Finding my way around a Labyrinth: Fez

Hi, my name is Vinny, and I am directionally impaired, on more than one occasion I have walked into the wrong bedroom while leaving a bathroom, even at my own apartment.  The guidebooks I have read and the friends I have talked to concentrate on how “getting lost” is the reason you go to Fez.  I hate getting lost.  I am easily frustrated and get those nervous sweats that do not seem to stop until I can undeniably guarantee that I know where I am.

Little known fact that I am completely making up: The same person who built the old Medina in Fez was a distant great uncle of the person Microsoft hired to make the elusive Windows ’95 maze screensaver.  Yes, the same screensaver you stared at for hours during grade school when everyone seemed to own a gateway. Instead of a windows sign at the end, in fez it was more often than not a carpet shop.  I got so lost the first day I was in the Fez Medina, that I found my Riad by making to many wrong turns.  Street signs are there but during the day scarves, shirts, and hats take over the walls and block out the majority of the signs.

A few quick hits that I realized during my trip:

– Carpet shops are a vital part of the experience, and since the carpets are serious money, you do not get pestered when you sit down to look at the work.

– Tanneries do not smell as bad as everyone says they do **Disclaimer: I went in February, it was 16C, not 35C.

– Thinking you can truly conquer this Medina without a guide is dumb.

– I found out what the worst job in Morocco is.  The mailman in the depths of the Fez Medina.

All in all, Fez turned out to be a great few days, here is some photographic evidence:

 

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The Poor Man’s Mecca

Moulay Idriss is a site of pilgrimage for Moroccans who can not afford the Hajj.  Although it is not exactly a 1:1 ratio.  Five pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss is equivalent to one trip to Mecca.  I was only there for 30 minutes, not enough time for me to get lost?  You would be mistaken, I have conquered more confusing places in Morocco, but walking a city on a hill takes a toll on you especially in-between grande taxi rides.

The best 15 Dirhams you’ll ever spend

On our northern Journey we found ourselves pondering a taxi from Meknes to Fez.  I hate travel days, and ones in Morocco usually come with their own set of problems.  Enough of the taxi drivers will try a crazy tax that has some correlation using the amount of Arabic you speak versus the price of the taxi.  I never loved math in school but I know what the word exponential means.  I am fairly certain my Arabic skills put me in the severe ripoff zone.  My blood pressure goes up every time I approach a taxi driver BUT the one we worked with in Meknes was the best experience I have had with a taxi in morocco.  Our trip from Meknes to Fez (with two stops at Moulay Adriss, and Volubilis) cost my group a grand total of 700 Dirhams, which is way more than any Moroccan in their right mind would pay, but in the lower end of the ‘Murica tax bracket.

Below are some pictures I snapped at Volubilis, which ended up being one of the best pit stops I’ve ever taken.

Stumbling around Chefchaouen

If you look hard enough, you will see there is more to the city than shades of blue

Chefchaouen, and the “Cheese Steak” incident

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Halfway through our February break, we found ourselves in Chefchaouen, also known as the blue city, most of the old medina is painted various shades of blue. Chefchaouen is infested with two things, hippies and mosquitoes. Luckily, going in February the only one we had to battle were the hippies , and at least they don’t bite. Our riad, (Riad Baraka) was the best overall experience I have stayed at in Morocco. It was so clean you could confuse it with being touristy. It had a great feel and was very dignified considering it must be a hot spot for your average twenty-something stoned traveler. The city is truly beautiful, the mountains that surround it are underrated and I questioned why I had not been pushed here sooner during my time in Morocco.
Throughout the winding alleys of the medina we found a few berber clothing shops and some art shops, one in particular that included a very laid back, proud Moroccan artist. After talking with him he quoted his work at rockbottom prices without any bartering, which lead to all 4 of us buying at least one piece. If only cab drivers worked this way in Casablanca…
At this point in the vacation we were a tajined out, (which seems to happen every trip) so we were on the search for something different. That something different was “Mandala, International Restaurant and Backgammon Club”. This place was right out of a chapter of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The walls and ceiling were hand painted with snakes, unicorns, and designs that seemed to have no rhyme or reason beyond the outrageous color schemes. Hanging from the ceiling were pieces of copy paper that were colored in with crayons and colored pencils. At first I thought it was something to keep the kids occupied while their parents ate, but the art was very detailed. As we sat down a man was sitting in the middle of the restaurant with an unlimited amount of mint tea and food, working away at a few pieces of paper.
The menu was extensive, offering 30 different teas, as well as Moroccan, Italian, and Indian food. I ordered a cheese steak with peppers, fried zucchini, and tomatoes. I ordered that cheese steak with high expectations, and when they brought out this “cheese steak” the look on my face may have been worth the price of the dinner for my fellow travelers.
When you see “cheese steak” at an International Restaurant and Backgammon Club you shouldn’t assume something that resembles a philly cheese steak, you should assume a round chunk of exotic cheese that is grilled. My hipster meter leveled up, my pants became skinnier, and the shirt I was wearing may have tripled in value as soon as that plate was set down in front of me. Needless to say, once I started eating it, I was happy with the misunderstanding. On the menu of teas was a Pakistan tea, which from one of my first experiences in a Moroccan taxi has a special place in my traveling heart. Since I was in full beard mode I ordered the gingery, apricot based tea and drank it down with pride, Pakistani look-alike pride.

The man, the myth, the legend

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The man, the myth, the legend

Let me introduce you to Mohammed. To be clear, I’ve met more Mohammed’s in Morocco than I’d like to remember.

The year was 1968, a young man with nothing but free time hopped on a bus to the coastal Moroccan town of Essaouira. He told himself he’d stay for one night, just to see what all the fuss is about. Six Months later, he’s still there, playing a 12 string guitar and getting into all kinds of shenanigans with numerous hippies, musicians, and artists. From his version of the story he even jammed out with the likes of Jimmy Hendricks.  While developing a diverse group of friends, his level of shenanigans came to a climax, and a buddy took him aside and told him, “Mohammed, your gonna die here!” A month later he was still there…

Our whacky, liberal, indoor/outdoor glasses wearing, tour guide told it how it was. He took us around the Fez medina, a UNESCO world Heritage site known for it’s ability to get anyone as lost as they can ever get. Throughout a six hour tour Mohammed took us through all of the in’s and out’s of the medina. If I hadn’t lived in Morocco for the past 7 months I wouldn’t have thought anything of what he was telling us, I would have chalked it up as old man folly, but Mohammed was the most progressive, no BS Moroccan I have ever met.

Walking around the medina we would stop by a random door and he would discuss how the house was once owned by a rich and powerful family, but since they spoke bad about the old king, he threw them out and made the house a school, a business, or left it abandoned. This is not something to be said in public or at least half as loud as he was saying it. The 4 of us that went on the tour from GWA all gave each other that “what the hell did he just say” look that is usually reserved for student questions. He also discussed the Western Sahara, and how Morocco was trying to bribe their way into country’s favor by building resorts all along the Mediterranean coast. This was the first time I have heard a Moroccan talk of the Western Sahara like it was not theirs.

What had to be the most ludicrous thing he said, was discussing the amount of sub-Saharan Africans that were in Fez. He referred to them as “Black Africans”, this was crazy with-in the confines of our group but a short time after saying this he abruptly stopped walking and pointed at a person and said, “Hey look, a Black African”. Even writing that my stomach tightens. Beyond the bigotry the tour was great, and it was refreshing to see an older man who understood how backwards his developing country is. He even discussed how the new generation was even worse off then he was, I do not know how bad you have to be, to be worse off than a 65 year old hippie who gives tours every few days in the Fez medina, but if this is the case, the future does not look to bright.