Monday, July 23, 2012

Morocco (2007), part1: Fez


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Travel to Morocco came up to us while playing with the route search engine on Ryanair and Wizzair websites. We were curious to what places they can take you and we found Fez and Marrakech, both in Morocco. In addition, it turned out that flights from London weren’t so expensive. All we had to do was to look for flights from Krakow to London. Then we decided... Morocco!




We depart from Katowice on Monday 17 September at 18.00 and land in Luton at 19.25. We have to spend a whole night at the airport, but it’s nothing, we’re so excited about an adventure awaiting us. For the first time we are traveling to Africa, and to our first Arab country! In addition, it’s Ramadan, an entire month of fasting in the Muslim calendar. Some friends advised us against it, but we think it’ll be the more interesting.
From Luton we depart promptly at 6.30. We land in Fez at 8.50.

The airport is very small, we’re afraid that border guards are going to search through our backpacks for hours but the check goes smoothly. We fill in card entries - you have to guard them carefully until the end of the journey. The same with receipts of exchanging money - if you want to sell remaining dirhams you’ll need to show that you’d bought them earlier.
It should be noted that dirhams aren’t available anywhere outside of Morocco, so you need to have some convertible currency on you, preferably U.S. dollars or euros. Unless you want to rely on ATMs. It’s also forbidden to leave the country with dirhams. Of course, no one will arrest you if you take with yourself a few coins as a souvenir.
In autumn 2007, one dirham cost 33 Polish grosz (o,3 PLN). However, prices probably increased somewhat. Reading this text you need to be aware that some information is outdated, but it still can serve as some guidance.

Fez
Fez is one of the largest cities in Morocco, with about 950 thousand inhabitants. It was founded in the eighth century. It was the first capital of the country.

Royal Palace in Fez can be viewed only from afar
The airport is located in Saiss, about 15 kms from Fez. We read in a guidebook that the city can be reached by bus but we can’t find it anywhere. Yet we’re very tired after having spent a night at the airport so we decide to take a cab (petit taxi for about 160 dh, it’ll turn out later that we paid too much).
It’s worth noting that generally there are two types of taxis in Morocco:
- petit taxi(or small taxi) - it usually takes three to four passengers; of course you have to haggle, a foreigner has to pay more than locals;
- grand taxi(or big taxi) - it takes up to six people; yes!; four at the back and in the front beside the driver there’s a special wider seat for two more persons; a fee is usually fixed for the route; locals usually wait until six people get in; if you want to travel more comfortably or if you’re in a hurry you can pay for a six passengers and travel by yourself.

We go to a McDonald’s, the only one in Fez, and whole Morocco. No, not for breakfast; they probably wouldn’t sell us a thing because from sunrise to sunset you can’t eat or drink anything. We go there to meet Hassan, a boy whom we contacted through one of the websites for backpackers. He will host for this night.
In a taxi - first surprise. There aren’t any Arabic chants flowing from a wheezing radio in the taxi but a very rhythmic disco song. I know that voice? Rihanna? Of course. It was in Fez that we heard for the first time one of her biggest hits, "Please Don’t Stop The Music". Maybe Morocco is not so traditional as it seems...

We reach the place. Our host is already waiting for us. We look for another taxi to get to his village Bhalil. It’s actually a small town, all in concrete; ugly, shabby buildings, trash everywhere; and dozens of people wandering around aimlessly.
Hassan leads us to his house. Here, another surprise. His house is made, like many neighboring ones, in a cave. What a fun! I’ve never slept in such a place! It’s difficult to describe it. There’s a living room, kitchen, privy (as is common in Arab countries, in a “skier position”), a place that looks like a mezzanine floor where a whole family sleeps and an additional room that is dark and empty…

Hassan shows us around Bhalil. We visit, only from outside, the mausoleum of a holy man, a hill and a little park with a beautiful waterfall, we cool our legs in a stream. We go for the first time to a local market. It’s really an amazing experience. First things are most enjoyable! There is so much of anything there. Most of it is junk, watches “Dolce & Gabbana” for 30 dirhams! Piles of T-shirts, shoes, belts and bags from “Louis Vuitton.
But the most pleasing to us here are fruits. What a choice of dates you can find here! We buy a kilo (I guess), with the help Hassan of course not to overpay. On this occasion we prepare a packet for his mother as a gift before dinner.
In the evening, just after 18.30, Hassan’s family invites us for the first meal of the day. We can barely hold back not to eat everything like pigs, we’re so hungry. That day we took only half a croissant which we managed to beg a shopkeeper to sell us. We had to climb a hill and hide in the bushes to eat it so that no one saw us. What a conspiracy! We felt like last sinners!

For the second meal, about two in the night, we go a Hassan’s friend, who comes from a bit richer family, they live in a regular house. We wait there for about two hours until everything is cooked properly. We talk about the local traditions, people, customs. I am already so tired that I almost miss a moment when the food lands on the table. My head is falling down every now and then. So we don’t stay here any longer. We thank for their hospitality, and walk back through Bhalil to Hassan’s place to get some sleep.

The next morning (Wednesday, 19 September) we get off to Fez. Hassan offers to go with us. We don’t really enjoy this perspective because we spent with him the previous day and evening, and we prefer to visit Fez buy ourselves. When we reach the city, we bid him farewell, perhaps a little brusquely, but we have no choice.
We leave our backpacks at the bus station and go to the city. Tourists usually come here for one day. That’s what we did. If someone wants to stay here the night, you better think about it in advance.

Mint tea in the medina
First steps lead us to the medina, or the old town. Guidebooks rave about how wonderful place it is; founded in the eighth century, enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. They also admonish that it’s easy to get lost here. It’s true! It’s better not to venture deep into the narrow streets, you could really wander for hours there. We’re wandering there for about half an hour. We’re frightened that we’ll have to stay there. Every now and then some kids are running to us shouting, ”massage! massage!”. Did they learn that from their parents? We’re afraid that someone will take us for perverts and quickly run away from there. Quickly means after a quarter of an hour. We finally manage to find our way out of the maze of narrow streets and alleys.
We pass by hundreds of stalls, shopkeepers, sellers of every kinds of goods, asses with heavy burdens. A walk through the medina has its charm but all those hagglers are terribly tiresome. After a while we get used to it but we were close to start to regret that we’d come here.
After a while we find a cozy place. Oh, they even have a terrace, great! No, not so great. Piles of rubbish and rags all around, smells like a landfill. It’s better to get inside.
Everything is very cheap. Here tourists don’t need to bother about Ramadan. We eat like pigs, drink hectoliters of freshly squeezed orange juice, smoke shisha. I’m not into drugs, but I had to try shisha in Morocco. Well, it’s not a drug, as it’s made of some kind of herb.
In the meantime we  take a shower in a public facility. Thus refreshed we set off to the medina again.

In Morocco you have to try a shisha, or a water pipe

Practicalities

*Tourist Information Point is located at the corner of Avenue Moulay Youssef and Place de la Resistance/La Fiat. Don’t expect much help here.

*Bus station – Gare routière is situated north of Bab al-Maruk, between Kasbah Serada and Borj Nord.

*Places worth visiting:
-funduk, or market,
-tanneries under the open sky (often shown on photographs of the city),
-Mosque al-Karaouine from 859 (you can see it only from outside), surrounded by madrasas (or schools) and a library, one of the oldest universities in the world,
-Madrasa al-Attarin (from XIV century); you can admire the artistry of Arab architects and constructors here, complex geometric mosaics, stuccos, details of marble, alabaster and wood,
-Ibn Danan Synagogue,
-Marinid Tombs – ruins on a hill overlooking the city,
-defensive walls with beautiful gates, among them Bab Bujeloud and Bab al-Maruk,
-Royal Palace – not available to the public, can be viewed only from the outside.

*It’s a must to pass through the tiny shops and workshops where people are working hard from dawn till dusk and the souks, each of them specializing in selling a particular good.
It’s worth noting that the buildings in the Arab world have a centripetal orientation. From the outside, they may seem modest, with often dilapidated gates, but their windows face the inner courtyard, often drowning in flowers and mosaics.

Views from restaurant's terrace are not always relaxing
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