Category Archives: Excursion

Get Lost in Fez

“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.

Photos by Ady Nugroho

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.

Visiting Fez:

Flight booked by Flee Winter £140 per person

Double room in RiadLaayoun 660 dirhams per night

Dinner package in La MaisonBleue 550 dirhams

£1=12 dirhams

French AZERTY keyboards are widely used


Stadium Hopping in South Africa

Sportive spirit is in the air around the horn of Africa.

South Africa has been upheld as a role model of racial integration following its successful social transition following the abolition of apartheid. Now the nation is this year’s number one sporting destination as it will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Nine cities are in full party mode as the excitement builds in the run-up to the games. All are preparing to welcome both ordinary tourists and football fans during the month-full championship or even before it kicks off on June 11.

Of the ten stadiums to stage the matches during the football season five are new and have been recently completed. While all of these are based on a typical stadium design each has distinctive characteristics and will encourage city explorers to visit and add it to their photographic album of the trip. Each building has become their area’s landmark and a proud symbol of what South Africa has achieved over its recent history.

This follows a trend with major sporting events such as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. Here the main stadium, the ‘Bird’s Nest’ has become a new city icon. It is clear that in South Africa the new stadiums in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth, Durban, Nelspruit and Polokwane have already had a similar impact.

Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town

Walkers along the seaside of the Atlantic in Cape Town can easily spot the Green Point Stadium with the Signal Hill as its backdrop. The giant ring-style oval building seems solid from a distance, but it is actually designed with a semi-translucent façade enabling lights to infiltrate from the inside making the building radiate at night.

Catching glimpses of the glowing-in-the-dark structure is still popular among local people even though it has been there for several months since it was officially opened in December 2009. Pick any of the 70,000 seats available and witness a full-angle view of its interior.

Locals still refer to this as Green Point Stadium, which was the name of the old stadium on the same site, rather than the official name ‘Cape Town Stadium’. This massive concrete block is a prominent landmark.

Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth

Still on the southern edge of the country, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is one of three coastal stadiums built for the games. It is set only a stone’s throw away from the Indian Ocean and is on the shores of the North End Lake.

There is no need to hire a helicopter to witness the unique roof-texture as it can be seen clearly from any of the 46,000 seats. The roof is made up of a series of white ‘petals’ making it look like a flower. This is why the stadium is nicknamed ‘The Sunflower’.

Port Elizabeth built the first stadium dedicated to football at the heart of the city enabling architectural conscious strollers to compare it with the surrounding Victorian and Edwardian buildings that demonstrate a physical timeline of architectural changes dating as far back as the 19th century. The Opera House is a good example of Victorian architecture and is still in use. The city has also the richest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in South Africa.

Durban Stadium, Durban

Go further north along the east coast to find Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. The stadium has a grand arch across its void, which was inspired by the country’s flag. The two legs of the arch on the southern side of the stadium merge into one to form a single footing on the northern side. The southern side has a 550-step adventure walk to the top.

A cable car is available to carry visitors from the northern side climbing up along the arch to a viewing platform at the height of 105 metres. From this point, height junkies can see panoramic views of the shoreline, city and roof of the stadium. The roof design looks like an eyelid along with eyelashes. Down below each of the 70,000 seats is spacious and gives a clear line of sight to the pitch.

The building is located in the centre of Kings Park Sporting Precinct featuring further sporting arenas and a pedestrian connecting the complex to the beach. More attractions are found on the beach such as an aquarium built into a sunken ship in the Shaka Marine World. During the championship, Beachfront Fan Park will be a flocking point for football fans to catch the World Cup action on a big screen.

Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit

In local language Mbombela means ‘many people together in a small place’. But Mbombela Stadium in north-eastern city of Nelspruit is far from small. It has capacity to hold 46,000 spectators under its rounded rectangle roof with its wide-open void.

The concept of the architecture reflects the inter-relation between sport and wildlife as the location is close to the Kruger National Park. On the façade, 18 orange roof steel piles resemble giraffes. The seating bowl inside depicts a zebra pattern in black and white. The translucent roof floats above the top of the seating bowl with a clear six-metre gap to provide views to the surrounding hills.

Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane

Finally going to the northern-most tip of the country where the Peter Mokaba Stadium was just completed earlier this year replacing the old stadium with the same name in the city of Polokwane.

The design is inspired by the locally iconic Baobab tree with the emphasis on a large concrete structure. Sitting on one of the 45,000 seats feels like waiting for a performance in a giant open-air amphitheatre as the roof covers only one side of the seating bowl. Yes, it is the tribune side.

Of course, each city has many other attractions to offer, but at the moment all South African’s energy and spirit belongs to football. They hope people coming to the country will bring the same energy and spirit when they celebrate the first ever World Cup on African soil.

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