Fes was something different for us. Unspoiled by tourism, it promised to be a more unique travel experience.
Mimi and I were very excited. We had been craving more adventure in our travel and Morocco was only a short flight away from our home in Lisbon. Booking a short flight to somewhere exotic is an easy decision for us. Neither one of us needed convincing. Two weeks later we were in Morocco.
Starting off in Marrakech had been great, but Fes was different.
It was an eight-hour train ride from Marrakech but Fes was well worth it. We were strangers in a strange land. We were far from the first people to visit Fes, but we felt like explorers. It felt like it was off the beaten path and that’s the type of travel that we had been craving.
We stuck out like a traffic cone on a well-manicured lawn. It was perfect.
Easily finding a taxi outside the train station, we gave the driver the address of the Riad Le Calife. By the time we got there, it was dark and the riad had a man in a red fez hat waiting for us. We were thankful for the guidance since it turned out to be a maze of narrow alleys that led to the riad. It would have been incredibly difficult to navigate on our own, especially in the dark.
Entering the Riad Le Calife was like stepping into an old African lodge from a 1940’s movie.
It’s rare when I gush about the places we stay because, for the most part, hotels are very similar. Riad Le Calife is worth mentioning, however. The whole idea behind how a riad is designed is genius. Everything is built around a beautiful garden making it the heart of the building. The inner windows open to the peaceful center and provide fresh air and scenery, and even the riad rooftop is used to create relaxing spaces. The riad roof offers the best possible view of the city and a place to bask in the warm sun.
Having breakfast on the roof as the sun rises over the city is a great way to start your day.
Enjoying a drink on the roof at sunset was a great way to relax after a day of exploring. We checked into our room and the owners Yasmine and Alex made us feel at home instantly. As we settled into our room, we realized how hungry we were. A fun fact about us is that we can decide to go to another country at the drop of a hat, but make us decide what or where we want to eat and it’s like pulling teeth. We wandered through the maze of streets and alleyways until we found a promising restaurant. As we stepped inside, we discovered that it was surprisingly beautiful inside.
The ceiling was high above us and mosaic tile accented everything creating an exotic atmosphere.
Growing more optimistic we sat down and ordered some mezze, a couple of local dishes for our mains, and white wine. Mimi was having a vegetarian tagine and I was going to have a sweet and savory Moroccan pie called Pastilla. It’s usually served as the second of many courses for special occasions such as weddings, but it sounded too good not to try. The traditional filling is pigeon, onions, eggs, and spices. It’s then topped with roasted almond, sugar, and cinnamon before it’s wrapped up in a pie.
Mine was chicken, hopefully. . . If it wasn’t, then it was the best pigeon I’ve ever had.
The next days were spent exploring. It was the first place that we felt it.
That wonderful chaos of a city that hasn’t been contained by regulations, homeowners’ associations, or an infrastructure. It was a city made of stone and mud without straight lines. Fes felt like a hundred years ago.
It felt like it functioned automatically, overcoming hardships in a way that it had for hundreds of years.
It wasn’t a modern city of conveniences, and it moved the way an anthill keeps moving despite being stepped on occasionally. We found it refreshing to be visiting somewhere the tour buses hadn’t found.
Moustapha had been hanging out near the entrance of the medina when he saw us about to venture in on our own.
We had stopped to wait for a donkey to come up the stairs of the entrance when he approached us and asked if we needed a guide. We turned him down at first but quickly realized how confusing the medina could be. The alleys are random and don’t always connect. Moustapha made our day of exploring a lot better. He had grown up in Fes and knew a lot about the city and its history.
We ventured down the twisted paths of the medina toward the famous leather tanneries.
It’s more than a friendly suggestion when you’re handed a handful of mint leaves to mask a smell. Take the mint leaves and be thankful. The Fes tanneries have a distinctive smell and are notably unique because of the ancient method that they use to cure and treat the leather products they produce.
The system used is the same one that has been used for centuries in Morocco.
Hides are soaked in vats of cow urine and water before being picked and laid out to dry. They’re then placed in vats of diluted pigeon droppings for softening before being dyed. Despite the distasteful way they were manufactured, we still bought jackets. They are incredibly well made and thankfully don’t retain any of the smell. The old ways are doing things
Mimi bought a scarf made on a traditional loom from a shop located near the tannery.
Afterward, Moustapha took us to a medina rooftop to view the Qaraouiyine Mosque.
Sampling treats along the way, we learned about the local way of life and eventually ended up on the rooftop of Café Rsif with our new friend.
We sipped tea and ate biscuits for hours while we talked. Moustapha is a really nice guy who enjoys meeting new people we talked about how similar people are despite different ways of life. He was so nice that he ended up inviting us to lunch in his mom’s home that next day.
Moustapha had arranged for us to start the day with his cousin driving us around the areas just outside of town.
We were going to meet up with Moustapha afterward for lunch. Venturing to the outskirts of town, we stood on the hillside at the Merenid Tombs looking down over at Borj Nord and the city. The view from there is spectacular. Visiting the Poterie de Fès factory, we got to see how the famous ceramics of Fes were made. Everything there is still done by hand and it was a fascinating process to see these elaborate works of art being created. The detailed work they do is extraordinary.
After our visit to the ceramic factory, we drove to another area of town to walk around the “New City.” The Merenids built this section in the 13th century when they realized that Fes el Bali would be too small to contain their palaces. One of the highlights was the Palais Royal Dar el Makhzen Fes.
It was here that we learned not to photograph the palace guards. They were quite insistent about that.
It seemed like a good rule of thumb for Morocco is, that the fancier the uniform the more forbidden picture taking is. It was an important difference to learn. Visiting places like Buckingham Palace or the Vatican is very different than Morocco. The military is not a tourist attraction here.
Meeting up with Moustapha later that day, he led us deep into the medina to his mom’s house.
Entering an open doorway in a non-descript alleyway, we entered an open courtyard. There were three levels of family homes stacked randomly on top of each other in a haphazard construction style that was definitely not OSHA-approved. Each home consisted of three walls that left the homes open to this communally shared courtyard. His mom’s home was on the bottom level and was sectioned off behind a makeshift kitchen and a tapestry hung for privacy. Beyond the kitchen was a living room with two
His mom brought out hot mint tea and a steaming tagine filled with couscous, vegetables, and chicken.
It was delicious but far more than we could finish. Mimi is a vegetarian, so she was more than willing to forfeit her chicken to everyone else. Although she did share some with the family cat Santos.
We had been welcomed like family. It was a beautiful experience that we will always treasure.
Moustapha and his family were wonderful, and they were a great reminder that strangers can quickly become friends over the course of a simple meal. People are the same all over the world. Differences in cultures sometimes confuse people and hide that fact, but we are. When we take the time to learn that simple lesson, a whole new world of possibilities is revealed. We tend to fear what we don’t understand and traveling teaches us all one very important thing. The world is a better and much more interesting place because of our differences.