We were craving an exotic adventure. Spice and excitement, bright colors and intoxicating scents. Out of Italy, into Africa. So we headed to Morocco, flying from Rome to Fez, admiring the peaks below from 10,000 feet above.
Stepping into the medina in Fez was like stepping back in time. A winding, hilly labyrinth of narrow streets enveloped us, pulling us into the wild rhythm of street shops, stray cats, hustlers and the stench of the tanneries. Fez is a sensory heaven or hell, depending on your view. Sticky sweets omit enticing aromas, countered by the buzz of flies hovered over every cart. The streets are dusty and cool, interrupted by patches of intense sunlight and stifling heat. Rugs, scarves, slippers, jewelry and ceramics of every shape and color line the shops, blending together with each turn, always accompanied with “for you good price.” Children scamper in all directions, donkeys click over cobblestones, carrying heaps of goods, Arabic music blasts from the windows and the call to prayer resounds through every nook. Luckily, sensory overload was exactly what we wanted, and we made our way through the streets, narrower with every turn, in awe of secret passageways and tiny doors guarded with rusted hamsas, meant to ward against the evil eye.
We snapped endless photos, debated over candleholders, and agonized over whether or not to buy a rug. We didn’t buy, but that didn’t stop the salesman from trying his hardest. “If you buy or don’t buy it doesn’t matter,” he said, like everyone else we’d come across. “You don’t buy a carpet every day. A carpet is for life.” One after another he laid them out before us, making a show of spreading them on the ground. “For you sister, good price.”
Scrambling through the medina, we came to a dead end and ran into a young man who looked about our age. ‘Wait!’ he said when we turned around. “I have a view panoramic!” We were hesitant, but these are the stories travel is made of, so we followed him into his home. As has always been my (perhaps lucky) experience, he was kind, and showed us to his roof, where the panoramic view of the city was stunning. His mother, cleaning the house and looking startled to see us, offered tea but we declined, finding a small square instead for mint tea and some of the flakiest, most delicious coconut cookies I’ve ever tasted.
Next, the spice souq and food market – my favorite. Bright, beautiful fresh fruit piled high, laid out on the dirt floor, or assembled on a makeshift table, tarps tenting against the sun overhead. Live chickens, dead chickens, warm eggs, even rabbits. Massive canisters of coffee beans next to red and yellow powders and soft, plump dates. Food seduction at its finest.
We found peace at the Bou Inania Medersa, a quiet enclave of ancient stone and swirling calligraphy. Inside, the sounds of the medina were hushed, thousands of white and blue tiles adding to the sense of calm.
We wound and wound our way through the Medina, knowing all roads lead to the Kairoyuine Mosque, it’s glimmering, turquoise minaret guiding us through the maze.
After dark, Fes was another story. The magic was replaced with an eerie quiet and complete darkness, and getting lost seemed much more plausible. We didn’t dare venture out alone.
Throughout our days in Fez we lounged in Dar Seffarine, a stunning guesthouse run by a very sweet family, with spectacular rooftop views and an excellent kitchen staff. We stuffed ourselves with beghrir, a spongy, addicting bread, fresh oranges, yogurt and more mint tea then you can imagine.
Mohammad, a member of the hotel staff, sat with us at breakfast one morning and gave us his opinion of the city. “People, donkeys, tourists. That is Fez,” he said with a grin, his deep brown eyes twinkling under impossibly long lashes. He told us his dreams of travel, and the limitations caused by not being able to attain a visa. (“Because I am single and have no money,” he explained).
“Working at the hotel is a kind of education for me,” he said, recounting exchanges he’s had with people from around the world. I was most interested in his philosophy on becoming a man. He told us there are three things you need, “History, language and religion.” History to know where you came from, language because it’s the gateway to your culture and religion because it’s your base.
We left Fes with aching legs and swirling thoughts, and boarded a bus to Chefchaouen, our Morocco adventure only just beginning.