If you’ve ever wished you could step into the pages of “The Arabian Nights,” there’s one place you must experience.
Fez, Morocco, is the largest, most-well-preserved medieval city in the world. A labyrinth of more than 9,500 winding, narrow streets are lined with colorful shops of craftsmen who hand-weave bolts of shining cloth and pound out metal kettles in the same way their forefathers did. Ali Baba would feel at home in the medina (“the old city”).
No wonder this city, which dates to the 9th century, was the first Islamic and Arab city designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1980.
Within the walls of the medieval medina of Fes el Bali (Old Fez), you’ll find hand-tooled leather purses and wallets, woolen
One thing you won’t find is cars. The stone streets are too narrow for anything but donkeys and the occasional motorcycle and lots of people, walking hundreds of miles of ancient pavement.
You’ll also see cats wandering or dozing everywhere. They’ve been described as the “squirrels of Morocco,” but they’re far tamer than Minnesota’s squirrels. Mangy-looking felines will come up to you in outdoor restaurants, begging for food or swiping it off your plate if they can.
Some streets are packed with rows of shops, others are more residential and hide their secrets — like the historic mosques that are not open to non-Muslims, although you can glance through open doors surreptitiously as you wander by.
Blank, windowless stucco walls conceal ornate and beautiful architecture within. Many of these three-story buildings were built with a central courtyard, which let in plenty of light for the rooms arranged around it but prevented prying eyes from catching a glimpse of the harem inside.
Today, some of the most beautiful of these historic riads (mansions) have been turned into small hotels that pamper guests with wonderful breakfasts and amazingly attentive service. We stayed at Riad Ahlam and were delighted by everything: the stunning view of the medina from the rooftop terrace, the bountiful and delicious breakfasts, the eagerness of the owner to help us in any way possible.
When we arrived, he seemed concerned that my daughter and I were sharing a small double room in the corner. When a lovely suite opened up with an amazing view of the light-filled courtyard and its fountain, trees and ornate mosaics, the owner insisted we move there and refused to charge us more than the price of the smaller room.
This was not the first time we experienced the surprising generosity of the Moroccan people. It began in Rabat.
BEGIN IN RABAT
Start your journey by taking a plane to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. This strategy is hundreds of dollars cheaper than flying directly from Minnesota to Fez, and it will give you a chance to see more of the country.
In a single day in Rabat, you can visit many marvelous sites — and if you run into Samuel L. Kaplan, the Minnesotan who has been U.S. ambassador to the country since 2009, make sure to introduce yourself.
Take a taxi from the tiny airport to your hotel or the street nearest your riad in the medina. We chose Riad Kalaa in Rabat’s medina. It has a charming rooftop terrace with a lovely little pool and plenty of places to lounge. But
Make sure to visit the Chellah Necropolis, which has a garden, remains of the Roman town of Sala Colonia and a burial complex dating back to the 1200s. There are picturesque towers, walls built in the 14th century and large storks nesting atop some of the highest ruins. The birds are considered good luck.
You’ll also want to see the iconic Hassan Tower, the unfinished minaret of the Hassan Mosque built about 1196. Opposite the tower, make a respectful visit to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the king who helped the country regain its independence from France in 1956. Guards in colorful regalia stand watch at each entrance and the inside corners of the building, which is beautifully decorated with ornate mosaics.
The walled Andalusian Garden is worth a visit, too, with its traditional Arabic waterwheel and Moorish layout. Pass through it to Cafe Maure for a view of the ocean harbor, plus a variety of delicious local pastries and Moroccan mint tea, a sweet brew of green tea with sprigs of mint and sugar that’s very addictive.
To get around within the confines of any Moroccan town, you can usually flag down an inexpensive “petit taxi,” but when we left our riad in the morning, we had trouble getting one to the train station.
A Moroccan man asked us if he could help. He generously offered us a lift to the station in his car, refused to accept any payment, and when we stopped at a red light and two old woman came up to the car begging, he handed them fistfuls of money.
The train ride from Rabat to Fez takes about three hours and provides a good view of the countryside. Take first class and you’ll get a guaranteed seat, room for luggage and maybe even toilet paper in the bathroom — all for 240 dirhams, about $28 for two people.
WHILE IN FEZ
Have fun wandering the streets and haggling with merchants in the medina of Fez.
I decided I wanted an antique metal Moroccan teapot with an elaborate design, and I scoped out teapots in numerous stalls before picking one.
The merchant wanted 600 dirhams, but I told him I had seen similar pots for 200 dirhams. He countered with 400 dirhams, at which point I started to walk away. He instantly dropped the price to 200 dirhams and started wrapping the pot.
But when we visited an old man we had heard about who is known to scour the Berber lands and far-off mountains for antiques he sells at a fair price, I did not haggle. I wanted three items from him — but he wouldn’t charge me anything for the third piece. He said it was a gift because “friends are more important than money.”
If you like gardens or want a break from the narrow streets, visit the Jnan Sbil garden near the Royal Palace. (The king has palaces in every major city.) You’ll see all kinds of flowers, trees and water features. It’s in the section of the city called Fes el-Jedid, which means “New Fes” because it was built later, in 1276.
For a modern experience, take a taxi to the Ville Nouvelle (“New Town”), a Western-style urban area created under the French. The first modern shopping mall opened while we were there, and it was drawing crowds of excited Fez residents.
From Riad Ahlam, it’s a short walk to the Merinid Tombs, 16th century ruins of a Merinid palace and necropolis. The view of the city spread below is spectacular, and on the way there you’ll see some of the oldest sections of the medina defensive wall, dating from the 12th century.
When you get hungry, turn down a dark, narrow alley to Cafe Clock, where you can try one of its famous camel burgers on the rooftop terrace. Or even better, go to Tabaraka Allah for delicious Pastilla de Fassi — a large pasty with a golden-orange filling of shredded chicken, nuts and vegetables sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Given that Fez is a Muslim city, you won’t find much alcohol, but wonderful fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee and Moroccan mint tea are plentiful. Head to Le Scorpion du Desert Cafe (Scorpion of the Desert Cafe) if you crave a club atmosphere. A percussion band put everyone in the mood to dance the night we were there.
BEYOND THE CITY
Take a side trip to the ancient Roman city of Volubilis (Latin for “morning glory”). It covers nearly 100 acres, but only about half have been excavated. There are many beautiful mosaic floors, still in situ in the ruins; a nice triumphal arch; part of the forum with restored Corinthian columns; and an amusingly graphic sign for the brothel, which our guide had hesitated to show us.
There are also beautiful wildflowers everywhere — and more storks with babies nesting on top of the 2000-year-old Roman columns.
It’s a short jaunt from there to Meknes, where you might want to people-watch as you sip Moroccan mint tea in the large square, Place el Hedim, adjacent to the small medina. Also take a look at Bab Mansour, one of the grander Moroccan gateways, by the square.
Moulay Ismail, the powerful king who ruled in the late 1600s and early 1700s, built the walls of the city and a gigantic granary to withstand a siege, which never came. You can visit that and his huge dungeon/prison. Enslaved captives and criminals were forced to work all day and at night were shackled to cold stone walls in the cavernous halls deep underground. I was the last to leave, photographing the rest of our small group escaping the tomblike place. It has an eerie ambiance.
Unfortunately, you can’t visit the historic palace, because it belongs to the current king, who uses it whenever he’s in town.
A word on Casablanca: Because of the Humphrey Bogart movie, which was shot in Burbank, Calif., Casablanca may be the most famous Moroccan city. But few tourists go there, and for good reason. Remade by French colonialists, Casablanca lacks Moroccan authenticity and picturesque sights. Like most people, we gave it a wide berth.
TRIP TIPS: MOROCCO
More info: Visit the Moroccan National Tourist Office at visitmorocco.com
Language: Although the riad proprietors we met spoke English, Moroccans are more apt to speak French since Morocco was once under French rule. It’s amazing how much you can communicate with a simple French phrase book and dictionary.
Moroccans love it if you attempt a little Arabic. Try “Thank you” which sounds like “shook-RON” in Arabic or “Thank you very much,” which sounds like “shook-RON biz-eff.” You’ll have lots of opportunities to use those phrases.
— “In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams” by Tahir Shah
— “Dream of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood” by Fatima Mernissi
— “Casablanca,” considered one of the best movies of all time
— “Road to Morocco,” considered the best of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” movies