Fez is …
August 28, 2009
OK, I’m going to level with you right from the start: Fez can be a little scary.
Exotic? Yes. Alien? Absolutely. Romantic? That too, for sure.
Fez is all of that.
And one more thing: Fez is authentic. Fez is very real. Fez, in the end, is Fez. Which is why it is most definitely scary.
This is not Disneyland.
Case in point: On our second night in Fez, our guide was taking us back to our hotel after dinner and … OK, wait. I already have some explaining to do.
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The heart of Fez, the part you are there to see, is the “medina,” the old town. It is an endless maze of tiny, mostly nameless, winding streets, alleys and dead ends. Too narrow for cars. Sometimes almost too narrow for walking.
And there is no “nice” part of the medina.
We are staying in a wonderful hotel – well (another explanation coming up), it’s not really a hotel. It’s a “riad,” an old mansion turned into a kind of very deluxe bed-and-breakfast. More details later, but I really need to keep going right now.
Our riad is quite luxurious, but it is in a rough neighborhood. At night, all of the medina is a rough neighborhood. The restaurant where we have dinner is also very elegant, but it is in the same rough neighborhood.
It’s only a few minutes walk from hotel to restaurant, but everyone insists that we cannot go on our own. It’s not even a consideration. The restaurant will have someone come to the hotel and walk us to the restaurant. Then, when we are finished with our meal, someone will walk us home again.
To some extent, all this guiding is necessary because it’s way too easy to get lost in the medina. But it’s mostly because, as I was saying, Fez can be a little scary. Particularly after dark.
So, OK, our guide is walking us back to the hotel and suddenly he stops, looks around and says (in French, our only common language) that he missed a turn and he’s a little lost.
He gets his bearings back quickly, but it’s late and it’s dark and, as we walk through the narrow streets, we’re suddenly very aware of the small groups of men hanging out on the corners.
We turn a corner and come face-to-face with a large, hulking man. Our guide quickly says “aSalaam ‘Alaykum” – “Peace Be Upon You.”
Later he explains that in any unexpected encounter at night, he always starts with that phrase immediately. It should trigger the appropriate response: “Alaykum As-Salaam” – “And upon you be peace.” And that way it is official that everyone has peaceful intentions.
A block further on, we pass another cluster of men and one of them shouts something at us. Our guide doesn’t answer, but he walks a little more quickly.
Later we ask him what the man had shouted. “I don’t let myself listen,” he tells us. “If I did, I might have to answer him and it could be unpleasant.”
Moments later, we turn up another unlikely dark alleyway and we are suddenly at our riad. It’s an unassuming wooden door with only a tiny sign – “Maison Bleue” – to distinguish it.
But immediately inside that door is our welcoming Fez home. We walk into the courtyard, the night clerk welcomes us back by name. Everything is delightful and deluxe, warm and welcoming.
But just outside is the heart of Fez.
Dark and at least a little scary.
During the day, Fez is different – but also still the same.
During the day, it’s perhaps not scary. It’s edgy.
Those narrow streets are crowded, jammed with people busily intent on going about their lives – which most definitely do not include you.
They’re not hostile, but they’re not going out of their way to be welcoming either. (Do I need to say again that this is definitely not Disneyland?)
There are tourists here, for sure, but most of the businesses in the medina – and at the street level, the medina is one vast marketplace – are not tourist-oriented.
The butcher with a marble slab filled with severed sheep’s heads is definitely not selling to tourists. (And when he sees my camera pointed in his direction, he screams at me in words I don’t understand, but in a tone of voice that is unmistakable: Get out of here!)
The man with an enormous bucket of live snails is not looking for tourist business.
The stalls where they build and sell enormous intricate wood and sheet metal Moroccan wedding “thrones” are not there for Western tourists.
And while French is spoken widely, English is rare and signs are for the most part entirely in Arabic script.
People move with purpose and focus. They have lives and they’re going about them.
There’s hustle and bustle and people elbow their way through the crowds. Women in veils, men in hooded robes. Women without veils, in more nearly “Western” dress, and men in blue jeans and baseball caps.
Men on heavily laden donkeys clip-clop through the streets. Others, steering two-wheeled carts piled high with vegetables or clothes or shoes or propane tanks, shout “Balak!” – “Out of the way!” – as they careen down the hilly streets of the medina.
And when you hear them shout, you do get out of the way.
I am reminded, in an odd way, of New York City, which can be edgy during the day and dangerous at night (although in my experience, New York restaurants expect you to get back and forth from your hotel on your own – no guides are available).
New York is very much itself. There are plenty of tourists there, but the city is definitely not paying too much attention to them. The tourists are welcome, as is the money they spend, but they’re not going to be welcomed with open arms and warm embraces.
And when a New York cabbie honks his horn – the Big Apple equivalent of “Balak!” – you had better get out of the way.
But let’s not push the analogy too far.
The real point is simple enough. Fez is Fez – and the flavor is not diluted, the rough edges are not smoothed over.
And yet, quite often, if you can penetrate the rough exterior, there is warmth – and even welcome – within.
I mentioned our hotel, riad Maison Bleue.
From the street – an alley, really – there is just the small rough door with the tiny sign. It’s easy to miss even when you’re looking for it.
But inside it’s a different world: a beautiful courtyard with orange trees rising above a pool surrounded by couches and armchairs. The staff is friendly, helpful, always there when you need them. The rooms are luxurious – but not in an over-the-top big-city fashion. A superb Moroccan breakfast is brought to the room every morning – or, if you prefer, you can eat on a rooftop terrace, looking out over the city.
The house – which was built a century ago by a prominent Fez judge – is, in an echo of the city itself, a confusing warren of staircases, hallways and unexpectedly beautiful rooms.
Rough on the outside, warm and welcoming within.
One afternoon, in the medina, our guide (the amazing, estimable Saïd Andaloussi) led us through a doorway off the street into a small darkish room that turned out to be a classroom, filled with young children.
My wife, a teacher, waded into the middle of the class and she was suddenly enveloped by a vast group hug as the kids flocked around her, fighting to get close to this exotic stranger.
Their teacher beamed.
We slipped back out into the medina and continued walking.
A little later, I stopped by a shop where a dark, burly man pounded grimly on an unwieldy chunk of iron with a huge hammer.
Sparks were flying and it looked like it would make a great photo. I hesitated. The man looked up at me briefly and then went back to his work. I took a deep breath, caught his attention and pointed to my camera and then to him. I gestured to ask if I could take his picture and he responded with a huge smile. He waved me closer, posed with his hammer in hand and then, still smiling, went back to work.
The pictures, I confess, weren’t very good. But the memory of that grim face breaking into a warm smile has stayed with me.
Better than any photo.
Rough on the outside, warm and welcoming within. But – and here’s the key – only sometimes. Only maybe.
Fez is not manicured. Fez is not smooth. Fez is very much – and absolutely always – Fez.
Andy Stone is travel editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I confess I am not a brave adventurer when it comes to exotic travel.
I could claim I’m “too old” for those dangerous places, but, really, even when I was much younger I didn’t backpack through Europe and I never did travel on my own, catch-as-catch-can, through those exotic places where you can’t speak a word of the language and can’t read a single letter of the alphabet.
I guess I’m a cowardly lion, at best.
And so for our trip to Morocco, I spent hours on the Internet looking for recommendations on the best company to arrange a tour of Morocco.
I wound up working with Alex Fishman of Heritage Tours in New York.
Alex arranged a trip to our exact specifications: Fez, Marrakech, Essouaria, hiking in the Atlas Mountains.
Everything went perfectly – fussy as I can be, I had no complaints anywhere along the way.
And, in Fez and Marrakech, we were accompanied by Saïd Andaloussi, a man of great education and great experience, who speaks excellent English (along with any number of other languages).
Fez can be scary – but there’s no point in being stupid about it. A guide is a virtual necessity.
Heritage Tour’s website is: htprivatetravel.com. Their phone number is 800-378-4555.
– Andy Stone