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Index page | Casablanca | El Jedida | Oualidia | Safi | Essaouira | Marrakesh and back to Casa | Fes | Meknes, Volubilis, and Moulay Idriss | Ifrane and Mt. Ayachi, 3737 m. | Meknes and Tangier | Spain

Bobbi, Dusty, Glenn, and Vance in Morocco and Spain

June-July 2000


We caught the train next morning to Fes. Nothing could have been easier except that we blew our chance boarding the train. We had bought seats in first class and anticipated no problems. I was one of the first on board but I passed up a couple of compartments that had one or two people in them and then realized too late that all the 8 or 10 first class compartments were occupied. My attempt to get a compartment to ourselves was therefore doomed, but by then with all the other passengers getting on it turned out we were left without seats at all. We managed to get Bobbi and Dusty into separate compartments. Glenn and I pushed back to second class but the situation there was even worse. We returned to first where a conductor was at least available to help sort out the passengers and determine where the seats were. Within half an hour he'd seated us both and within a few stops enough people had left the train that we had a compartment together, and we finished out the trip in each other's company.

Except for one thing. Eventually we were joined by a man who made small talk with us. We speak enough languages that we couldn't ignore him, and he spoke enough languages that eventually he found we spoke English, and at that point he was talking to the kids. I wouldn't have thought anything of it really, just someone on the train being friendly. But he did sort of monopolize the conversation with us, and found out we were going to Fes. . The guy said he was a musician, so Glenn asked him to write the names of some Moroccan recording artists, and I asked where we could go to hear live Moroccan music. And then mentioned that he had a cousin in Fes who could be very helpful in showing us around. I told him we weren't interested, and so he tried to convince us a bit, and finally I said perhaps a bit emphatically we really weren't interested in that sort of thing, and he nodded and said ok, and a minute later he abruptly excused himself, and left the compartment. I guess he'd had his own seat elsewhere all along. Still, the transition from interested passerby to attempted tour guide had been so subtle that it took us a moment's reflection to come to that realization. Welcome to Fes.

One of my arguments to counter the odd man's proposals had been that I had been to Fes before. I didn't remember it all that well from 1973, but at the time I had stayed with diplomat friends of Bill's who had a house in the old medina. The house was beautiful, with bedrooms and other living spaces around a central open courtyard. It had been off an alleyway off the main street of the souk, and in my time there I had learned that the medina was not as complicated as everyone made out. There were only a couple of main streets. I fact, I remember the moment I came to realize with some disappointment that it was not as mysterious and unfathomable as I had wanted to believe. It was truly medieval at that time. I remember the masses in the streets, the animal carts, the drivers shouting "balek", make way, and the Moroccans in traditional garb. One way things have changed throughout the third world these days is that there has come to be a homogeneity of dress. Everyone adapts western dress who can it seems, as the socks and sneakers of the water sellers in Marrakesh had testified. There were still old people in Morocco who wore traditional garb, but not as many as before, or so I remembered. Back in the 70's people seemed more authentic and exotic in places I visited in the world. These days, they do not appear so with as great regularity. Modernization has crept everywhere (spoiling my 3rd world experience, I like to joke).

Our first task in Fes was to find a hotel. This proved not too difficult. My last trip there I had been focused entirely on the old medina. I don't even remember the new town and whether it existed back then or not. I don't remember exactly how I got to Fes. Maybe I took a bus or maybe Bill dropped me there. However, it seems I went straight to the old medina and was hardly aware of any other part of Fes. This trip, arriving by rail in the new city, we took a hotel there and had to find the old. Finding a hotel was easy - we selected one from lonely Planet, the Amor, and went there. It was just a few blocks from the train station. We had a plan to go to a few hotels in that area, but the Amor, our preference, the best of the cheap hotels, had two rooms available at about $20 each. Each room had a big balcony and ours looked out past the Bank of Maghreb over a park at the center of the new city. It was a pleasant place, and just far enough down a side street to be reasonably quiet.

We didn't stay long in our rooms, but were soon heading up the main street toward the old medina. It was a long walk, and there were no signs to point the way. We followed the crowds and went by compass. There was a new more traditionally Arab medina between the old and the new, and this was entered just past the palace with its large empty plaza, and through a gate that looked like it could be one to the old medina.

At about this point, we were latched onto by the first of the faux guides, who fell in with us and started talking to Glenn. Being the gregarious young lad that he is, Glenn made conversation, and realized too late that if we didn't shake this kid, he'd be talking to us for the next two hours, and want to be paid for it. Bobbi and I tried to avoid the newcomer, and I warned Glenn to ring off with the guy, and eventually I started talking to him in Arabic. In fact, I determined that I was going to speak nothing but Arabic with people who came up to us like that, and this caused a little trouble, since these were not nice characters. There was another trick we tried that didn't work very well. We would simply stop and let the guide go on, but this didn't work. The guides simply waited for us up the road. We could also reverse direction and head back, but the guides followed us. We could try and pick up our pace, walking slowly, then very quickly, perhaps stopping, retracing ... nothing so obvious worked of course. The best result was to be gained by saying very loudly in Arabic, look, we don't want a guide, thank you very much, we are a family, we enjoy being together, we do not enjoy having guides with us, we want to be alone, thank you, goodbye. Eventually that would do the trick.

But the guides didn't like these tactics. Their strategy was to follow in the footsteps of whatever tourists they could spot and keep up conversation with them. This made it very unpleasant visiting Fez medina, because it was impossible to be left alone there, amd especially approaching the old city, when you really don't know where you are going, it was impossible to ask directions, because if you expressed the slightest uncertainty, someone would find you a guide. And also, it made it impossible to meet the friendly Moroccans, of whom there must be many. You are intruded on by these strangers who come up not out of friendship but in hopes of getting from you whatever they can, and the tourist's reaction after a while is to avoid any encounters with Moroccans, since the chances of their being benign ones, even the fellow we met on the train for example, were almost negligible. But the worst aspect to these characters is that they are devoid of the common decency that we observe in the west of backing off when someone indicates that you are encroaching on their space. They simply didn't care if they were bothering you. They were in it for themselves. What you felt about their presence was of no importance; your protests are ignored.

The main gate into the old walled medina is Bab Bou Jaloud, and it should have been easy to find. But in fact it wasn't, partly because we were constantly hassled as we tried to get there. We shook off a few faux guides as we passed through the new medina, called Fez el Jdid. This means New Fez in Arabic, but it's an Arabic place, as opposed to the Ville Nouvelle, which is French for new city, and patterned after its European counterparts. The souk was interesting in that it was a busy market and commerce place, and soon we had emerged from the walls of the New Fez , having just passed the Jewish quarter, or Mellah (it is suggested in the LP that the Jewish quarters were called Mellah after the Arabic milhe, or salt, as one job assigned to jews centuries ago was to salt the severed heads of victims of various regimes). Outside the Bab Dekkaken we were set upon by a man who spoke excellent English and who suggested we visit the nearby Nuria Restaurant and gardens. In the way of those with not-so-hidden agendas he told us it was too late to go on to the souk and that we should take our evening meal at the Nuria, then and there. In the way of those who will not leave you alone he proceeded to attempt to guide us there. We discovered later that had we followed him we would have walked right into the Bab Bou Jaloud, but in an effort to duck him we turned up a side road and came out on a main road where we met a massive old wall across a street with a lot of buses. It was getting to be dusk at that time, and I remember the birds hovering about the walls and squalking as they did at that time of day in Fez, and I recall the color of the sky, orange on blue, that softened the backdrop of birds flitting above ramparts. We walked right along the wall but we seemed to be following a highway, and I thought maybe we were outside the walls of the medina, so we turned left and went for the corner on the walls only to see around the corner that this seemed to lead nowhere either. At that point we had to ask people where to go, so we chose food vendors and truck drivers and policemen, spoke in Arabic, and eventually got pointed back up the highway and in the direction of Bab Bou Jaloud.

At about the place we wanted to go we met another fellow, a black African from the Sahara, who started asking questions about where we were from, and who became abusive when I evaded his questions and spoke to him only in Arabic. Speaking to us in English, he fell back to my kids and told them that they were nice but that their father was a bad man. He took it as a challenge to try to get in with us but when he couldn't get me to speak English, he called us Jewish and epithets much worse. Bobbi finally suggested we return to where we had seen a policeman, and when I repeated our intention in Arabic, he finally buggered off. Meanwhile, he had deflected us again from where we wanted to go (we found out later we had been right at the Bab Bou Jaloud when we had met him). Now we had passed the Bab and were at some other gate to the old city, Fez El Bali, where there was a large vegetable souk. Here I asked questions of seemingly stationary people to find that the Bab Bou Jaloud was back down through the souk. As we were heading that way, a man jumped from the crowd and started talking to me about a mosque we were at that moment passing. When I told him thanks we didn't want a guide he went on about his business. But the reason I remember him is that later that evening in the Ville Nouvelle, returning from a midnight drink at one of the sidewalk cafe's, I was approached by a man who said he had met me at Bab Bou Jaloud. I couldn't place him at the time, but later I recalled that he was this man who had emerged from the crowd as we were heading back down to the main gate.

Once into the main medina itself we were left well enough alone. We walked past food sellers and butchers with parts of animals on display best not described, and of little interest to tourists except those into the macabre or considering creating bovine frankensteins. The kids who wanted to guide us here were easily dismissed, and we went downhill through the winding streets until I thought I'd better take a fix on the Bab Bou Jaloud, and I discovered we'd passed it. It was important that I find it because there was a map in the LP with which I could find my way if I had that one reference point, so we traipsed back up the hill, asking directions more often now, and getting hassle free response, until we were pointed to the side street that led us to the square at the end of which was the Bab Bou Jaloul.

There were cafes there with outside seating amidst the curio shops and food vendors, and we took a table at one and watched the animal and pedestrian traffic in the square as the sun set finally over Fez. We sipped mint tea and were intending to go into the souk and find one of the nicer restaurants, but it was so relaxing where we were, and food was so cheap, only 25 dirhams for tajine, that we eventually decided to stay there and pass the evening. The entire bill for 4 dinners and drink after drink to slake our thirst came to less than 200 dirhams. It was pleasant to watch all the transactions in the square, and afterwards we had short walk into the souk again. But we were accosted again by kids wanting to act as guides, and we were pretty overdosed on it at that point, and tired, and we decided to leave and return again in the morning.

Outside the Bab Bou Jaloud, we tried to hire a cab, but the driver wouldn't take us all together. He could only carry three passengers he said, and he was adamant about it. This turned out to be a hard and fast rule in Fez and Meknes, but it was the first we had heard of it. We decided to walk back into the new city, and when we got there we had a beer at a sidewalk cafe and then went to the hotel and to bed.

Next morning was Thursday. Originally we had planned to go to Meknes and Volubilis on Thursday but we had since found that the old Fez El Bali, an important Islamic university and religious center of Morocco, followed the traditional Islamic week and would be closed from Thursday afternoon to Friday, so Thursday morning would therefore be our last chance to penetrate the old medina while it was alive and vibrant. We therefore decided to put off Meknes for the next day. I suppose in retrospect we should have moved to Meknes Thursday night, since basing ourselves in Fez proved to be slightly impractical for getting ourselves to Ifrane as agreed with Pete the next day. But this is how we did it. For convenience Thursday, we visited the old town that morning and had a pleasant evening in the Ville Nouvelle that night, and next morning, Friday, we headed into Meknes and on to Volubilis and Moulay Idriss. But since we left our bags in Fez we had to return there before going on up to Ifrane which turned out to cost us extra effort and time.

In the morning, growing accustomed to the way things were done in Fez, we took two taxis to the Bab Bou Jaloud. Each taxi just cost us a dollar or so. At the Bab Bou Jaloud we were met immediately by an official card carrying guide who showed us his credentials and tried to interest us in his services. He didn't persist too much. Once past him, and with a few emphatic words in Arabic to other supplicants, we got fairly easily into the souk.

In 1973 I had stayed near the Bab Bou Jaloud in that rather lavish house down a side-street from the main souk thoroughfare. I tried to find it but things had changed too much. The streets had been paved in different stones for one thing. I believe they were cobbled back then, and not so clean. The people in the alleys were either in Moroccan or hippy dress, and there were more animals and a greater press of people, as I recall. The smell of hashish was more obvious. To my young mind it all seemed much more exotic then than it did now, yet I remember also after having my run of the place for a couple of days that the narrow twisting alleys that had seemed so impenetrable became predictable and understood. Now, with this late in life visit, with the perspective of having lived for years in Arab countries, the mystique of Fes was being forever shattered, and the seamy underbelly exposed.

With the fix on the Bab Bou Jaloud I was easily able to navigate the main alley, All Talaa Al Kabir (the big climbing street, literally). I found our first destination, the Merdessa Bou Inania, and we all went inside for a dollar each. In the central courtyard we found carved stone and cedar walls, and we had a glimpse into a mosque there, but we were not able to explore the corridors or the upstairs as we had in Marrakech. We continued on in search of more landmarks, and at a carpet souk I understood someone to say that there was a restaurant there. As the traditional restaurants were on my list of landmarks, I paused here and asked for clarification. This caused us to divulge that we were looking for a particular restaurant, and this was the trigger for the unscrupulous carpet salesman to supply us with a guide in the form of a young boy with instructions to stick to us like glue or return home to a beating. We continued down the street trying to shake off this 5th appendage to our close, familial group. As usual I would speak only in Arabic, trying to make him understand how unwanted he was. He didn't want to take no for an answer and kept to us for some ways before he finally gave up, but not before expressing in great disgust his low opinion of us. I'm sure such scenes in the souk in Fes take place every day and go almost unnoticed by the local populace.

However, the problem of these guides in Fes is recognized as a great one by shop keepers. Their modus operandi is to find out where you are going and race ahead to "deliver" you there and then claim their cut from the shopkeeper. If the shopkeeper doesn't pay up then they will attempt to dissuade tourists from entering those shops, claiming that the shopkeeper cheats tourists or has shoddy merchandise, and that they know of a shop that is better or cheaper (i.e. one where the shopkeeper is known to pay off the guides). Pete told us of a time that he was trying to examine merchandise in a shop but the 'guide' was keeping him from looking at what was available, so finally he had told the shopowner that he would like to buy something there but couldn't because of the guide. The shopkeeper and the guide had started fighting at that point and Pete had left the scene. Pete said that the problem in Fes and in Marrakech had been somewhat alleviated from its nadir a few years back, but at the time we visited, June 2000, it was still very unpleasant to go there, particularly to Fes. I certainly wouldn't go back there now. There are lots of nice souks you can visit around the world where you can experience the medieval flavor yet be left alone. Kashgar in China is one such place, Urfa in Turkey another. Fes is not. Fes is an uncomfortable place to be. It's not fun to be there. There's nothing to see there that warrants the hassle a tourist has to endure while there. Pete, a longtime resident of Morocco, said it was the same for him. He would go there with his Moroccan friends and still get pestered. So even he didn't go there anymore.

Getting hassled is one thing. There's also the problem of getting cheated. Years of traveling and developing strategies for avoiding that experience ... or perhaps I should say years of success in avoiding tourist traps perhaps led us to lowering our guard. It was just after our visit to a second merdessa, the Merdessa Al Attarine, that we were leaving the souk, but decided at the last minute to follow a guide who said he would show us where a rooftop restaurant was. Having avoided guides all day, but being ready for a lunch, we decided to trust this one. He led us back past the merdessa down a few alleys and over to a berber carpet shop where we went upstairs and, sure enough, there was a rooftop restaurant, appointed in fading, shabby carpets and cushions, and with views of the skyline of the old city of Fez and of the tombs on the hillside above. We were the only customers there (another sign that usually warns me off restaurants) but we were tired and ready to eat and so we chose the plastic table with the plastic seats that gave the best view, and we awaited the gregarious proprietor, who, when he saw our LP guide, pointed out that his restaurant was listed on p. 284, and had us look it up in the book,: Palais de Fes, a 14th century mansion converted into a carpet shop and restaurant with superb views over Kairouine University.

The proprietor explained in English that he had tajine and brioches, or kefte, which you could get in the souk for 10 dirhams a skewer. So we ordered a combination of the two. While we were waiting, it occurred to me that we hadn't asked the price of the meal. This caused me a bit of concern that, to make a long story short, turned out to be justified when, after poking at our rather normal and getting to be redundant tajine dinners, we were presented with a bill for almost 700 dirhams, 150 a person for the rather ordinary Moroccan fare. Meanwhile, in wandering about to and from the rest room, we had come upon a menu on one of the downstairs tables which gave the prices just so, so we kicked ourselves under the table and simply paid up.

But perhaps we've had the last laugh by putting this warning up on the Internet: Avoid the Palais de Fez. It's a rip off. It's on page 284 in the Lonely Planet Guide on Morocco in case you want to strike through it now.

A day later, sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Meknes, awaiting a similar meal we had just ordered, it occurred to me that I hadn't asked the price of that food either. Why should I. There were other diners there, Moroccans, eating the food. It was on the street, off the main square opposite the Bab Mansour. Why would I ask the price? How vulnerable would I be in this situation? As I was paying for my mistake in Fez, I thought I must be very stupid to be ordering meals without asking the price, but the next day in Meknes, I realized how normal it was to just sit down and order a tajine and assume you would be charged fairly for it, and in fact when the bill came it was for the modest amount I had expected. Not in Fez. Be careful there.

Funny thing, when we emerged from the restaurant feeling fleeced and flatulent, who should we see but the guide who had brought us there, who had waited outside the restaurant the entire time we had been eating. "How was the food?" he asked in Arabic. I must have been speaking to him in Arabic too, because I remember that I replied in Arabic, very expensive and very normal. I'm not sure why the guide wanted us to follow him. We did in order to retrace our steps, but when he turned to lead us out of the souk we continued straight to give him the slip and found our own way out.

At the exit, we solved the split up into two cabs problem. We found a van with some dead chickens in the back. I sat in front with the driver and Bobbi and the kids with the chickens. He agreed to take us into town for 20 dirhams, about the price of two cabs, and we stayed together. We all had a good laugh over the chickens. Reminded us of a song about Morocco from our hippy days.

That night we had a meal that cost us almost as much as the tajines at the Palais de Fez. We ate at a pizza place and had plenty of wine and beer with the meal and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The restaurant was the Pizzaria Chez Vittorio off the busy, thriving Boulevard Mohammed V. The restaurant itself was packed out and we had grabbed a table only by arriving early. We had a nice time together, and we decided that we liked the Ville Nouvelle of Fez more than we did the old city. It was a vibrant place, with no hassles.

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