As any good Everett trip begins, this trip was inspired by a Rick Steves show we watched about a year and a half ago, the one where Rick visits Gibraltar (a British Territory in the south of Spain) and then takes the ferry to Tangier (Morocco). Excuse my general ignorance here, but at the time I was thinking...Morocco? Africa? So close to Spain? I've never been one to dream of going to Africa, but what I was seeing of Morocco intrigued me. This wasn't savannas and villages and giraffes (Ignorance, I know! You were warned). It looked more Middle Eastern in style, and all of a sudden, it was on my list. While we lived in Spain, I had to visit Morocco.
Airfare and timing never really worked out last year, but I was determined to go this winter - if for no other reason than to escape the cold for a weekend. So, last weekend we took one of our shortest flights ever (an hour and 15 minutes) from Madrid to Rabat on a Thursday night and spent a long weekend experiencing Morocco. We got in late, so we spent our first night at an Airbnb close to the airport, and I saw immediately how obvious it was we weren't in Spain/Europe anymore. I likened it a bit to crossing the US/Mexico border - it's amazing how drastic the change can be. All of a sudden we saw horses wandering around eating trash in the streets and we couldn't drink the water from the tap and even though we sometimes stand out a little bit in Spain, it was apparent we (or least I) would really stand out here.
We woke up early the next morning to take the 7:24am train to Fes. It stressed my hyper-planner-self out a bit to not be able to buy tickets in advance but rather just hope that we could get them when we showed up 15 minutes in advance (thankfully, we did, and our Airbnb host that drove us to the station helped us buy them - a huge help since neither our French nor our Arabic is that great!). We settled in for our inaugural first-class trip (research we'd done recommended buying first-class tickets as there aren't always enough seats in second-class, so you may have to stand for your entire trip, which in this case was three and a half hours...) and watched the miles fly by.
Now, let me just say that overall, we had a great time in Morocco. The people were so friendly (and I've never said that about a place before), the food was great, the weather was warm, and the culture was different and interesting. BUT. We had some trying times. As happens when traveling, and not just in Morocco. We didn't have the exact address of our riad (a traditional Moroccan house built around a courtyard - nowadays many are used as hotels) and our host told us the best thing to do would be to ask a taxi driver to call him for directions. Well, the taxi drivers we talked to didn't really love that plan, so after spending an hour and a half in the Fes train station eating breakfast/talking which escalated to a little arguing/trying to get a taxi/finally breaking down and just buying a Moroccan SIM card, we were on our way. We made it to the riad and it was a haven. Really! It was quiet and peaceful and as we filled out our information the staff offered us mint tea and cookies and all was well again. We started exploring the different levels of the riad, including the terrace overlooking the city, and I hardly wanted to leave.
D - Trying times indeed. I knew we were going to have to be flexible during our time in Morocco, and that thought was validated almost instantly, pretty much all because of me. First, I had a tour guide all lined up to pick us up at the train station and show us around Fes but at the last minute I tried to tell him we would be on a different train (because our driver wanted to go to a different train station) and would be arriving 20 minutes earlier, but instead I told him 2 hours and 20 minutes earlier so he got really confused and cancelled. Facepalm. Thus the confusion at the train station and the need for the SIM card. It felt like a lot of money, but it was actually reasonably cheap (about $10) and it was undeniably helpful. I'm glad we bit the bullet and got one. I was hoping to have a tour guide for our first day in Fes, because I had read about how confusing and overwhelming the city can be, but now, because of me, we wouldn't have one. Needless to say, I was pretty ticked with myself for a bit. I "saved the day" though, and arranged another one at our riad for the next day, and you're going to see how that turned out...
It's a good thing Danny convinced me to get out and explore a bit, though, because the weather was gorgeous (low 70's) and there was plenty to see - mostly a lot of gates and a seemingly infinite market, but no complaints.
D - Apparently much of the market is closed on Friday as it's the holy day of the week for Muslims, so it wasn't too crazy or crowded when we were walking around. This may have been better for us on our first day, since we were wandering around guide-less. One small thing that surprised me about Morocco? Tons of stray cats. I wasn't expecting it and they are all over the place!
We stopped mid-afternoon at Cafe Clock for some lunch (every time I find us eating lunch around 2 or 3pm - and it's a lot! - I think to myself, "Wow we have really become kind of Spanish with our eating times!" ...despite how much we love to bash their bizarre - to us - schedules.) and by lunch I mean a proper FEAST. My parents gave us some money to go out for Valentine's Day but we both got home late on Valentine's Day and didn't really want to go out on the actual day, so we saved it for another time, and when we saw the menu at Cafe Clock, it seemed like a perfect occasion.
We chose a table on the upper terrace with views over the city, including a nearby mosque, and we each ordered a plate, got our own desserts, and split an appetizer. I know. I don't think we really had a proper dinner, though, if that helps you judge us less. Cafe Clock is full of travelers - we heard loads of English as we ate - and the prices are certainly more than street food (as they should be), but we still felt like we got tons of food for what we paid, including Danny who had a camel burger!
D - There are officially, at least, two oases in Fes for westerners: our riad, and Cafe Clock. Fes felt like such a dramatic cultural shift that I needed a break to process everything after only being out and about for a couple hours. We've already mentioned in part how nice our riad was, and as for Cafe Clock, the burger I had was easily the best camel I've ever had! Okay, yes, it was the only camel, but it was still a good burger!
We continued our (Danny-led) tour of the city after lunch. One of the most noteworthy stops was the Palais Royale, or Royal Palace. Unfortunately it's not open to the public, but it is pretty easy on the eyes from the outside.
We retired to the riad and our room by about 6pm because we didn't want to be out after dark, which meant we were more than ready for breakfast the next morning. I honestly don't know what all was served to us, but everything was great (well...except for all the olives. We're not big olives at breakfast people.) - the breads, the Moroccan pancakes, the cake, the juice and the mint tea - I'd take it all everyday if I could!
We booked a tour guide through our riad to take us on a three to four hour tour around the city on Saturday morning, so once we packed up, we got on our way.
D - One of the coolest things we saw during our time in Fes was all the donkeys and mules that are used to carry things through the narrow alleyways of the old city. It really makes one feel like you've stepped back in time, or onto the set of "Aladdin: The Live Action Movie!" (To my knowledge this is not a real movie but I'm biding my time till Disney makes it.)
We've never hired a private guide before, so we were excited and perhaps we had somewhat high expectations, but unfortunately, things didn't go as we'd hoped. Without giving you the entire long, drawn out story (but of course most of it!), the tour was much shorter than we'd been told it would be, we didn't see many of the things we hoped we would, and the guide pretty much walked us through the market and took us from one 'sales pitch' to another (at the tannery, a weaving shop, and a pharmacy). So, while we saw some parts of the market we hadn't seen the day before, overall it was rather frustrating, and afterwards we let the staff at our riad know. They were super receptive to our thoughts, and refunded half of what we paid the guide, which I really appreciated. So moral of the story, you never know what you're going to get when you book a tour guide, and if you're ever looking for a riad in Fes, definitely check out Riad Borj Dhab - we had an all around really great experience there.
D - I really owe it to Riad Borj Dhab. They successfully brought my wife out of not one, but two bad moods with their customer service! Seriously...I really owe them. Also, on a rather impressive note, despite all the sales pitches we endured, we managed to keep our wallets and souvenir money totally intact during the tour. We are the resistance!
D - "And now...see how we make leather using our 3,000 year old tannery" (cool!) ...and endure a high pressure sales pitch on leather products of all varieties! (oh...not cool!)
D - "And now...see how we make fabric using our ancient loom design" (cool!) ...and endure an even higher pressure sales pitch on fabrics of all varieties!" (oh...not cool!)
D - Not pictured: the highest pressure sales pitch of traditional herbs, spices, ointments, and oils from the traditional market pharmacy. Are you sensing a trend here?
We got a taxi back to the train station, and just like that, we were out! Our time in Fes was short (just over 24 hours), but we saw the highlights and had a great first taste of Morocco - and I mostly mean literally with all the delicious food we consumed. We took the train back to Rabat and spent the rest of our weekend exploring Morocco's capital - more coming soon on that!
D - For me, Fes was good, but I think if we ever go back it would be a lot better now that we have some experience under our belts, a few survival tips, and maybe some tapered expectations as well.