Pretty City Blitz: Fes


In the last weeks of two months in Morocco, I stared at the long list of places I had imagined visiting but hadn’t managed to yet, and crammed them into a frenetic itinerary built of bus and train schedules and fear of missing out.

From Marrakech, I took a daylong train to Fes, a historic city that had loomed in my imagination as an endless wander among plaster and tile buildings in the classic Moroccan style, intricately etched with centuries of history. I rolled my eyes at the warning that I would get lost in the Fes medina, and that I should hire a guide. Medinas, I’ve seen a few, and this wasn’t my first rodeo.

But in my short stay there, I learned first hand that yes, the Fes medina does exert some kind of disruption of the three dimensions that makes it nearly impossible to navigate. The predominant colors of the medina here are white-washed walls with dark wooden trim, and the tops of the two and three-story buildings reached out to each other over the twisting alleys that separate them, creating an ancient urban canopy that obscured my sense of north-south, left-right. I would walk confidently in one direction for 20 minutes, and find myself back where I started.

And the advice on hiring a guide was frustratingly ubiquitous: guides were everywhere, ready to “help” lost or confused tourists wandering the medina. We were easy to spot, roaming aimlessly and unattached to the massive chattering tour groups that swarmed and eddied around historic buildings, filling the alleys, pushing everyone else to the edges. The Fes medina felt suffocating in a way that I hadn’t expected. It wasn't the getting lost that was frustrating, it was the crush of humanity accompanying you along the way.

But take a few steps away from the major sites, and the streets were calmer, cooler. You could actually look up and around and take in the place, without worry of trammeling someone underfoot or being trammeled.


[Fes: March 2018]

Travel Karma In Marrakech

The courtyard at the center of our riad, home for the next three nights.

The courtyard at the center of our riad, home for the next three nights.

The few hours we've spent in Marrakech have proven the advice I'd heard from several people: Casablanca is okay, but Marrakech! Marrakech is amaaaaazing.

Liz rallied through jet lag, arriving on a red-eye in the morning and going straight to the train station for the three-and-a-half hour ride to Marrakech. I had purchased our tickets and learned the tram system the day before, and we made the train with zero problems. In Marrakech, we were booked at a riad, a guest house converted from a traditional home. Riads, there are thousands to choose from, but most evoke traditional architecture, homestyle hospitality and a peaceful escape from the city that swirls outside the riad's walls.

But being nestled deep in a neighborhood of tightly wound and high-walled streets, most riads offer to meet guests in the city and escort them in, and Liz and I were expecting our to meet host at the train station. Sadly, our host was expecting to meet us at the airport, and so we stood for a few minutes in the modern, earth-toned Marrakech train station unsure what to do.

Enter Jamal.

As we were figuring out how to call the riad (I swear, using phones internationally drains me of all travel confidence) Jamal offered to help us place the call on his cell phone. He works for a tour agency and had a few minutes while he was waiting.

The phone line was busy, but Jamal finished the task that had brought him to the train station and offered to help us catch a bus to the medina. He was going that way to meet up with friends, and our stop was one beyond his. As we waited for the bus he told us that actually he would go with us to our stop and help us find the right direction to walk in. I had perfect change to pay for our three bus tickets, and he laughed off the offer. "You are kind!" he smiled. "And because you are kind I will walk with you the whole way to find your riad."

The bus was slow to show up, and Jamal had friends to meet so he suggested a taxi instead, and then paid for the taxi against our protestations. We walked into the medina, following Jamal and peppering him with questions about his work (he arranges tours to Mecca) and his family (his mother is still living, his father has died) and the languages he knows (he lived in Japan for 10 years and taught Arabic there.)

Fast forward an hour, and Jamal had personally guided us to our riad, stopping at least eight times to ask directions of local shopkeepers as we wound through the maze of earthen walls and vendors selling shoes, souvenirs and tiny live turtles. I asked if we were making him late, and he assured us, no problem, and we kept walking briskly through the vendors and locals and tourists.

Jamal works in tourism, and has traveled extensively himself, and it was natural for him to want to help us, he said. People have helped him countless times. The situation unfolded from his kindness and taking the next logical step, but by the end his generosity was remarkable. At every stop, his smile and warm exchange with a shopkeeper offering directions was delightful and genuine. When we arrived at the riad and learned the driver was waiting at the airport, I could easily imagine a person in Jamal's position being irritated, at least. You made made a mistake that inconvenienced your guests, and I went out of my way to correct it for you.

That's one way you might look at it.

But as our riad host explained the logistics mishap, Jamal laughed and smiled understandingly. It's a mistake anyone could make! Aren't we all fortunate that ended it well? And it was lovely to meet you! The sun is setting over the old town and I'm going to meet my friends for tea. Would you like to meet us? Cafe du France, on the terrace overlooking the market. Peace be with you.

Me, Jamal and Liz, moments after finding the front door of our riad.

Me, Jamal and Liz, moments after finding the front door of our riad.