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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fez Fantasia*

Fez. A magical place. Full of beauty, strangeness, a smothering heat. Like Marrakech, but without the total insanity. As our riad host said, Marrakech comes to life at night, while Fez lives by day. It's a very religious city -- in fact, though I was dressed in short sleeves and a knee-length skirt, I was repeated jostled hard by men who apparently found me immodest. (Once, the guy responsible was taken to task by a passing veiled matron, which pleased me immensely.) I changed into long harem pants. Much more acceptable.

Our riad
On our first morning I was completely unable to get out of bed, exhausted and sickened by the endless drive through the desert. Our riad was a lovely place to lounge away the early hours, and by noon I was up and ready to go. We turned down the (quietly insistent, extremely persuasive) offer of a guide and set off with an incomplete map and the slightly terrifying information that there were 1200 streets within the medina. We were sure to get lost.

We found our way to the Blue Gate, the Bab Boujaloud, and then entered the maze of the souks. No vespas, thank god, but many mules. As Edith Wharton says, "The distances in Fez are so great, and the streets so narrow, that all but saints or humble folk go about on mule-back." We are humble folk, obviously. Plenty of sellers enticing, imploring, cajoling us to buy. The insistence was of a gentler nature than in Marrakech. In fact, "to Marrakech" has now become a verb in our family.

And buy we did, but with a certain intelligence that we'd lacked in Marrakech. We could bargain. We could say no. Well, almost.

We headed to the Fondouk el-Nejjarine, once an inn, or caravanserai, for travelers, now the Musuem of Wood. Many very bad jokes were made. I will leave them to your imagination. It was peaceful and beautiful, housing carved wood objects -- doors, musical instruments, and furniture.

Not far from the caravanserai, we visited the most sacred site in Morocco, the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, the founder of Fez. We were able to peer in through the door to see the tomb and the pilgrims there, but as non-Muslims we couldn't enter.

A long trek back to the riad, where we rested and cooled off (I had chosen all our riads with air-conditioning, and a good thing -- it was over 100 in the desert, and at least 95 in Fez).

Then out again to the Royal Palace area, where we strolled through a formally laid-out garden, full of fountains and cool shade, and then found a rooftop restaurant.

We ate tagines and skewers of meat overlooking the Bab Boujaloud, with hundreds of swallows darting past as the sun set and the muezzins called from three mosques surrounding us.

In the morning we set out for the Dar El-Batha Museum, Fez's main ethnographic museum. It's in the palace of Moulay el-Hassan, a ruler of Fez in the nineteenth century. We looked at illuminated manuscripts, ceramics, embroidery, and woodcarving in its cool interior. After that, we found the fourteenth-century Bou Inania Medersa, one of the ancient, beautiful schools of Fez, with a mosque attached.

We still had some time before catching a taxi to the airport, so we wandered through the souks to the El-Attarine Medersa. Built on the same plan as the other medersas we'd seen, it had a central courtyard ringed with rooms for students and for prayer. The tile and plasterwork were breathtaking. And the walk back to the riad was sweltering.

Our return trip was uneventful, though exceedingly long. Taxi to the airport, flight to Charleroi, taxi to the train station, train to Brussels, train to Gent, taxi to the apartment. I do have to give a shoutout to Ryanair. We've had four flights on the airline, and though there were absolutely no comforts provided, they were remarkably efficient. Each landed on time or early (though with considerable bouncing). And the passengers, knowing exactly what they were getting, applauded each landing and cheered at the triumphal music they played. Really, some larger airlines could take lessons. The extra charges for just about everything are irritating, but they let our overweight bag (2 kilos of Moroccan purchases!) go through for free.

So...Morocco. I learned a little something about myself there. I was not quite the world traveler I thought I was. The country was challenging in a way that was utterly new and exciting, and sometimes a little frightening. Driving through the desert, getting lost in the medinas' mazes, dealing with a completely unknown and patriarchal culture -- all was fascinating.

NOW I'm a world traveler.

*For a description of a Moroccan fantasia, go here.

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