Escaping the Medina Maze

Morocco Part 2: Finding moments of serenity in the chaos of Fès

“You have to see the tanneries.”

“You’ll love Fès.”

“Fès is so much more relaxed than Marrakech.”

All bullshit.

Seriously. We loved two things about Fès. No three. Our refurbished palace of a riad, our hammam experience, and when we left.

Morocco was not new or scary for either of us, having a combined quarter century in Northern Africa and the Middle East (Aiyana even hit a potential pickpocket for his impertinence!). Despite the sensory assault, the sights and smells and chaos of Marrakech spoke to our souls. Chefchaouen, was blue and the mountain breezes lulled us into the deepest state of relaxation imaginable. The Faim d’Espices cooking class was a delight! Christine actually has bought and used a tagine! But Fès? Well… think rat maze with a low hanging roof. What color is the sky? Couldn’t tell you, we didn’t see it.

Close your eyes and picture a Medieval tannery with people stomping on animal skin with their bare feet and legs (still want that lovely leather bag? We did not). Every shop was pricey and flashy, and the proprietors kept telling us how great it was we weren’t being pressured to buy like in Marrakech. The thing was, Marrakech felt more honest. You haggled for a price, or you walked out, you didn’t get lied to with stories of antiques that were clearly not, or used-car-salesmanned into a showroom we didn’t want to be in to see a view we didn’t want to see. But Fès did have its charms.

We both have a bit of a carpet addiction, and Aiyana has literally run out of floor space, but at home in Holland, we’ve been looking at oil paintings with the table beautifully draped with a moorish carpets. And it turns out that historically, when the Dutch brought these carpets back from the “Orient” they put them on tables to prevent the fibers from deteriorating in the humid northern seaside climes. So now, Aiyana has a final carpet. Done.

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To give Fès a fair shake, we did go there directly from a mountain paradise in Chefchaouen, and only had 24 hours, so maybe if we had spent more time there… or maybe not.

We definitely got our hammam in. Faisal, the Riad Rcif manager took care of the bookings, at Riad Fès Maya, a sister riad, making sure to get us in on Friday, as the shops and other sights would be closed. Sadly, we wished we had skipped the city on Thursday and just done more hammamming.

***

What made this hammam different? So many details were exactly as they should have been. The garden in the riad courtyard had fountains lush and overflowing with rose petals. There were beautifully tiled walls, benches for two, gorgeous copper and silver pots for pouring water. Robes and slippers, and narrow spiral marbled staircases. Gentle words in French and Arabic, and calls to prayer filtering lightly through the building while songbirds flew lightly through the air above us.

With so many details exactly right, what was different? Friendship is special and intimate in the way that romantic relationships may not always be. True friendship can be a freer extension of our inner selves. By now, we’re comfortable with each other – who we are and how we feel and what we look like. But, we had only one bath attendant between us, so one of us was lying bored and steamingly hot, while the other was having a luxurious moment. I’m not used to being bored in Christine’s presence!

We began in a beautifully tiled room with a fountain in which we were to steam. And steam we did to the point where we asked each other, “Why, oh why?!?,” did we not heavily hydrate before this experience! After all, we should know better. Still, that did not diminish the experience. Toxins leached from our skin, we had quiet contemplation in the steam filled room, listening to the gentle splash of water from the fountain. While we have both tried, and enjoyed, hammams in Europe, there’s something special about the knowledge and expertise that a Middle Eastern hammam attendant brings to the scrub. With experience they know how rough to go, without fear or delicacy, just the business of sloughing off the skin that needs to go. Don’t worry, you can always ask for “relax” if you’re needing something daintier.

Wondering what would come for the massage part? They did find a second woman for the massages – after a number of harried phone calls. Hey, we lived there long enough, didn’t we know it was Friday? We went for “strong” massages, and neither one of us was disappointed. The argan and olive oils. The clay. The argan oil hair massage. The black soap.

The end of our session was on the rooftop of this incredibly gorgeous Fès refurbished palace. We had mint tea and viewed the city we were about to leave. Relaxed, a tiny bit more in love with Fès, ready for the next adventure.

Traveling There

We took a domestic flight from Marrakech to Fès, which cut our travel time down by several hours. If you have the time take a train or rent a car. Our round trip flights were fairly cheap, but the airports there do not have a good method for differentiating between domestic and international arrivals. They will make you stand in the passport line, but then scoff haughtily at you for taking up their time when you don’t need a stamp.

Why Travel There?

Good question…

…no seriously, while it didn’t speak to us, Fès is an amazing historic city. Most of the art that you will find throughout Morocco is made here – the pottery, so many carpets, metalworks, leather… hammams around every corner, a médina that you could get lost in for days. The médina itself is a UNESCO world heritage site, home to the oldest university in the world – and one of the oldest largest medieval cities in the world. Close by you can see the ruins of Volubilis, another UNESCO archaeological site of Roman ruins and the burial site of Moulay Idris.

We stayed at the Riad Rcif, which was beautiful, spacious, and most importantly, we felt like we were queens. The manager’s mother cooked all of our meals and we could not ask for anything more delicious. It was a true delight in senses – the taste, the amount, the atmosphere of our dinner, welcoming with the most Middle Eastern hospitality.  Was it pricier than street food? Absolutely. But, as we were staying there, it was easy and turned out to be marvelous. So many little salads, details, and an elusive bottle of wine (or two). Faisal’s mother even came out to meet us. 

Our hammam was at the Riad Fès Maya, owned by the same people. The decor was less over the top, less bedazzled, embroidered velvet, with the emphasis on the wood and tile designs. The Maya was also on the edge of the médina, so you could see the skies, and felt less hemmed in by the maze.

Rooftop in Fes
The sun finally came out as we were preparing to leave

 

 

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