“Keep in touch”, I understand the real meaning of this phrase when I am in Morocco. Men keep touching literally, almost all the time, wherever you are. I assume that it is a sign of friendship when a receptionist in my hotel wraps his hand round my shoulder as he shows me the direction of the main street in Fez.
As I am walking down the Ville Nouvelle in this late capital city of Morocco, I see male couples walking arm-in-arm while talking seriously or giggling in the middle of the day. While handshakes and hugs may be acceptable in most countries, Moroccan people—the men—show further gestures to express friendliness. They lean, cuddle, hold hands and flatter hair. Cheek kissing—sometimes twice for each cheek—is a universal form of greeting. Not only among Moroccans, but also between locals and tourists. I call it hospitouchlity a la Morocco. However, touching bottoms is insulting so don’t be over friendly!
This city is seven hours away overland from the better-known Marrakech to the north. UK based Flee Winter takes visitors straight to Fez—a three-and-a-half-hour flight from London—and offers a wide range of accommodation, mainly in traditional riads in the ancient medina.
The modern quarter of the city has not been overrun by franchise outlets. An American burger chain—one of a few of its kind—in the city centre is most likely avoided by visitors as local eateries along the main street offer more characteristic fresh meals.
The sun is getting hotter when I end up in a juice bar just next to a local café packed with spectators watching a football match on a 29-inch TV. A cup of thick mango juice is in hand but the man behind the till won’t let me go before I can count to ten in perfect French “un deux trios quatre cinq six sept huit neuf dix”. He is one of at least half of the population who speak French, Morocco’s unofficial second language and primary lingo in business and economics. This is because of the strong French influence between 1912 to 1956, which left a heritage of French architecture in parts of Morocco.
It is easy to find Fez medina. Just follow the palm trees along the main road to the north until you hit the long yellowish white austere wall. But it can be an endless wander without paying 100 dirhams—around ten pounds—for a local guide to trace the labyrinthine narrow lanes inside the wall.
Stepping through one of many gates on the wall is like leaping back in time leaving behind the new quarter of Fez towards the old complex that has not changed much in nearly a millennium. Dense settlements block sunshine from reaching down to the uneven-floored alleyways where residents walk through with bare foot, slippers or high heels in between damp walls. They prefer to let the sunshine into each house through a four-sided courtyard surrounded by rooms on two or three floors.
My guide, Khalid, invites me to come by his house, which accommodates his extended family. Guests do not need to pay anything before entering this kind of house, but they will have to bow deep to get through the main door as it is only as high as average adults’ waist bringing to mind the doors on the hobbit’s shelters in the Lord of the Rings.
Sitting in the guest room on the ground floor relieves weary feet with a refreshing mint tea served while listening to his story. “People coming here always ask me how we manage to bring in the sofa, refrigerator and other big items to the house through such a tiny door,” says Khalid well before I ask the same question. Dwellers with similar houses use temporary hoists to lift furniture up and onto the rooftop and then back down to place them on the ground floor through the void.
Other households open up their rooftops as viewing platforms where visitors can see the complex from above. White satellite dishes spring up on every rooftop like mushrooms sprouting up from decayed wood. Workshops selling leather products tease customers by showing them the production process. Again, from the rooftop.
I am offered a sprig of mint leaves. I do not know what it is for until I come closer to the edge of the rooftop. Now I get the idea. I hold the leaves under my nose as a distraction from the stench of the tannery down below, where dozens of tanners stand up to their knees in pits. Khalid says that pigeon guano and cow urine are some of the main components in processing the skins. No wonder there is a smell.
The shows, and the smell, are free. But afterwards, visitors will be directed to rooms full of leather products downstairs. Bargaining skill is crucial here to get the best price for handmade pieces. My ability at bartering is easily outshone by the traders who delight in teasing the best price for their goods.
The same skill is required at the souq—the market street in the centre of the medina. The hurly burly of people selling and bargaining, kids playing, and goats bleating is perfect for an Aladdin film location. There are just seven pairs of eyes that are slightly closed, standing quite still with sorrowful faces: donkeys. These animals are still quite popular as four-legged taxis for transporting goods, sometimes even beyond the medina’s wall.
Market crowds fade out when muezzin’s prayer call reverberates from the Kairaouine Mosque. Its 16-feet-high golden main gate features middle-eastern ornaments framed in a purple solid arch signalling its status as one of the biggest mosques in Africa. Behind the gate are glimpses of its seemingly endless columns propping the high ceiling. Even if you cannot enter the building—non-Muslims are forbidden, its huge green pyramidal roof and minaret can be seen from some points across the medina. The mosque is in the same complex as Kairaouine University, one of the world’s oldest universities founded in 859, centuries before Oxford and Cambridge.
Some other old buildings inside the wall have become riads providing laid-back accommodation and fashionable restaurants like La Maison Bleue in the southwest neighbourhood of Batha. I am relaxing on a brocaded divan in a candlelit salon when waiters in pantaloons and babouches—Moroccan slippers—distribute menu cards listing a line up of various tagine. The dish is named after its special clay pot. As I open its cone-shaped cover, colourful succulent mutton chops and vegetables in watery yellow sauce release aromatic subtly-spiced flavoured steam.
I stay in Riad Laayoun in the heart of the medina. I can feel the strong character reflected from zelliges dressing all walls and floors, plaster carvings, cedar wood, paintings and decorative doors. I am so lucky to occupy a room with small patio facing the panoramic hillock behind the outspread settlements in the medina. My favourite place is its rooftop terrace, where I enjoy breakfast. While not the most expensive accommodation, it offers the most from my money leaving a few dirhams for souvenirs.
Flight booked by Flee Winter £140 per person
Double room in RiadLaayoun 660 dirhams per night
Dinner package in La MaisonBleue 550 dirhams
French AZERTY keyboards are widely used