a Moroccan mother or grandmother trying to keep control of the young girl she shared a seat with. Marrakesh finally approached and we got out into a station that looked identical to the one in Fes.
There was another row of men waiting right outside the station jockeying for taxi passengers. We followed one of them to his cab where he opened the trunk and said 80 dirham. Had this been our first day in the country we probably would have been like “80 of your strange currency units? Super!” Seeing as we’d been dealing with people trying to rip us off for four days already, Steve asked the cabi to put on the meter. “We don’t use meter in Marrakesh” Bullshit. “Ok, 70 dirham.” No, put on the meter. “50 dirham?” Steve told the driver that we had paid 15 dirham for a longer ride in Fes this morning. At that point, the driver closed his trunk and said “taxi in Marrakesh too expensive for you. You take bus, 3 dirham.”
Immediately as we were walking away from the first driver’s taxi, another man walked up and asked for our destination. “Ok, 20 dirham together.” Good, take us there. If he had used the meter it probably would have been about 15, but 20 was at least a reasonable offer. A few minutes later we were dropped off at the Djemaa el fna square where we began our walk to Café France, which was the major landmark and start of the directions to our place.
Steve had his phone out navigating with the instructions given on AirBnB and we were well on our way when a guy approached us and asked where we were going. We tried to brush him off but almost instinctively he seemed to know that we were looking for riad 38 and walked ahead of us in the direction we were already going. Without much choice but to “follow” him, we went in that direction and walked up to the door marked 38. Another kid on a bike came up and started asking for money. Steve pulled some change out of his pocket and they repeatedly asked for paper money. We Steve refused to give them anything besides the roughly $2 in change, the kid on the bike actually asked if he could have Steve’s sunglasses. Really? We didn’t want the first guy’s “help” and you didn’t do anything, get the hell out of here.
Eventually the housekeeper opened the door and guided us in to sit and wait for the guy who worked there. This place was basically a six room hostel with a nice courtyard area where you could sit and relax, a small pool in the center. Reduane, the hostel manager came out from his room wearing a long white robe with black wrap around sunglasses and greeted us with some of the most stoned speech imaginable. “You want beer, it’s possible. You want food sometime, it’s possible.” He asked Jenny if she was Spanish and said she had a Spanish looking face. “It’s very nice.” Then he grinned and showed us to our room. It was freshly painted with bright purple and orange, and despite not having air conditioning, a good bed made it one of the more comfortable rooms we’ve had.
We went out around dusk to see the spectacle that was the Djemaa el fna in the evening. Hordes of stalls set up to sell trinkets and food to tourists. Men with leashed monkeys would approach you offering to have the monkey sit on your shoulders (for a price). Groups of snake charmers set up areas with cobras and other snakes that men would let you hold (for a price). Groups with small acrobatic acts performed stunts in front of the restaurants around the square and came around for tips.
Tagine and couscous
In every way that Fes felt like an authentic experience, Marrakesh felt like a circus show. None of what was going on seemed real. The square was full of white girls in tank tops and shorts and guys trying to sell you orange juice or a photo op. We had dinner on the border of the square and watched all this happen for a while before heading back to the room to open the bottle of Moroccan wine that we had brought with us from Fes. Maybe it should have been obvious, but wine produced in a culture that doesn’t really drink was not good.
Fresh squeezed orange juice carts everywhere
The mainstay of the Moroccan rooftop – the satellite dish.
We were both tired. Tired of having stomach problems, tired of being approached by people for money or hissed at (a weird way of catcalling). We went out to the square to sit on the upper level of a pizza place for lunch, which actually ended up being fairly nice. We were the only people up there for a while and the pizza was decent. A tiny little restaurant cat kept us company while we ate.
So… we thought these would be smaller
After lunch we spent a good chunk of the day lounging around reading and down by the pool. We watched other travelers go in and out, some testing their bravery in the little swimming pool. Pools in Ohio get heated. I think this pool in Marrakesh was cooled because it was absolutely freezing. When first sitting down on a bench to read, we heard the sounds of a couple having sex. After it ended we saw Reduane come out and we assumed that some young lady would follow behind him. We could barely keep from laughing when we saw a giant, older looking woman(?) follow him out. We could only imagine that she was a working woman(?), because she certainly didn’t act or dress like your typical Moroccan lady.
In the evening we asked Reduane for a restaurant recommendation nearby and he directed us to Café Brahmin just a short walk away. This place had people on the street that had been trying to lure us in for the past day and a half and we finally did something beside ignore them. We got a window table upstairs in what was a really nice setting – candlelit with a pair of musicians playing quietly in the background. We got some very flavorful steak kabobs and chicken couscous that ended up being our favorite meal in the country.
After being woken by the 4:35am adhan (the first of five daily calls to prayer blasted over loudspeakers all over the city), we left our keys in the room and headed out to the main square to catch a cab to the airport. We purposely walked right by all the taxis waiting in the thick of the square to prey on departing tourists, and made our way to a busier area to catch a more reasonable ride. It was a short trip to Marrakesh’s small airport where we got in with enough time to spend our remaining dirham on sandwiches and coffee. Another series of RyanAir sales pitches later and we landed in Madrid.