Other houses

There is a marked contrast between the grandeur, even richness, of the palaces and riads, and than the dilapidated state of so much of the housing, I can’t work out how much this is due to poverty and how much a cultural disinclination to use the exterior of a house as a demonstration of status.

You have the same thing in France, where many people are relaxed about peeling shutters and crumbly plaster. In many ways this is quite healthy, but it is disconcerting when you come from a country where so much attention is paid to how a home looks.

Here is a hotch potch collection of photos of houses, doors and street views that I have taken over the past few days, (I am particularly drawn to photographing doors and windows – but there are not very many of the latter round here.

Riad Tizwa

I think I chose my lodgings well: the Riad itself is full of character and the quartier, Batwa, is within the old city, near the medina but at the same time handy for roads, taxis, banks and so on.

You can see that this is the end of the city where better off people built their houses. Tizwa is one of a huge number of riads which have been restored to become boutique hotels. Merieme said that the previous owner was quite well off and lived here with his two wives and extended family.

The heart of the building is its central courtyard, three storeys high and originally with no roof (it now has transparent panels which are open much of the time to let the light in. The ground floor has two palatial sitting areas (one of which has now been converted into a bedroom suite). All the other bedrooms have windows looking onto the courtyard. I dont think there are any windows looking out at the external world. It gives an extraordinary sense of calm but, because of its size, not claustrophobia. The only sounds one hears are the children chanting in a nearby school, the trundle of suitcases being wheeled down the alley to other riads, and the regular call to prayer from the mosques.

The only downside to communal living is that of course one is party to all conversations.

Breakfast on the rooftop

Moroccan breakfasts for tourists are excessively generous. They enable you to go through the day with nothing to eat, just something to drink regularly.

Normally I have indulged myself: A glass of freshly squashed orange juice, a large bowl (or rather bowls) of fruit salad with yoghurt, a boiled egg, and any number of slices of Moroccan bread with honey. And of course, lots of coffee.

I did not have a good night. I have developed stomach cramps and am somewhat anxious in case I have another bout of intestinal occlusions. Hopefully it is just a side effect of overdoing things yesterday. At any rate I am going to take things very easily today, my last day in Fès before moving on to Meknes tomorrow.

A serious consequence of this setback was that I was not up to my usual excessive breakfast! Instead I just had the orange juice, a small bowl of fruit and some coffee.

It seemed such a waste to not touch all this food, particularly when the waiter has carried it up three flights of stairs from the kitchen. Today Mohammed, who usually does the night shift from midnight and serves breakfast to everyone, was having his day off. In his place was a student, Sohaib, who does the Sunday-Monday shift.

Like the waitress last night, Sohaib is studying English at the university, and has there are not many people in the Riad today he was happy to chat with me. Sohaib said his name was uncommon in Morocco but his parents, who are very orthodox Muslims, chose it in honour of Sohaib bin Sinan, a companion of the Prophet.

Sohaib was born and has lived in Fes all his life. When I told him how much I loved the Madrasa Attarine he confessed he had never got round to visiting it. He was always studying, working or resting at home (doing a lot of internet surfing I suspect). You should go, I said, it is a wonderful part of your heritage. He agreed and I dont think he was just being polite. Visiting famous sites does not seem to be something Moroccans do. I compared this with India, where people – regardless of their means or status – seem to be extremely enthusiastic travellers and tourists.

Sohaib said there were two universities in Fes and English is taught at both. Why two universities, I asked. I think he was implying that there was a period of unrest in one and so at that time the government set up the second. Most students go to their local university (and there are very few scholarships), but Fes is one of a small handful of cities which has an open’ university, where students can be admitted from other places. A very nice young man. Pity I wont see him again as I get back to Fes on Sunday evening next week.

And now, since I plan to do nothing today, to ensure I am not ill in Meknes, I plan to catch up by posting odds and ends – various photos which are taking up space and need to be uploaded or thrown away. Actually, given my tendency not to prune enough, lots that I put up should have been thrown away. But it is difficult to manage photo editing and organising easily on an ipad and, most of the time, on my lap.

Lovely evening in cafe

After I had recovered from my rash expedition, I ventured out again for supper – in yesterday’s cafe (the nearest to my Riad!) and had a lovely two hours.

I was greeted by my waitress friend like a welcome habitue, sat myself down on the table nearest the street to watch the world go by, and started on my modest supper (main course falafel, hummus and salad).

The cafe soon filled up – it is clearly a favourite with local tourists – and suddenly there was a party of elderly Americans looking for a table. By the time they were all there, there were ten. I offered to move so that a couple of tables could be put together for them. The staff were very grateful, as you will see later.

At my new table, again watching passers by, finishing my thé à la menthe and thinking about paying, party of three arrived. I said give me five minutes and I a would be going – and in the meantime, feel free to sit down beside me.

Well, the five minutes stretched to well over half an hour. My companions turned out to be a couple of English born Pakistanis, now living in Fes, and their Moroccan friend. The wife said how lovely it was hearing an English voice for a change! She had been a student at Manchester University and confirmed that it rains there – a lot.

I think they sort of earn their keep on his salary teaching English, but seem to devote most of their time to home-schooling their two small children. They said it had been a good place for the children so far: they can play safely and they now speak English, Arabic and Urdu. But she wonders about the future: socialising for home-educated students and Fès is not ideal for this. They have lived here three years and have seen a lot change in that time: the impact of tourism is accelerating. They are contemplating moving to another country, maybe Egypt, where she has studied, or Istanbul – but agreed with me that a lot depends on the political situation!

We all agreed that the Moroccans are an incredibly friendly, hospitable and peaceable people. But can this withstand the pressures of mass tourism? They too had been recently to Barcelona and agreed with me that the balance was no longer there.

The number of tourists is still acceptable in Morocco from a tourist’s perspective, though you still have to wait while guided groups stand in front of the doorway you want to photo. I mentioned the large number of Chinese I have encountered. Last night there was a large and cheerful group of Chinese in my Riad. They explained that a few years ago the king of Morocco granted visa-free visits to the Chinese. No doubt to encourage trade!

At last I felt I should leave them in peace and asked my lovely waitress for the bill. « It is on the house », she replied. I thought she had misused a colloquial phrase. But no, they were thanking me for making way for the ten Americans. I was deeply moved, and somewhat embarrassed to deprive them of albeit a modest amount of income.

Using GPS

Until now I have been peering at minuscule printout of town plans, trying to work out where on earth I was. Then, I remembered Ed and Jude striding confidently through the streets of Istanbul, and noticed all those Chinese here glued to their phones. Of course, GPS!

I ran out of phone credit three days into my stay, but the satnav systems do not require a phone contract in order to show you a map and the reassuring blue blob showing where you are. Only you cannot put in searches for routes as you would normally.

So, there I was in the Medina, confident that this time I would not lose my way and would find the shortcut that enables you to take some back roads back to the Riad (I had discovered this route by accident a few days ago).

I had not counted on two factors. The GPS system is not completely reliable and often I seemed to be floating between two alleyways, only one of which would put me in the right direction (and also of course almost no alleyways have signs, either on the wall or on the GPS map). Then at a crucial moment when I was way off the usual route, doing my shortcut, my phone battery died. Why oh why did I forget my charger/case given to me by Ed and Jude?

So I did quite a lot of walking down an alleyway, and then walking back, helped – or not – by kind directions of the ‘take the first left and then the second right and then the first left’ variety. Apart from remembering these instructions I had some difficulty deciding what counted as a first left or right; often it turned out to be an entrance to a house.

I definitely overdid walking on this trip – at least seven kilometres. I must simply come to terms with my limited mobility rather than pushing it too far. Particularly in a place where there is absolutely no chance of a taxi rescuing me.

Attarine Madrasa

I spent much of the day once again meandering down the long Talaa Keira, in search of the one building I had not had the energy to visit when passing the nearby tomb of Moulay Idriss II: the Attarine Madrasa.

This is the most beautiful building I have seen so far in Morocco. Built in the 14th century, its delicate tracery and the complete harmony of the building are not done justice by my photos.

I felt the seven plus kilometres I walked on this trip (yes I got a bit lost on the way back) were worth every inch (doesn’t sound the same in centimetres).

Round Fès

Until now I have been exploring the original historic centre, Fès el-Bali, focussing on the medina.

In the afternoon Merieme organised a driver to take me on the road that goes round the outside of the walls of this original city. Amine spoke fluent English; he had been a policeman in Qatar for ten years, but had returned to his beloved Fes.

We started just beyond Batha, the quartier where I am staying, and did a tour of Fès el-Jedid, thé ‘new’ town, built mainly in the 13th century, by the Merinid princes.

We started with the royal palace, Dar el-Makhzen. Actually, as this is closed to the public, the visit consisted of simply admiring the huge Moorish entrance.

I asked Amine if the current king actually used this palace very much, given that he has quite a few. Oh yes, said Amine, he comes here regularly on his doctors’ recommendations. H apparently has medical problems and Fes is a healthy place to live – not too hot or cold and not humid like the coast.

Right next to the vast palace complex is the Jewish quarter, the Mellah. In exchange for tax payments – the rulers provided the Jewish community with protection. There are very few Jews left in Morocco now, most having emigrated to Israel after 1948.

Amine observed how distinct was the architectural style of the streets in the Mellah: whereas Arab houses invariably have a single entrance door and few windows in their exterior walls, as the household looks in towards its courtyards, the Jewish houses has windows and balconies looking out onto the street. I took this picture from my car window, but it should give some idea of the style.


We drove on and climbed the hill on which sits the former fortress, now no longer in use, which was so visible on my first evening. This time we were looking across at the Merinid tombs and the hotel (right of the second image) where I went on my first evening.

To be honest the panoramas were far less breathtaking than those of Istanbul, visited two years ago. The size is impressive, but the only building to stand out is the mosque.

Next was the obligatory shopping stop, although again I made it clear that I was not shopping. Actually it turned out to be interesting, particularly as I was able to make comparisons with wonderful pottery at Abuja in Nigeria (when we lived there).

The guide told me that the clay used in Fès is grey, unlike the rest of Morocco where it is red. All the tiles for floors and walls are hand cut. The decoration is done by hand, using very fine brushes. Interestingly this is not an exclusively male domain; there was at least one woman working on the decoration. Tiles are also broken up in various ways to provide the material for mosaics. The shop was of course huge, impressive – and enticing!

On to the north of the city and up to the hill with the Merenid tombs. The Merinids were responsible for the building of the ‘new’ Fès, Fès el-Jdid, in the 13th century and from some time in the 14th century until their demise their rulers were buried in these tombs. Incredibly they have been allowed to crumble away and no archaeological work has been done there. In one direction I had a good view down onto the Al Quaraouyine Mosque and towards the south part of the impressive city wall ramparts.

In the evening I had supper and one of the nearest cafes. It turned out to be delicious: aubergine-based salad, Moroccan pastries and of course thé à la menthe. The waitress was a pretty and cheerful young woman who turned out to be studying English at University. She was very approving of my choice of Moroccan dishes on the menu.

Car hire for pensioners

Much of the morning was taken up with some irritating forward planning. Merieme and I spent some time discussing which days I would take taxis and which days hire a car in order to keep the costs down. So I decided to take taxis to Meknes and its surroundings and only hire a car when I meet up with my friend Dan to spend two or three days exploring the countryside.

When in France I had received confirmation from Europcar that there was no upper age limit for hiring a car. So I was all set to press the pay button when I thought I had better double check. The answer came back there was an upper age limit of 75. I queried this without success, then the internet dragged to a halt, so for now I have put this aside – but I am fuming inwardly.

Expats running riads

I get the impression that quite a lot of the recent development of riads has been done by expatriates. Riad Tizwa where I am staying, for example, was a project by two Brits from Edinburgh.

This morning I came across the owner of a project still at the drawing board stage. I was, as so often, taking a rest from walking by drinking a thé à la menthe, watching the crowd go by. Then I heard the woman behind me speaking in French French (as opposed to Moroccan French). I was looking for advice on how to manage my Orange mobile without shelling out yet more cash, but it turned out that she was a Moroccan resident, with a Moroccan Orange mobile.

She and her husband had sold up in France and had bought a Riad which they planned to have operational by next year. Just at present it is very much a building site, she said. It turned out they don’t speak Arabic, although they are learning it, and have employed a Moroccan to do the front of house management.

She had to leave then, as she had promised to cook tajine for the team of builders working in the Riad and was getting anxious about getting it right!

Slowed the pace

Today was intended as a recovery day after two long days of activity. Well, it was supposed to be, but after setting out on what was meant to be a short stroll to take photos of the splendid Riad doors, I got tempted to walk on – and on.

I ended up in a quartier I had never been in before, and was bracing myself to retrace my footsteps when I found I had somehow managed to land up on the Talaa Sghira.

The next project was to have visited the Batha Museum, which is supposed to be splendid, but found it was closed for renovations. So instead I have spent some time bringing this blog up to date (well, almost, as I am suddenly having problems uploading photos).