4 Days in the Fez Medina

TL;DR for our Fez Post:

Our first ACTUAL DESTINATION POST!

The Fez Medina caught our interest when we heard it described as one of the best examples of a medieval city left in the world. The medina (where we spent all of our time) is foot-traffic only (augmented by donkeys and an occasional scooter). It did not disappoint.

We’d settled on staying at Dar Gnaoua. Apparently there’s a relative craze for remodeling old Dars (houses with courtyards) and Riads (larger houses built around a center garden). Calling anything in Fez a house is probably misleading– you’re probably picturing a yard, a fence, a front door. Nope– everything in Fez is connected and built 2-3 stories high or more, usually in a haphazard way and connected by tiny alleyways that (at their widest) could perhaps fit one Mini Cooper.

When you head to a Dar in Fez, you show up to the nearest Bab (which means “Gate”). Our hosts told us to head to Bab R’Cif to meet Ahmed, who was the caretaker for the Dar. We were late for our appointed meeting, but we had a phone number– and I had one shiny Moroccan coin to make a timed call. I was just able to get out that we were waiting at the Bab before the call cut off– Ahmed, like most Morccocans, was not great with English (but much better than our french or arabic!), so I hoped my message got across.

10 minutes later, Ahmed walked up and we were saved. Here’s a video of the walk to our Dar (I’ve accelerated it and put it to some music to make it a little livelier). Our final turn had a 4 foot high archway down a VERY narrow alley and took us to a lovely old door. Ahmed led us into the Dar which was absolutely lovely– gorgeous tile work everywhere and meandering stairs to our room. Just off our room was a terrace where we’d eat breakfast most mornings.

We asked Ahmed where we could eat and he directed us back to our Bab (R’Cif!) for a taxi to Bab Boujloud (booj-lood) where there were many good restaurants and cheap/quick food. Bab Boujloud is more tourist-dense, but our visit was in the off-season so tourism is pretty light. We found ourselves taxi’ing to Bab Boujloud quite often over our days here ($1.50 – $2 cab ride). We also walked there a few times (a bold venture– most of the books/articles we read insisted that you should get a guide for the medina– we never did). Boujloud is where the Medina is livliest and it’s near Cafe Clock (mentioned later).

Day 2 – Wandering the Medina

The medina is a maze of over 9,000 streets packed into about 1 square mile of ultra-dense medieval urbanity (here’s a hilarious attempt at a map) with lots of people, produce, huge bags of grains, colorful spices, olives, preserved lemons, and more. Livestock was plentiful, ranging form dead (butcher shops) to dead-by-your-command (live chicken vendors).

The medina layout is haphazard but vendors tend to cluster. There’s a pottery section, a metalworking section, a leatherworking section (with the famous and colorful tannery), a barber section, etc. Cats and kittens were everywhere but dogs were strangely absent. There are alleyways with homes too, but we rarely stumbled into these (the one time we did, a tiny Moroccan girl earnestly told us, “Non! Non! Non!”).

Hugely valuable was the Nexus 7 – a reader-sized tablet-with-GPS that (thanks Google) allows for offline Google maps. While Google’s understanding of the “roads” in the Medina was pretty laughable, it generally helped us understand which direction we were going/wanted to go and got us un-lost when we got that way (frequently)… Except for when I didn’t trust it (“I refuse to accept that this fucking blue dot represents where we are– we’re NORTH of where we started and we’ve been trying to go south for 20 minutes!”). Babs (gates, remember?) are always nearby, which means that petit taxis (small red cabs) are generally pretty handy.

Late in the Day we hit Cafe Clock for the first of three visits. It’s 2 parts cafe, 1 part cultural center– they offer cooking and baking classes, have music shows (you can see a video down in Day 4), and offer some of the nicest food we had in the city (including fantastic camel burgers). It’s owned by a british fellow, and the workers there are the friendliest we met in Morocco. We booked a cooking class for the next day and then spent the afternoon hitting a crafts museum and a weapons museum (which had swords and firearms from all sorts of countries– awesome!).

Day 3 – Food Shopping and Cooking Class

The cooking class was the most expensive thing in our Fez visit– 600 Dirham per person ($70 or so), but it was certainly one of our favorite experiences. Our hosts were Muhammed (the chef) and Avarus (who spoke better english but couldn’t so much as boil an egg). We hung out at the cafe and picked out what we wanted to cook (with two other couples) and then we went off to the market to learn how to shop. We learned that food is mercifully no-haggle and that pointing at something and saying “Cshall Hadi?” was the Moroccan price check.

We grabbed veggies, preserved lemons, coriander, and some lamb for our tagine. We hit the chicken vendor and watched our chicken go from a state of “suspicious clucking” to plucked and dressed in about 4 minutes (RIP, little chicken). Our phyllo dough was made to order magically before our eyes.

Upon our return we dug in, making tagine, pastilla (sweetened chicken and egg pie in phyllo dough), Harira soup, Zaalouk (smokey eggplant), and macaroons. One of our fellow-students had been curious about Khlii (dried/aged beef stored in fat that looks like this), so we got a container of that as well, and cooked it up with eggs. Many places don’t have ovens, so we headed off to the communal bakery, where each tray of bake-ables costs you about 17 cents, to bake our pastilla and cookies.

We finally ate late in the afternoon– it was a great (but exhausting) day, so we taxi’d back to our Dar to take it easy for the rest of the day.

Day 4 – Last Day – More Medina, a Tannery Visit and a Gnaoua Concert at Cafe Clock

We slept in, grabbed a leisurely breakfast at our Dar, and headed off to the famous tanneries of Fez. It was interesting to see, but not quite as photogenic as we’d liked– apparently they change out their dye colors weekly and we’d happened onto the “brown” dye week. Ah, well. Still amazing to see.

Feeling a bit more bold, we shopped for our lunch, grabbing a chunk of goat cheese from a cheese merchant and some msemen (flat bread with smoked paprika and onion), which we brought back to our Dar for a lunch (combined with our leftovers from cooking class). We packed up and said our goodbyes to Ahmed & Dar Gnaoua and headed off to Cafe Clock to hang out for the rest of the day. There was a concert scheduled there for 6 (a few hours before our 8:45pm bus), so we figured we’d take in some music before we left.

The concert was a high point. There were a few tourists in the cafe, but plenty of Moroccans, and the music was a blast. It was mostly qaraqeb (metal castanets), clapping, and 1 gunbri (a 4-string moroccan guitar that played pretty bass notes). We were delighted to see the Moroccans having fun. While everyone had been welcoming, most moroccans seemed pretty dour– smiles and laughter seem comparatively rare. But when the music played, they seemed to ease into a happier state. It was a fabulous goodbye to Fez– the concert was still ratcheting up in energy as we regretfully tromped off for our 9 hour bus ride to Mergouza and the Sahara.

Next Up: Overnight camel-trek into the Sahara!