Where terracotta-coloured Marrakech is crazy and chaotic, the medieval old town of Fez with its white buildings and labyrinth of streets feels truly ancient and disconnected from the 21st cenury.
In the inky darkness, his flash of white teeth and beaming smile signalled we had arrived. Our Fez journey had officially begun. The riad where we were staying had sent their trusty luggage carrier to greet us at one of the old city’s gates. You could feel our excitement – it was palpable – but we were tired. It had been a long journey; it was time to head to our riad, on foot and rest up before we could begin exploring this ancient heart of Morocco.
We had spent a week in Marrakesh but getting to Fez was not without its trials. Monty and I were not with a tour group tripping around Morocco by bus. We were winging it on our own and we wanted to get from Marrakesh to Fez in the easiest and quickest time possible. Air Maroc was the best option yet the flight path was Marrakesh to Casablanca and on to Fez. We had to fly via Casablanca. We chose not to stay the night in Casablanca resulting in this drawn-out route. Having departed Marrakesh at 17:35 hours, we finally landed at Fez airport at 23:25 hours. As Morocco is not like your ‘typical’ European city, we erred on the side of caution and prearranged transport from the airport. Met by our driver, salutations exchanged and luggage bundled into the car, we made our way through a dimly lit landscape finally arriving at the entrance to the old city walls in the early hours of the morning.
We had booked Riad Laaroussa in Fez’s medina, the heart of the old city where cars do not go. Why Laaroussa? Monty and I had watched Rick Stein in action in Riad Laaroussa’s kitchen. It was seared onto our brains. This riad earned its place high on our bucket list. It felt like a dream but we were finally here, in Fez.
We were grateful Laaroussa’s luggage carrier was there to meet us at the one of the city’s gates and take us to our riad. Fez’s medina has numerous entries; we would never have found the right gate, let alone our riad, had we relied on pure instinct and an iPhone torch.
Polite exchanges done, Riad Laaroussa’s employee loaded our suitcases onto a timber cart and strode off, sure footed and full of energy, into the night. He led us down narrow back alleys, the darkness broken intermittently by small lights hanging precariously from rendered brick walls. It is still a miracle to me how our luggage carrier found his way to the riad in the labyrinthine darkness, but he did and without a wrong turn. We checked in and made our way to our room. And what a room. Ornate ceiling soaring metres high. Intricate ironwork. Dazzling zellij tiled floors. Mesmerising Moroccan woodwork. Our suite was exquisite.
After stealing a few hours’ sleep we headed from our ground floor suite to the riad’s rooftop for a traditional Moroccan breakfast replete with a spellbinding vista. Before us was a seemingly endless ocean of mud brick rooftops pierced by towering minarets and clusters of satellite dishes.
Raid Laaroussa’s owners, Casablanca-born Fred Sola and American wife, are the perfect hosts. To this day, we are forever thankful for their assistance in arranging the transport of our very heavy rug that Monty had bought for me in Marrakesh. Therein lies another story for another day. Suffice to say, it was difficult of organise overseas freight as we were caught right in the middle of Eid which a major celebration in Morocco. Like Christmas in Australia, nothing is open on the day itself; during the days that follow most places such as souk sellers, restaurants etc. are also shut.
Fez during Eid is a different to what travellers would experience at other times of the year, but Monty and I loved not having crowds pushing and shoving us. We enjoyed a quiet, less chaotic Fez wandering aimlessly around the medina with our guide Hamedo (recommended by Fred). Together we walked through history, visiting the neighbourhood bakeries, singing traditional songs, passing through alleys where the walls almost kiss, commenting on the artwork on the cedar doorways – the more embellished, the more wealthy the owner. The activity was far from frenetic; we embraced slow paced walk around the dusty labyrinth jammed with workshops and souks teaming with carpets, brass teapots, leather jackets, babouches, spices, soaps, perfumed oils and potions.
Because of Eid, we didn’t experience the full breadth of medina life hustlers in action, craftsmen plying their trade, halal butchers and fishmongers selling their fare, but we were able to visit the leather tannery with its pungent dye pits. (If offered to you, grab that bunch of freshly picked mint and do not let it go. Keep it closely tucked under your nose to minimise the impact of offending odours.)
Wanting to explore beyond the medina, thanks to Fred we were able to engage the services of knowledgeable local guide, Reda and his trusty car, to take us around Fez and beyond. His fee was 1000dh per day. Sites and meals etc. were additional. We visited the UNESCO world heritage archaeological site of Volubilis and nearby town Meknes. Volubilis, one of Morocco’s best-preserved Roman ruins located between Fez and Meknes, was an important outpost of the Roman Empire. Although Monty and I have traversed many archaeological sites in our travels, we found Volubilis striking with its vast expanse of columns and mosaics, but it was Meknes that literally hit a chord with us.
While lunching on pigeon pie at Restaurant Salma we freely embraced the perfect open air view of the surrounds including what looked like a piazza. We later discovered it was Habs Qara – a dank underground prison beneath the Meknes streets. Built during the reign of Moulay Ismail to cast down his opponents, this prison kept up to 6,0000 prisoners out of public sight, yet many of them were used to build the city of Meknes. It was eerie to venture around this dungeon-like space, even more disturbing knowing that we were seeing only a small portion of this 5 km long maze of halls, corridors and small rooms. It’s said that chained prisoners were made to sleep standing upright…unimaginable. The low ceilings and lack of natural light would have felt like hell itself.
Wanting a quiet reprieve from the horrors of history we headed to Sahriji Swani, a man-made lake also known as the Swani reservoir, built by Moulay Ismail. Only 500m from his palace, the lake was built to protect against potential attack and provide the city with drinking water. Today it supplies water for public facilities including mosques, baths, and is used for agricultural purposes.
If you have time, do visit the vast Middle Atlas mountain range. It’s worthy of a day trip as it offers a completely different perspective of Fez. We drove past beautiful holiday homes owned by Europeans and celebrities who love to ski. We ventured into the forest and kept a respectful distance of the macaques, African monkeys, one of few monkey species who dwell in a cold climate. Playful indeed but I wouldn’t want to provoke them. Some looked fierce and not to be trifled with.
While touring with Reda we visited an elderly woman whose home was carved into the side of the mountain. Called troglodites, they live in cave-like dwellings which are rudimentary but still offer the comforts of home. We drank vervain tea and ate home baked bread dampened with local oil. She was such a dear woman, we felt privileged to be welcomed into her home. When I quietly enquired her age, Reda said elderly people stop counting their age when they reach 90. They’ll simply give you any number. Today she was 132.
En route back to the riad, we stopped to buy a tasty portion of stuffed sheep’s pancreas. Monty refused to sample this traditional fare and ordered a small curry. I have chosen not to include an image out of respect for my vegan friends.
So, that’s it, in a nutshell. Except I haven’t mentioned the last-minute hammam we had on the eve of our departure. Luggage packed, we were unable to access fresh clothes, shampoo etc. We bordered our flight to Barcelona with slicked-back hair, looking like we had doused ourselves with a litre of oil.
Our time in Fez wasn’t without hiccups. Monty went down with a raging dose of upset stomach which put him out of action for the morning the day we arrived. Thankfully, Fred came to the rescue with medication that sorted out Monty’s bug. Remember, when away from the comforts of your riad, do not drink water unless it is out of an unopened bottle. Always stick with bottled or canned drink. And do not eat salad. Always eat cooked food. Amen.
Postscript: the rug that Monty bought for me in Marrakesh, which weighed what felt like a tonne, finally made its way back to our home in Queensland Australia. Thanks to Fred and his negotiating skills. And that, folks, is a story for another day.
Want to know more?
Stayed at: Riad Laarousssa https://riad-laaroussa.com/
Hammam at Riad Laaroussa https://riad-laaroussa.com/hammam-and-spa/
Fez medina https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fes_el_Bali
Meknes Underground Prison https://aain.ma/qara-prison/
Middle Atlas Mountains https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Atlas