Would you judge me if I said that the main reason I chose to go to the city of Fez in Morocco as opposed to any other city is because it was mentioned in a Gilmore Girls episode? I’m thinking the answer is yes, therefore I will say that the reason I decided to go to Fez is because the entire Medina (walled part of the old city) has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For whatever reason, my sister went along with my Fez idea and bought us tickets to go there while she was in Spain visiting me. Originally, we were going to go for five days, but after talking to others who had visited Morocco and researching other travel options, we scaled it back to only two. I think two was plenty.
Since I planned the second half of our travels (to the Canary Islands) the responsibility rested on my sister to figure out Fez. She was waiting for a book she’d ordered to get delivered to her before she booked anything and soon enough it was the week before we were departing and we had no plans or reservations.
Out of the blue, she started talking to a neighbor of hers about her upcoming trip to Spain and Morocco. As it turned out, her neighbors had been to Fez and had stayed in a very charming RIAD (guest house) in the heart of the Medina owned by a lovely Australian woman who had visited Fez and fallen in love with it. Megan got the Australian woman’s email address and emailed her right away.
From one email we had a place to stay, someone to pick us up at the airport, two dinners planned, and our own private full-day tour of Fez lined up. It was meant to be.
Our flight to Morocco was seriously late so I was slightly worried that our pick-up would ditch us. But as soon as we got through the most meticulous passport check line in history, there he was. His name was Hassan and he spoke softly and had a very sweet demeanor. He took us to a van and we climbed in.
We drove in a straight line along desert roads for about 15 minutes. There was the occasional dusty person walking along the road or riding a bike. There were a few restaurants and shops along the way as well. I eyed the people carefully, specifically the women, to see what they were wearing.
We had been told to respect the local custom of modesty: wearing loose-fitting clothes that covered at least our knees and shoulders. I didn’t have many clothes (let alone summer outfits) that were so Duggared-out, but I managed to put together a couple of things as did my sister.
I noticed the Moroccan women wore long, loose-fitting robes. They had long sleeves and went down to their shin/ankle area and they wore pants or leggings underneath as well. Most of them did not cover their faces but did wear wraps that covered their hair.
The men occasionally wore something similar: a long robe with pants underneath and a hat. Or, some of them just had normal, western clothes on such as jean shorts and a t-shirt.
As a woman, I felt that the Moroccan dress, while perhaps a bit restrictive, might actually be strangely liberating. I started thinking about this more when, in Sex and the City 2 (I know…I’m getting judged all over the place for this post) Samantha said of the facial veils the women wore in Abu Dhabi “Eliminates the need for Botox!”
Wearing tight clothes and showing as much skin as you can get away with causes us to obsess about our appearance, our hair, our weight, our cellulite. We constantly compare ourselves with others and with celebrities, because anything that could be conceived as a flaw is on full display. We are expected to fit into a certain mold and it is obvious if we do not fit it.
I can’t speak for Moroccan women, but I wonder if they have more positive body-image due to the fact that they wear modest clothing. It’s as if they are saying that their bodies are so beautiful that they don’t need to be displayed for everyone. The fact that they are women makes them beautiful and they are going to share that beauty with someone special. Maybe? I guess basically the point of this rant is that it might be easier (although less conducive to summer heat) to throw on a big robe in the morning instead of obsessing about love handles. That is all.
As we’re driving with Hassan and getting closer and closer to the city center, Hassan says, “I don’t normally go this way, but if we drive around here we can see the walls of the royal palace. It is like a small city, complete with a 9-hole golf course and 3,500 workers.” It was impossible to see anything except a few building roofs inside the palace because of the large walls, but it was neat to see how big it was and to try to imagine what was inside.
It would not be the last time that someone we were expected to tip in Morocco did something he didn’t “normally do” just for us.
Finally, we arrived at the Medina and parked in a parking lot right outside of the city walls. Hassan walked us into the Medina where the streets were tiny and made of dirt. The streets were like something straight out of a movie. There were shops selling bread, sweets, tea kettles, belts, and souvenirs on either side of the narrow streets. People were everywhere: shop owners standing outside of their shops trying to lure in the tourists; children playing; stray cats curled up in corners, lounging in the sun, waiting impatiently for the butcher to throw them a cut; there were chickens wandering around; pigeons in a cage ready to be made into pigeon pie; fruit and vegetable sellers; big slabs of animal carcasses hanging from hooks.
The smell was strong and unlike anything I’d ever smelled before, although now I swear I can smell it everywhere. It smells sort of like diarrhea, although not quite. It is not pleasant, but it is the way the Medina smells, especially near the food market portion of the winding streets. There were clearly very fresh eggs sitting on top of cages with old men sitting on the ground trying to sell them. Flies were buzzing everywhere. Landing on the meat. Landing on the bread that was not covered or inside a case. Landing on the fruit. No one seemed to mind.
As usual, I did not pay attention to the way we walked or how we arrived to the RIAD. I blindly followed Hassan, while taking in the sights, smells and sounds. Fez really is a completely different experience for all of the senses. It was a short walk…only about 10 minutes through the winding streets. We made a couple of sharp turns, and there at the end of a dead-end was the RIAD. We never would have known it was there if it wasn’t for Hassan, all the streets looked the same.
Once inside, we climbed steep steps to the main floor of the guest house. We were greeted by the Australian woman and by our other housemates. They had all been waiting for us so we could have dinner together on the rooftop terrace.
We freshened up in our room (but obviously didn’t change clothes since we had a limited number of outfits) and headed up to the terrace. It was about 6:30p.m. at that point and it was still warm and light out. The terrace had a sitting area and got a very nice breeze. We sat on the couch and chatted with the others, while sharing a bottle of wine.
We learned that there are three pairs: an American woman with her Portuguese (but raised in Finland) husband, two older British gentleman who are just friends and are both suffering from a stomach issue they caught in Morocco…they have only bread and rice for dinner, and another husband and wife who live in the DC area…the husband is American and the wife is Japanese.
All of our housemates had been to other cities in Morocco before coming to Fez. All of them also travel extensively. As we gathered for dinner, they discussed their impressions of Morocco and pretty much scared the pants off of my sister and me. They say that everyone in Morocco is only trying to get money, that they pressure you to buy things in their store, they stalk you in the street, they haggle but you always know when you’ve gotten a bad deal when they throw in something for free. The American woman had bought rugs and scarves and a Moroccan sauce pot…all things she didn’t need, but was convinced to buy.
We learned the importance of saying no firmly. Of staying with our guide the next day so he could fend off the swindlers.
We started our meal with a variety of vegetable appetizers. Okra, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, DELICIOUS. So good. And some of the round bread we saw in the streets. The next course was roasted lamb with artichokes. I can’t say I’m crazy about lamb but I did eat some of it, and the artichokes were good. For dessert, we had the most delicious cake I’ve ever tasted. It was kind of like flan, but with a better texture.
Our housemates also talked about their previous travels and other things going on in their lives. The next thing I knew, it was dark and the moon was high in the sky with stars surrounding it. It was a little cooler, but still warm and there was still a pleasant breeze blowing on the terrace. All I could see of Fez were the few other rooftops as high as ours. Below me was a city I was excited to explore, but not until after I’d had a good night’s sleep.
Our guide (we didn’t know exactly who) was scheduled to come at 9:30 the following morning.