From Fes, Morocco, we headed East to the Sahara Desert, where we stayed in a tent village, rode camels to tiny villages, and walked for miles in surreal sand dunes.
From Fes, Morocco, we headed East to the Sahara Desert, where we stayed in a tent village, rode camels to tiny villages, and walked for miles in surreal sand dunes.
In the middle of the chaotic, restless and quirky medina of Fes rises a tall, unassuming (in true Moroccan fashion) building that would be the answer to what I precisely needed that day. Calmness. A short parenthesis from the bustling outside world. Spread out on three different levels with each 2-3 different rooms, including a lovely rooftop terrace that overlooks the medina, Café Clock is one of the funkiest cafés I have ever been in, and it was never more welcome. While still very Moroccan, with its hues of brown and ornate carvings, the café is also home to many funky works of art, starting with the gorgeous central chandelier. What makes this place so special, outside its beautiful and modern setting, is its menu. Exit tagines and couscous. At Café Clock, you can eat grilled veggies sandwiches, milkshakes, hummous, falafels, pancakes and other delicious delicacies. And even if you aren't particularly hungry, thirsty or in need of a break, Café Clock has something to offer - namely, free wifi, cooking, calligraphy, yoga and dance classes, concerts, and movie showings, to name but a few. Morocco is an incredible country, and the Fes medina does not disappoint - but sometimes, all a girl needs is free wifi and a decadent chocolate milkshake away from the hustle. And Café Clock is just the perfect place for that.
I had just been marvelling at the intricacy of the Bou Inania Medersa and its outstanding Moorish architecture, when the heavy wooden door creaked open. The guardian of the medersa was revealed - his red jalaba perfectly framed by the panelwork and mosaic behind.
Everywhere I went in the Fes medina, I saw these numbered boxes painted on the walls. I had no idea what they were all about until later. I learned that these are election boxes. Morocco has a multi-party political system and each party is assigned a numbered box. I think I saw as many as twenty numbered boxes! Campaign posters are officially limited to these spaces so parties cannot plaster their campaign notices over just any available surface. Some parties have iconic symbols that represent them so instead of posters, they use spray paint and stencils to paint the image of their party’s symbol on the wall. I was particularly curious about the symbols; many looked like hieroglyphics to me and I wondering what kind of campaign message they were intending to convey. Perhaps in a country where nearly 40 percent of the population is illiterate, using a symbol to just remind people the party is active and running goes a long way.
I’m not a shopper but I have to admit, I have a big weakness when it comes to local handicrafts. Every day that I was in Morocco was heavenly torture for me. Of all the places I spent time in, my favorite handicraft spot was the medina in Fes. Like many a tourist, I bought more than my fair share of the leather goods that Fes is world famous for. Fes is also known for its metal products and Place Seffarine (aka the metal souk) is the place to go. The small square named after the coppersmiths who still work there – pounding copper and brass to produce all sorts of metal products. In fact, you can hear Place Seffarine before you actually see it, the rhythmic sounds of hammer against metal reverberate down the narrow alleys of the medina. Much of what is sold here is produced here following centuries old metalworking methods. Artisans and their apprentices work side by side and in between shopping, it’s very entertaining to just watch them pound and shape metal into the beautiful items sold in the shops. I was filled with glee making my way from one shop to another browsing through handmade utensils, bowls, plates, utensils, teapots, candle holders, boxes of all kinds and more. I had my eyes on the lookout for two uniquely Moroccan items – a copper couscous steamer and an exquisitely carved Moroccan lamp. Place Seffarine is located near the Karaouine Mosque. Like with everything, quality and price of the products vary - shop around and bargain hard!
Over a sultan's feast of pastilla, marinated salads, tajines, and pastries at La Maison Bleue in the Fès medina, my husband and I were spellbound by the haunting voice of this oud player. The melancholy cadence of his instrument coalesced with the slow enchantment of his vocals to form an unforgettable and almost tangible atmosphere of magic and mystery.
My first international trip was to Morocco for a friend's wedding. After seven hours of dancing and eating, the hosts served dinner around 1:30 am. It was the ultimate cultural experience in a country so different from our own.
The tangled maze of narrow alleys in the medina in Fes, Morocco requires that all deliveries are made by push cart or donkey. I woke this guy from his nap to transport my luggage to my riad - which was most helpful, since I had no idea where it was!
The Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts in Fes, Morocco is interesting enough ... but be sure to climb the last flight of stairs to the rooftop for a view like this!
On my travels, a highlight has to be capturing images of local people, either chatting and then asking for a photo (usually positive) or like this one, a candid shot. While staying in Fes, in Morocco, I went to the Souk every day. It's an amazing place and for sure, you will get lost and more than once! This shot, for me is perfect. I first selected the plain backdrop of a wall, then just waited for a subject to enter my canvas. This elderly man caught in profile, made that particular day's shoot very worth while and satisfying!
Staying in The Medina in Fes, Morocco is one of the most amazing experiences travel can offer. One of the surprises was the people and how helpful they were. Our Riad owners arranged for baggage handling to our waiting taxi. A local touch that also helped to get us out of the maze. Nice to have an audience as well. To get this experience, it is important to choose to stay in The Medina. And, find a Riad of your liking and price range. Our favorite and highly recommend: Riad Numero Nine. It is the most authentic and interesting way to experience this mystical place.
After making small talk in mediocre Spanish, broken French, and little English, we managed to interpret that we were waiting for the bread that was rolled in the home to finish baking at the oven in the center of town because no home has their own oven. Finally, a man walked through the door carrying what seemed like the largest circular bread I had ever seen. Simultaneously, the mother of the family came out of the kitchen with a steaming pile of cous cous, vegetables, and chickpeas, and gently placed spoons around the circle as if she were presenting her country on a plate to us and demanded we begin to eat as she scurried back to the kitchen. Just a day before we had been invited to the outskirts of Fes by a young man we met on our grueling overnight bus ride from Spain. He was crossing the Mediterranean returning home for only three days and was thrilled to welcome five American guests into his family's home with the promise of a traditional Moroccan meal. Little did we know what was in store for us. Although the cous cous in the picture was the highlight of the meal, the tagine that followed and the fresh bread were only side dishes to the true travel experience of sharing a family meal with new local friends.
Located in Fes's medina, Restaurant Sekaya is a great introduction to Moroccan cuisine, particularly for wary travelers. The ambience is great, the food is affordable and flavorful and they have what I believe to be the best mint tea in town. This was the first of many during my stay in Morocco and it remains one of my favorites to this day. Sweet but not overly done, minty, warm and refreshing. It's everything you could want in mint tea, and more. http://restaurant-sekaya.blogspot.com/
The great Fez medina, oldest extant market in Morocco. It is a warren of amazing delights and so easy to get completely lost in. A guide is a must, at least at first. The smoke from these fires are from the kilns making the famous Moroccan tiles, tagines, and pottery.
These are a famous stop on the tours of the Medina in Fez, and worth seeing. The shop owners will give you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose....take it....and then take you to the roof to see the "back room", where the dyeing takes place in these vats. The hides are dried and cured on the roofs, and then men, knee deep in the pits of "pigeon poop", and natural colors, dye the skins to be made into various lovely leather products. The smell is terrible, but the leather products are lovely and very inexpensive. Each product has it's own area in the medina and if you ask for the leather center, you will be pointed in the right direction.
The metal working section of the medina is easy to find, follow the noise! Men sit around a fairly open square and literally pound the metal over forms to make bowls, tea servers, lamps, etc. The area is surrounded by vendors selling their wares.
Making little ones out of big ones. At the tile factories, on the outskirts of Fez and the medina, the handmade tiles are cut, by hand, into exotic shapes for use in table tops and decorative tiles. It's unbelievably detailed and beautiful work. All done by hand.
Preserving food in salt is a centuries old method that crosses cultures. In Morocco, they salt preserve all sorts of vegetables as well as lemons. Every market you go to, you see containers and jars packed with all sorts of preserved veggies. Chicken tajine with preserved lemons and olives is a classic Moroccan dish which I loved eating and wanted to be able to make home home but I needed the preserved lemons. The cook, at the riad that we staying at in Fes, gave shared her recipe which is very simple. • 6 large organic lemons (Since you’ll be eating the rind, get organic lemons if you can. If not, wash the lemons well.) • 1/4 – 1/3 cup sea salt • Mason jar or any jar with a tight lid 1. Slice the lemons as if to quarter them but leave the base intact. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of salt on the flesh of the lemons and then reshape the fruit. 2. Pack the lemons into the jar, pressing down on each one to squash them. Sprinkle salt on top of each lemon as you go along. Add enough fresh pressed lemon juice to cover the lemons. I add a couple of dried chilies to the jar to add some “bite” to the lemons but you can add any dried herbs you like. Every few days, shake the jar to redistribute the salt. The lemons will be ready after one month. To use, remove and discard the pulp and gently rinse the rind under running water before slicing and adding to the dish. I’ve been using thinly sliced strips on top of grilled seafood and diced bits sprinkled in salads. Delicious!
Though I usually stick to budget-friendly hostels for accommodation, Morocco is definitely one place I don't mind springing for something a little nicer. This is because, in addition to indulging in my love for Moroccan-inspired decorating, staying in a restored riad (home with an interior courtyard garden) or dar (house) in the medina allows you to stay in a piece of history and, if you're staying in Fez as I was when I spent a few nights at Dar Houdou, you can actually stay in a UNESCO Heritage Site (as the city's labyrinthine medina is). Of course, things have changed since these homes were originally built, but sometimes that's for the better (for example, when restoring these homes, one has to add more full baths as it was historically more typical to go to hammam). Of course, if you do stay in this restored dar, be sure to leave an issue of AFAR to make their reading table complete!
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The medina in Fes is unparalleled - it will surprise, delight, and offend you as you wind through it's maze of shops. One of the highlights for those interested in seeing unusual professions is the leather dye vats. You don't need a map to find them, just follow your nose. You can view the vats from above from the various leather shops that have 'viewing areas'. You will be astonished at the work going on below you. Cow and goat hides are soaked in large vats to clean and then to dye them. The dye colors are natural and come from plants and flowers such as poppy (red), saffron (yellow), and mint (green). Men only work literally inside the vats stomping the hides down into the dyes - like grapes at a winery. They slather their legs in vaseline to ensure their skin doesn't get dyed in the process - a hazard of the workplace. This is a site to see so don't forget your camera. And don't worry - if you are worried about the smell, the shop will provide fresh mint for you to inhale while peering over the edge to see this ancient profession in action. How to find the vats? Most people hire guides to navigate them through the medina, so simply ask your guide - or just point your nose to the sky and inhale!
Probably one of my favorite souvenirs from Morocco are the mini tagines I bought from a friend's shop and a pottery factory we visited in Fes, where these mini tagines were also available in what I've been told are the city's emblematic blue and white. Easy to stuff in a suitcase (wrapped for safety in a scarf you bought, perhaps?), the mini tagines are a happy reminder of the many tagine meals you'll undoubtedly devour but are more likely to make it home safely and without taking up half of your suitcase. And they're as functional as they are cute (isn't everything cuter in mini-form?) as you can use them to hold sugar cubes or spices in your kitchen or maybe even knick-knacks and paperclips on your desk at work!
Planning a trip to the fascinating imperial city of Fez? I recommend staying at the Riad Laaroussa which is located inside the Medina. This 17th century palace is a welcome retreat of peace after spending the day exploring the chaotic Medina. What’s a Riad? Historically, it is a traditional Moroccan home with an open garden or courtyard. However, now most function as hotels/resorts. Riads are more inward focused. You won’t see large exterior windows. In fact, the exterior is plain and you are unable to tell if the home is upper or lower class. There are clay walls with a huge (and in some cases, ornate) door. Once you enter thru the massive door, you will be amazed at how lovely the interior is. Beautiful tiles & mosaics, water fountains, lush fabrics…riads provide you with the opulence of a grand mansion combined with a cozy atmosphere. These lovely “homes” only have a small number of rooms (i.e. 5-10). Riads provide you with a unique Moroccan experience that you won’t get staying in a hotel. Have insightful conversations over mint tea while learning about Moroccan culture from the locals. Centrally located with delicious food and an absolutely phenomenal staff, the Riad Laaroussa is a wonderful place to stay during your exotic trip to Fez. So forget using hotel chain rewards points and enjoy the unique experience of staying in a riad!
Some travelers are exhausted by the haggling in the souks of Morocco, by the barely-organized chaos of the medinas. In Fes, the stunning mosaic tile creations that are so typical all over the country can be bought directly from the artisans who make them in a showroom just outside the walls of the old Medina -- haggle, and stress, free. See how the pottery and mosaic is made then shop till you drop without needing to haggle. The prices are fixed and they ship internationally with Fed Ex. Buy items as small as cups, as large as garden fountains and dining tables. They even accept dollars and euros!
Deep in the maze that is the city of Fes, lies Dar Anebar. It is both a restaurant and a Riad. With a traditional courtyard that has a fountain and multiple dining rooms off the main area, there are plenty of "nooks and crannies" hiding delightful Moroccan details to inspire. The service is impeccable and the food, though very Moroccan, is also quite French (a good thing most certainly). Rooms in the Riad are of superior comfort and high speed WiFi is included, as is breakfast. My only complaint is that the lack of a door between the bathroom and bedroom can make sharing the space slightly awkward if you're staying in the Riad with friends. Still, if you're in Fes and looking for one of the most authentic experiences you can have, that's still luxurious -- this is where you need to stay.
At first glance, the narrow alley you have to maneuver to get to Café Clock -- does not look advisable. In fact, while walking down the path, I remarked to my friends, "This looks like a place in which we might find weed for sale." Yet the best adventures often begin in such a manner. You will feel glad for the thickness of the Riad walls that house the café, it's a break from the sensory overload that is Fes. The staff is young, fluent in three languages and enthusiastic. Even kind. It's another variation from the world outside. Decor reflects the history of Morocco while also representing those who visit. There's a mannequin keeping watch high up on the wall, dressed in the robe of an Arab princess, and horns hang upside down forming a sort of chandelier between the three levels of the cafe. Food is fresh, made to order, again representing both Morocco and foreign palates. There's a small movie theater that plays local films on Tuesday evenings and western films on Fridays. Make your way up top to the roof terrace and you have the perfect spot to relax for sunset. There are yoga lessons available, henna application and the chance to hire a local guide. Café Clock is nothing like the rest of Fes, and that's not a bad thing! Breakfast is served all day, WiFi is free and jewelry is for sale handmade by the female staff; there's even a cookbook you can take home that compiles classic Moroccan recipes, with a twist. (Perfect souvenir for mom, or your favorite chef!)
While we felt blessed throughout our time in Morocco, our Fes experience would be driven by divine providence, guiding us into not just a city, but into a relationship with a man that held it deep in his heart… “I know a guy!” That’s all we needed to hear from our I Tour Morocco guide, Hafid. He had taken great care of us for hundreds of kilometers and had one last suggestion for our tour in Fes. A phone call and few minutes later and we had Mohammed Bouftila, an internationally acclaimed Medina guide, climbing into the front seat. To get the most from a Medina tour, particularly in a mazed Medina so rich in culture, history and artisans, find a guide. The Medina is crammed with stories and Momo started with one from his childhood, growing up in a nearby riad where his mother and sister still live. He had his favorite routes and off-the-map places. Some of the most incredible locations involved access into abandoned riads and palaces that were either in the process of renovation or looking for a sponsor. The Medina environment continues to be a communal living effort. Neighbors share walls, bakers, activities, religion and family life. It has been this way for a millennia and Momo loves to demonstrate how these traditions carry forward. Any credentialed guide in the Medina can provide similar services, but by the end of our time in Fes, we felt part of Momo’s family and world. Find Momo via email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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