Forward to Fes
We parted company last time on our journey to Fes, is it really only a couple of days since we got off that bus, it seems like an eternity? Fes is also known as Fez, but we just think of the silly hats every time we write it, so will refer to the destination as Fes (it sounds posher).
As expected after coming down from the Rif mountains the journey settled down into a more or less undulating affair than the windy curves and frightening drops of the mountain roads, but the scenery remained beautiful all the way to Fes.
The whole journey is a sea of green as we settled on down in the plain the rocks, mountain trees and steep mountains gave way to groves of olive trees and fields of wheat and vegetable crops. In many you could see the bright red of the wild poppies playing peek-a-boo with the seed heads of the wheat crops.
It is now clear why the Moroccans have a love of bread, pancakes and anything else wheat based, the climate and the land make growing the raw ingredient simple, so a diet built upon the major crop becomes the norm. Simple when you think about it I suppose, about which things I rarely do unless on long journeys with nothing else on my mind.
As we came over one of the smaller hills on the journey, we could finally see Fez in the distance glistening in the sunlight, sprawled across the plain sandwiched by two small hills either side.
When is a booking not a booking?
We arrived at the station, found a petit taxi who was kind enough to use the meter, and then set off, we hoped, to our Riad in the Medina. Riad al Pacha had been booked the night before on line. When we arrived there, the owner of the property decided that a little bit of negotiation on the price and the room standard was in order, all taking place of course with the aid of a little hospitable mint tea. It went something like this.
- We don’t have your booking, (I show him an e-mail from him confirming it), oh yes we do you only booked yesterday that is the problem
- Oh you are from Hostelworld they are very bad bookers (well I think that’s what he said), they tell you superior room when they mean standard.
- Yes we have your booking but we are fully booked and don’t have the room you paid for, but we have this beautiful superior room for an extra 160 dirham.
- We go look at the rooms and the one we had booked which was ok but tucked away in a corner of the hotel, but the better room was of course much more enticing
- Then back to negotiations, I play Mr Angry and demand the room we have paid for, which now becomes suddenly available, but there is an extra charge for the tourist tax. Making it almost as expensive as a superior room but which he is now prepared to waive the tax payment.
- After much discussing and calculator tapping, looking at numerous rooms and terraces, we finally agreed a price for the better room and it was much smiling and handshaking all around. Total extra for all of these negotiations was the princely sum of an extra £5 in his pocket and we get a lovely room, and have endured an hour long lesson on the art of Moroccan negotiation. It’s the sport that counts right.
- The room was great – it had a faint damp smell, but were are coming to accepts that medina building packed so close together have this natural dampness to them. It’s also what makes them a cool inviting respite from the madness of the blistering sun. There was also one other slightly pongy smell in the bathroom but on wandering the medinas we found the same smell there – so came to the conclusion that this is the natural drainage smell. We also had a shower head that was hell bent on showering nothing but the wall underneath it, it was floppier than the ears of a very floppy eared beagle.
Now reading this you might think we are pissed off with the owner for this little start to our Fes trip, but over the two days we were with him we came to like him quite a lot. He was helpful, kind, and of course charming with the gift of the gab. On the last day we had to leave before breakfast and started walking up the main road in search of a taxi. He saw us with our backpacks on and stopped his car opened the boot and furnished us with croissants, bread and cheesy buns for the journey.
In fact this little episode of kindness and help is one of many little treats we have experienced in this big city. Yes there are touts and people around who want to earn a bit of commission for themselves, but equally there are lots of locals who are happy to help when you are lost in the medina or in search of taxis or are three Brits found wandering in the peak of the suns heat. So read all the warnings in the guidebooks and from travellers tales, accept that the culture of bartering and earning where you can is part of life here and then keep just a little bit of your mind open to accept kindness and help when it is offered. Although John has received his first death threat from an overzealous salesman, all be it in quite a mild form, he still got a tad vexed, but that could have something to do with his half hearted smoking cessation efforts.
Is it a Medina or is it a Maze?
So the first night we had a mini wander round the medina, found a nice little restaurant near the blue gate and recharged ourselves after the journey and the lengthy negotiations, we were also pleased to be offered a little ‘Moroccan coke’, now this is not the illicit drug you are thinking, but the restaurant manager’s ‘nom de plume’ for a little Moroccan red wine. We felt it rude not to accept his kind gesture so we partook. Now it was definitely red wine, but I have not tasted anything like it since my student days when we used to buy 1.5 litre bottle for £2, but just to make sure we decided that we all needed another glass to guarantee it was definitely not to our taste.
We then hopped a petit taxi (I now know where all the 1980’s Fiat Uno’s go to die when we are finished with them, they are painted red and become taxis in fez!) to the train station and sorted out all our tickets for the trip to Essaouira and our night train back to Tangier at the end of our trip. I then spent the best part of an hour getting an iPad micro sim connected and registered. So for the princely sum of £10 I have a Moroccan sim card to add to my collection with unlimited 3G for the entire trip. I haven’t lost signal once yet, not even on this train journey in the middle of nowhere.
The Toothless Tour
Our quick tour round the medina on our first night convinced us that there was no way we were going to find anything on our own given we had so spectacularly got lost in the tiny medina in Chefchaouen so decided next day to set off in search of a guide. John the negotiator did the deal of no shops, how much, must have excellent English, tip included, no extras, where are we going to go etc etc (with Mr Dodgy Trackie below ) and we had our very own toothless yet besuited guide (showing us a door to a mosque below) for the next three hours for about three quid each.
Early on in the tour we decided that this was worth every penny as he guided us down alleys little wider than my shoulder and into places that were quite a bit away from the main tourist guided routes. It was a fascinating morning, not least because we were threading our way through the old medina being told that it had been here since the eighth century.
At times it felt like you were back there as the ponies delivering supplies to the souks wander past and you see the bakers tucked in the back of an alley baking bread in ovens that have probably been there for centuries.
The Riads are surely where the initial concept for the Tardis in Dr Who comes from. You see a small door about five foot high and just wide enough for my girth to squeeze through and then you enter this cavernous house with rooms arranged round a central courtyard from where the property gets it’s only natural light that floods in from the massive skylight or open air above.
Back to the hotel for a quick freshen up and a look at some accommodation options for the next stop and then we had a beautiful dusk walk across the main square. Now earlier in the day we had walked through this square and it was deserted, John suggested that perhaps they hold car boot sales there, I took the piss royally at this suggestion, but true enough later that night when we returned that is exactly what we found, except there were no cars, just people spreading their second hand stuff on the ground for sale. We found a bar that served bottled beers at £3.50 a pop and decided we weren’t that desperate for a drink anyway so sauntered back stocking up on supplies for the marathon journey tomorrow.
Fes has not disappointed in the food department. While the menus look very similar to those on offer in chaouen, the quality has been impressive. From a meatball tagine which was subtly spiced but made my mouth water, especially as it had a perfectly formed runny yolk egg on top, to the cumin infused Moroccan soup and even the 80p take-out schwarma we had prepared for us in the local souk. While waiting for our grub there we asked what the tasty looking things he was frying and this prompted a free sample for us to try. They were potato cakes fried in a spicy batter, and yes they were Moorish (see what I did there?)