Itinerary 7 . Morocco . Dec 7-9; Dec 22

Fes Sais Airport


Arched Entry to the Fes Medina

Fes, Morocco, North Africa
Thursday, December 9, 2010
5:33 am

It’s 5:30 a.m. in Fes, and I’m awaken by the drone of muslim prayer calls echoing across the ancient medina. The medina, or walled city, is dotted with well over a hundred mosques, many with 20 to 30 meter minarets rising from the mass of mud brick and slurry-coated structures.

I’m on the continent for the first time, and although Fes is pretty far north, as Africa goes, being here still carries a degree of special meaning. I am staying at the Riad Borj Dhab Guest House, a place my assistant arranged online that is owned and operated by the grandson of a Moroccan family patriarch who lived in the home with 4 wives and 19 children. Khalid Benchekroun, the current owner, recently restored the family home of his grandfather and opened it this past Fall as a 6-suite, 4-star B&B, striving for as much authenticity as could be had. Approaching the Riad Borj from a narrow, dark, stepped passageway off a small square dotted with mule dung and orange peelings, nothing betrayed the colorful and palatial space behind the massive carved cedar entry door and sand-colored mud brick walls dating from the 7th century. My own photography won’t do the place justice, particularly after having seen it featured in the current issue of Maroc d’Exception magazine, a haute couture French glossy. Mr. Benchekroun traveled the 3-1/2 hours to Fes by train from Casablanca, where he operates an advertising and graphic design agency, to welcome his guests for the week. The personal service provided by the Riad Borj Guest House’ staff of 5 was more akin to what his grandfather must have received than that of a typical ‘hotel’.

    Entrance Portal To 4-Star Riad Borj Dhab Guest House, Fes

    Entry Door to Riad Borj Dhab Guest House

    Interior atrium of Riad Borj Dhab Guest House

    Atrium Bridge - Riad Borj Dhab Guest House

Parlor Area, Riad Borj Guest House


5:45 a.m.
The first of five prayer calls  over the course of the day are over as abruptly as they began shortly after 5, but now a crowing rooster has my ear. Haven’t slept much tonight anyway for some reason, so I’m taking advantage of the insomnia to get in some writing. All is quiet in the medina now, and I’m trying for a few hours of sleep before breakfast at 9. Holla!

Mosque Tower [Minaret], Fes Medina

Fes Medina in Distance, From South Borj

Fes Medina Up Close From Terrace Of Riad Borj Guest House

12:34 pm
Fes is a city of just over a million inhabitants in the Northwestern part of the Moroccan monarchy, having gained independence from France in 1956. Its primary attraction for visitors is its medina, also referred to locally as the old city. The current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, has cultivated a somewhat liberal brand of Islam, no doubt heavily influenced by years of French rule and the resulting commercial opportunities it brought and left. This is particularly evident in Ville Nouvelle, or new city, the areas built up outside the walled medina with broad, palm-tree-lined avenues and structures of modern-day Arabic and French inspiration. Whereas a majority of women residents of the medina practice a traditional Islamic dress, with scarves, head coverings, and in some cases full birkas, the modern woman of the new city often goes in jeans and uncovered, western hairstyles. The new city, while obviously aspiring to some of the 'Haussmannesque' themes of Central Paris, often has the look and feel of television footage I’ve seen of Baghdad. In contrast, encountering a figure in full birka among the passageways of the medina and its souk (market) is not unusual. Like so many cities, the trip in from Fes Sais airport is non-descript at best. A long, hot, dusty ride in an 80's vintage Mercedes taxi, the route was characterized by roadside retail shanties (produce mainly), skinny palm trees, whitewashed concrete apartment blocks under construction, and an occasional pack of Mangy camels. Shade is at a premium out there, and there's nothing lush about most of Fes with the exception of the newer broad avenues of Ville Nouvelle named after a succession of Moroccan kings.

Try as I might, either through photography or description, It’s a struggle to capture what my eyes see and experience before me in the medina, a place of a half million inhabitants where time seems to have largely stood still. The markets of the Fes medina, said to be the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world, are an insane maze of over nine thousand at times barely passable stepped and sloping passageways where the only modes of transport are donkeys or mules, rickety hand-pushed carts, and the backs of leathery-faced Moroccan men, young and old. Lining each side of the twisting, angling, and stepped corridors are shops selling everything imaginable, from intricate hammered-bronze platters by old craftsmen, to knock-off designer sunglasses and cheap mobile phones by enterprising younger men, to perfumes and oils by head-covered women. Middle-aged men in taqiyah caps engage in a game of chess on a board balanced on their knees while themselves precariously perched on corridor steps. Networks of young boys no more than 7 or 8 work the corridors spotting French or American tourists, offering their services as fledgling tour guides using the sales come-ons picked up from their elders. "Whatchu lookin' for?", pressed one aspiring teenaged 'broker', apparently switching from tour guide mode to broker of vice goods or services, whatever those might be in an Islamic medina. Other young children use the crowded passageways as a playground, and it’s hard to imagine a better place for a game of hide and seek. Feral cats are everywhere, and seem to enjoy a status similar to cows in India.  Some shops are the very ‘factories’ where products are made, including leather goods and Arabian or Berber rugs, and many feature hidden wooden ladders or spiraling, tile-covered stairs up to second and sometimes third levels. Filthy workers squat in shadowy alleys wringing vegetable dye from leather pelts, using the slope of the cobbled passages as drain ways. Moroccan women work hundreds of contiguous produce shops with untold millions of recognizable and foreign items, and for which sanitary conditions are suspect.  A popular food sold in the markets consists of leftover meat scraps mixed with heavily salted, congealed fat, sold in foot high piles on plates covered with Saran-wrap.  Other staples include dates, fruits, olives, nuts, sweet confections, and  fresh-baked bread by the wheelbarrow-full.  Donkeys parked by their owners in the center of small squares are tied by their harnesses to their front legs to prevent them from running away. Bundles of chickens sedated by being tied together are carried through the markets on the backs of their sellers or their mules. Once inside the labyrinthine corridors of the market, I found it best to forget about memorizing my way and to allow myself to get lost. Remembering the name of the square (Place R'cif) outside the souk entry nearest the Riad Guest House enabled me to ask my way back.

Moroccan Woman Drying Meat & Clothing In The Medina

An Entrance To The Medina Markets

Inside The Medina Market Passageways

Boy And Man In The Medina Souk

Olive Variety At The Markets

Valley Girlz Of Fes

Outside the various entrances to the market passages are public squares (usually more circular), where a constant stream of 1980s vintage red hatchback taxis shuttle medina inhabitants and tourists about. Cafes with outdoor seating and a decidedly third-world flavor cater to men only, while women scurry from place to place in their daily activities.

The architecture of the old city of Fes, like much of that across North Africa is generally known as Arabian-Andalusian, having derived from a mixture of Arabic, Moorish and southern Spanish influences. Structures, many of which date from the 6th century A.D. often consist of wood timber frame and mud brick walls covered with a dyed slurry mixture of mud and pebble, which was the case with the Riad Borj Guest House. The predominant building color in Fes is a sandy-yellow, distinct from the pale tomatoey-red of Marrakech or the white-washed structures in Tangier.  Miles away, outside the walls of the medina, is the Ville Nouvelle (new city), largely a product of French colonial rule, and a weak interpretation of mid-nineteenth century Parisian planning further-diluted by contemporary derivations. Near the center of city, on a massive, walled plot of land seemingly the size of Central Park sits the king's palace, of which similar exist in Morocco's poltical capital of Rabat, its commercial capital of Casabalanca, and its party capital of Marrakesh.

Medina Souk Rug and Scarf Factory

Fes River

R'cif [Ra-SEEF] Public Square, Fes

Medina Alleyway

Thursday, December 9, 2010
4:56 pm

Now onboard the return flight from Fes, where it’s sunny and 75 degrees, to gray old Paris, where the big airport was closed yesterday due to snow. No reports of cancelations at Beauvais outside Paris, where this flight lands in less than two hours. The weather, accommodations, people, and sights in Fes almost had me hoping to be stranded there for a couple of extra days.

Blogger With Owner Of Riad Borj Dhab Guest House At South Borj

    Blogger At Fes Airport

    Leaving 75 degrees f For Snowy Paris

     Out of Africa

Marrakech, Morocco, North Africa
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
1:31 pm
[In edit]