It's high time the Moroccan city of Fez took its place besides Jerusalem, Athens, Istanbul, Rome and Cairo when it comes to ancient cities offering deeply spiritual, exciting travel experiences. But Fez is much closer than those other cities, the closest by far in fact from New York (just six and a half hours by plane) and London (only three hours). It's romantic, too -- almost every corner of Fez seems to be dimly lit by candles or lamps reflected off terra cotta walls. At night, the city flickers with gold lights and dark alleys, the calm in the gardens of small hotels called riads contrasting the constant hum of the frenetic souks.
A sprawling city with a 1,200 year-old medina or old city, Fez stretches out over planes and plateaus within site of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Like the U.S., Morocco considers itself a melting pot. The founder of Fez, Edris II, was born to an Arab father and a Berber mother, uniting the two worlds and cultures. Moroccan's are proudly tolerant of all religions with most practicing the Sunni sect of Islam.
Once in Morocco, your luggage can gain as much weight as you; there is as much food to eat as there are products to buy -- couscous, tagine, lamb, veal and more vegetable salads than constellations in the sky; and pottery, carpets, leather bags, antiquities, tiles, silver, lamp shades, table tops and hand-crafted boxes of camel bone. A mixture of Moorish, Andalusian and Berber architecture, Fez is a feast for the eyes. Minarets like church spires punctuate the sky. It's cheap, too. Once there, you can feast, sleep, shop, and look out upon the countryside like a Berber prince.
Royal Air Maroc (tel. 800/344-6726; www.royalairmaroc.com) has flights available direct from New York to Casablanca starting at approximately $900 roundtrip, and from there on to Fez, Marrakesh, Tangier or Agadir, a beach resort in the south. If $900 seems steep, try flying to London on any carrier and then hopping a three-hour, $37 one-way plane to Marrakech on Atlas Blue (tel. 0820 090 90; www.atlas-blue.com). Atlas is a discount airline subsidiary of Royal Air Maroc that brings budget travelers to Morocco in on 747s. Flights inside Morocco from city to city start at $150 roundtrip from Casablanca to Marrakesh or Casablanca to Fez or Agadir to Marrakesh. One way costs around $75.
Where to Stay
You have several choices here. You can stay in a modernized, European-style hotel with a grand lobby, large rooms and Western-style beds or you can bed down in a riad or guest house, where you can sleep more like a Moroccan. A typical riad consists of a small garden structure with at least four rooms surrounding a central garden with a running fountain; some riads have pools. You can also sleep in a decorated, slightly luxurious newly built hotel constructed in the fashion of an ancient house or palace. All range in price from very expensive to very cheap. A word of advice: Your hotel in Morocco is will determine the tenor of your trip. It's your refuge from the hectic markets and crowded streets.
Sofitel's Palais Jamai (tel. +212 (0) 35 63 43 31; www.sofitel.com) is by far Fez's most luxurious hotel, where rates start at $240 a night. Located on a hill overlooking the countryside, the hotel has some of the best views of the three valleys in which Fez sits. Sitting on the hotel's large veranda and overlooking the bleached white tops of the medina's centuries-old buildings makes you realize just how grand in scope Fez really is. The hotel's large pool gets sun all day long, and the grounds of the hotel are a city on their own with passageways, palm trees, flower gardens and manicured shrubs. In the afternoon, light shining through the hotel's stain glass windows illuminate the dark hallways like kaleidoscopes.
Hotel Batha (tel. +212 (0) 35 63 48 24) is a European-style hotel in the Place Batha section of the Medina where taxis and vehicles can pull up. This three-star, no frills hotel borders on luxurious with a marble lobby and large rooms starting at just $45 for a single standard room. There is a small square just outside of the hotel's entrance and restaurants directly across the street. Adjacent to the hotel is an entrance to the medina and souk stalls selling antiques and food.
Dar Victoria (tel. +212 (0) 35 63 00 03) is a riad that opened in June 2005 in the Quartier Barajoue section of the medina. The hotel has six suites and seven standard rooms starting at $143 and going up to $245 per night. The rooftop terrace allows you to look out over Fez. Manager Christine Devictor doubles as a trained masseuse in the on-premises Turkish hammam. In both the suites and standard rooms, large 16-foot wooden doors open and close to keep the cold air out in the winter and the cool air in during the summer. Rooms and public spaces are furnished with a mix of Moroccan and European club-style leather furnishings.
Riad Sheherazade (tel. +212 (0) 55 74 16 42; www.sheheraz.com) is swank boutique riad surrounded by 50-foot high walls and a stand of palm trees. Entering the Sheherazade's huge exterior doors is like sneaking in the side door of a medieval castle. The level of calm inside the huge courtyard is disturbed only by the low hum of guests sitting back and enjoying the riad's on-site restaurant as it dishes out a fusion of modern and ancient Moroccan cuisine like quail couscous and cooked fruit. Prices start at $175 per night.
Where to Eat
As much as there is style everywhere you look (in the walls, the ceilings, the lighting, the shops), there is food. Most Moroccans eat well. (Some riads and restaurants even give leftover food to the poor or less fortunate staff members.) The street food is as good as any Asian nation. Pieces of paratha (Indian bread) cooked in grease and grilled with onions cost .50 cents. With mint tea, they make an excellent breakfast or meal. Sugar-glazed beignets better than Crispy CrÃ¨me donuts cost a little more than a dime. Fresh goat cheese costs .35 cents per quarter pound. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice costs a quarter. Get the picture? Escargot from a street stall costs $1. Yes, you can eat cheap.
You can eat fine cuisine as well. Some restaurants are also riads or guest houses where you can eat yourself silly and then walk just a few steps to your room. Here's a sampling of the riad food or restaurants in and around Fez.
Palais La Medina (tel. +212 (0) 55 71 14 37) is a large restaurant in a historic Moroccan house decorated by centuries-old tile work of red, green and yellow and the thirty-foot ceilings take nothing away from the intimacy of the ambience.. The lamb tagine costs $18 dollars and easily feeds two. The restaurant is along the Rcif, or "edge," of the medina in the Bourajoue section of Fez.
Dar El Ghalia (tel. +212 (0) 35 63 41 67; www.maisondhotes.co.ma) is a restaurant/guest house inside an 18th century palace originally built for a wealthy merchant. The dimly lit dining room is occupied by several low-slung tables and multi-colored sequined pillows. The food never seems to stop coming. After a first course of ten salads, two main courses arrive one after the other. The menu differs slightly per evening, but on my visit lamb tagine was followed by roast chicken served with a Moroccan egg noodle called "Her Magistrate's Turban." All meals end with desert and mint tea or strong black coffee. The cost of this feast (you're obliged to taste everything but eat as much as you prefer) comes to $55 dollars with all the wine you can drink.
A traditional houka (filled with tobacco) is available for smoking after the meal. The waiters are happy to set-it up for you and instruct on proper smoking techniques. If possible, sleep at the El Ghalia the night of your meal. Your experience will be enhanced by the continuation of the cultural evening and the food and drink-induced coma that may follow. Since the guest house is tucked into an especially narrow and hidden section of the medina, your waiter will meet you at the closest taxi stand or medina gate, and he will also take you back after the meal.
La Maison Bleue (tel. +212 (0) 35 74 18 39; www.maisonbleue.com), considered one of the most romantic hotels in the world, is a centrally located riad in the Place Batha owned and operated by the same family for over one hundred years. Diners recline in semi-private alcoves while gnawa musicians play North African songs. Dinner runs to $65 per person and includes all the red or rose wine you can drink.
What to Do
Sothermy (tel. +212 (0) 35 69 40 64) is a thermal spa set in the mountains twenty minutes outside Fez. Allegedly good for the skin and respiratory system, this spa is used predominantly by locals. A hammam (a wet, Turkish-style massage) costs $35; a standard massage and a dip in the thick sulfur springs starts at $22.
Cooperative de Commercialisation de Produits Artisinaux de la Wilaya de Fez (tel. +212 (0) 55 62 10 07) is the government-sanctioned boutique selling Moroccan crafts at a fixed price. It's a good idea to start your shopping experience here to gauge prices in regards to quality before trying your luck in the souks inside the medina. These are located in central areas and most taxi drivers should know where they are. They often have craft studios adjacent to the large boutique. Again, use these prices as benchmarks to begin negotiating for other goods. A small teapot should cost $30. A silk scarf costs $12.
Mahamed Esseban (Rue Ain Allou 1; tel. +212 (0) 65 42 86 20) has a small shop in the Fez Medina on the rue Ain Allou. Very easy to deal with, he sells all sorts of goods from hundred year old coins, to mirrors, to brand-new tea kettles, to objets d'arts from Fez circa 1965. He speaks perfect English, has excellent taste and knows Fez well.
For cloth goods such as Moroccan tablecloths, napkins and women's outerwear Haja El Khalfaoui Fatima (199 Talaa Kabira; tel. +212 (0) 35 63 49 88) runs her one-woman shop with humor and kindness. Her non-aggressive style and easy smile makes buying things at her stall an exercise in simple negotiation. She's all about the soft cell. Expect to pay about $50 for a large white cotton tablecloth and twelve napkins. The tablecloths and napkins have small Berber designs in the corners. They come in different hues of red, blue, orange and green.
Bab Boujeloud is more than just a three-gated entryway to the Fez medina. It's also a site unto itself. The large Moorish-style triple gate is easy to find and can serve as an access point, starting point and meeting point for trips into the exciting but confusing medieval medina. Considered the principal gate into the medina, Bab Boujeloud offers views of the moon through all three gates making for post-card type pictures and ideal café sitting.
The Mellah and Danan Synagogue are, respectively, the Jewish quarter and the small synagogue within. With only currently 250 Jewish families in Fez, the synagogue is a vital part of Morocco's surviving Jewish community. Meaning "salt" in Arabic, mellah got its name from the Jewish merchants who cornered the salt commodity in Morocco. The current Fez Mellah is believed to be Morocco's first Jewish settlement dating back well before the 13th century. Long-time advisors to the king on economic affairs and trade, the Jewish leaders and their community enjoyed the protection of the king. It's no surprise, then, that the walls of the Mellah abut the Imperial Palace. Entry is free although a small fee is requested.
Le musées des Armees at the Borj Nord (tel. +212 (0) 55 64 52 41) is a military museum on a hill that's housed in a fort built in 1582. In addition to a collection of weapons from all over the world, the museum houses Moroccan weapons adorned with jewels by master craftsmen. The views from the borj of the entire valley and areas that compose Fez make the visit worth your time. You can see across to the Borj Sud, a similar hillside fortress where sunsets light up the sky and the flat tops of houses in dark pink.
A valid passport is required for all visitors to Morocco. Visas are not required for U.S. travelers staying in Morocco less than 3 months. For more information, go online to the U.S. State Department's website (http://travel.state.gov). At press time, the exchange rate was about one U.S. dollar to 8 dirhams ($1 = 8.07 Moroccan dirhams). For up to date information, go to www.xe.com.
Arabic is Morocco's official language, but French is spoken as well and most often used in business, government, and diplomacy. Several locals speak English (especially in the hotels, restaurants, and some of the souks), but if you can converse -- at least a little bit -- in French, you'll have a much easier time communicating.
Before You Go
Six weeks before you depart for Morocco, consult your doctor or a travel clinic to make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date. Be sure to bring any medications you take regularly, as well as any personal hygiene products you use on a daily basis. You might ask your doctor for an antibiotic you can take with you in case of infection (Cipro is the most commonly prescribed antibiotic to treat severe stomach problems). Check with your current health insurance provider to see what expenses are covered, and consider purchasing international medical and evacuation insurance.
Reliable and reasonably priced packages are available at International SOS (www.internationalsos.com). Also, Moroccan pharmacies have most pharmaceuticals if necessary. The pharmacists are trained European style and know how treatment for most travel ailments or common illness.
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