Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Destination Fez!

Today, I found out that the proper (i.e., Moroccan) way to spell the name of this ancient city is Fez and not Fes as I have been doing so I will now correct myself.

This morning, we begin our road trip through Morocco.  Before the day is over, we'll be in Fez.

Last night we agreed to meet in the lobby at 8am. The plan was to take the taxi to the Casa Voyageurs train station to catch the ONCF train to Fez.

Excited about going to Fez, I was up early and in the lobby by 7:30am. The other three made it down early as well. I took all our room key cards and headed up to the receptionist desk. I was ready for the fight that I knew would be coming my way.


Sure enough, the moment I handed the key cards over to the receptionist, he started in on me. How come I have two key cards? So I explain the story. Which card was mine? 1518, I replied. Can I please have your credit card? Why, I asked. Because you did not pay for the room, he replied. But it was your mistake and I will not pay for it. With that I walked I away and I didn’t look back.

"Time to hit the rail " Of course, I had to explain to the other three what happened but at this point, all I wanted to do was for us to get on our way. We have an exciting day ahead of us and I didn’t want this minor incident to spoil it.

Out the front door we went and we headed towards the taxi stand where the Petit Taxis wait for passengers. In Casablanca, the Petit Taxis are four seater (5 if you squash in) Fiat Unos so we needed two cars. I asked one driver how much it would cost to go to Casa Voyageurs and he replied 100 dirhams. After just having dealt with a receptionist who royally pissed me off, my reaction to the taxi driver’s offer was “No way” and I was not even in the mood to bargain. So we decided that instead to try the train station. Back across the street to Casa Port we went, darting like chickens running for their lives.

Inside the station, we stood in line with what looked like daily commuters on their way to work.

When I got to the counter, I asked the man if there was a train to Fez. He replied that there was that a 2nd class ticket would cost 110 dirhams each and that we would have to switch trains in Rabat Ville. Soon and I had just been at that station yesterday so we felt comfortable We handed over 440 dirhams and got our tickets. Stamped on the ticket was the departure time – 8:15a and it was the train from Casa Voyageurs so we're basically riding the train that I had wanted us to but leaving an hour earlier!

It was just barely 8am so we just had a few minutes to wait for the train. I must say we have been very lucky with the trains – catching all of them with very little waiting time.

Luckily also the train stations here are small, just two tracks and there are signs indicating departure times and destinations so it’s easy to make your way.

The train arrived on time and we boarded with the masses. We found ourselves two sets of seats and settled in for the hour long ride to Rabat Ville. As the train pulled out of Casa Port, I had one last glimse of the Hassan II Mosque. Bye, bye Casablanca for now….we’ll be back in two weeks.

I turned my attention to the landscape whizzing by us. I always hope there’s something interesting to see along the train tracks but there rarely ever is. Aside from seeing a sliver of the Atlantic Ocean in the background, the scenery was pretty forgettable.

"A layover in Rabat " We pulled into Rabat Ville just around 9am and disembarked the train with everyone else. Fully understanding how it feels when you are in a rush to get to work, we stepped aside to let everyone else by us. We were in no rush; they were.


Standing on the platform, we had to figure out whether or not we were on the right one though reason told us we were because there are only two tracks – the one we were on and the other for trains travelling in the reverse direction. Just to be certain though, I decided to head to the ticket booth to confirm that we were standing on the correct platform. But before I could even make it to the stairs leading up to the ticket booth, I heard Soon calling my name. I turned around and he told me that the destination sign had just switched to showing Fez. Train 111 departing at 9:15a. That was our train! We walked back to patiently wait for the train to arrive. 9:15a came and went and no train. In fact, other trains came and went. Where was train 111? I decided to go back to the ticket booth to find out. But again, before I got to the steps leading up to the ticket booth, I spotted a well dressed young woman. Figuring that she would speak English, I went up to her, pointed to the tracks and asked, “Fez”? She replied, “Oui, mais plus tarde.”…..yes, but it is very late. I went back and delivered the news.

9:45a came and went and still no train. Then, I saw headlights heading toward our platform and gentleman sitting nearby confirmed it was the train to Fez.

Unlike the short distance ONCF trains which are very modern inside, the long distance trains are of the older generation. The seats are still comfortable but you can see the effect of age on the interior….everything a bit dirty and rundown. But, it’s good enough.

The train was already quite full. I was suspecting that this was the 9:15a train from Casa Voyageurs that we would have been on and so there were already passengers on board from Casablanca. We couldn’t find four seats together so the guys had to split up while Mildred and I shared a four seater with an elderly gentleman.

"Ho hum " The train chugged out of the station.  The guys were seated separately and it wasn't long before Soon fell asleep.  He can truly fall asleep anywhere, anytime and at the drop of a hat.  Aaron looked like he was just lost in his own thoughs.

The landscape that whizzed by outside my window was pretty boring so Mildred and I passed the time chatting about retiring from our jobs.  She’s newly retired and I’m envious as I very much look forward to the day when I no longer have the stresses that I now do as a manager of a team.
 
This was a local train so there were quite a few stops. At one stop, a young girl took the seat next to the elderly gentleman so the four seater was filled. She had a computer bag with her so I presume she was on her way to work as well.

The elderly gentleman had hung his jacket on the wall of the train and the girl was leaning against it. At one point, his phone rang and it was obvious that she and I heard it but not him. I quickly figured out that it was his phone and so I gestured to the girl, with my right hand fingers in the universal *phone receiver* position and then pointed to the gentleman sitting next to her. She tapped his shoulder, handed his jacket to him and told him that it was his phone ringing…..at least that’s how I interpreted the scene that was taking place before me since I don’t speak Arabic. He nodded and she looked at me and we both giggled.


All this while, I couldn’t help but notice the big diamond ring on her left hand because most women seem to either not wear one or wear a simple band. This was major bling in a land where for the most part the women are dressed and adorned very modestly. When I caught her eye, I touched her ring and she smiled and placed her right hand over her heart. I nodded and she smiled. She then reached out her right hand and I reciprocated. We shook hands. Without words, we had communicated. These are the sorts of moments that I enjoy the most when I travel. You don’t need to speak the same language to interact with anyone. You just need to have an open mind and an open heart.

At one of the stops, the young girl got off the train and she was replaced by another elderly gentleman. He wasn’t friendly and I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. I don’t think that in this part of the world, an elderly gentleman would actively initiate a conversation with a younger woman and perhaps vice versa.

By now, Mildred had gotten tired of people coming and going in our four seater. The moment she saw two side by side seats available, she jumped at the move and I followed. This time, we ended up sitting in the row of seats right in front of the two guys.

I hadn’t been paying attention to the landscape outside our window. I knew we were heading inland, into the mountains so I wasn’t surprised to see rolling green hills. What looked like olive tree farms were now a common sight.

Soon the rolling green hills turned into arid mountain landscape.

I didn’t want to miss our stop so I kept my eyes out as we passed each station. When we passed Meknes something or other, I called Ahmed, the manager at Dar Sienna which was the riad that I had booked us into. I had been corresponding with the owner, Sonhild Gray, for several months and last night she emailed me to confirm that we would be arriving into Fez at 12:35p because she was sending one of her employees, Sayeed, to meet us. He would be there with a Dar Sienna sign in hand. I only had Ahmed’s phone number so I called him because I thought that Meknes was at least an hour’s train ride away and so we would be late arriving. But when I spoke with Ahmed, he said….that yes, we would be arriving into Fez in about 20 minutes and that Sayeed would be there waiting for us.

Shortly after I hung up the phone, we arrived into Gare Meknes. Oops….this is the *real* Meknes station…..the one that’s 20 minutes away from Fez. I looked at the time on my Blackberry. If what Ahmed said was true, we would be in Fez just around 12:35….pretty much on time.

"We made it!" Sure enough, the train pulled into the Fez station and since it was the final destination, there was no need to rush off the train.


We grabbed our bags from the luggage racks, got off the train and followed the crowd into the station. There, I spotted a young guy holding up a white sign with the words “Dar Sienna” printed in black.

I walked up and asked, “Sayeed?” The young man replied, “Yes.” The four of us then introduced ourselves and we followed Sayeed out of the station.

The weather in Fez was as beautiful as that in Casablanca…..cool temps, sunny bright blue skies. Perfect for walking about.

Sayeed motioned for us to wait curbside. A short while later we followed him to an awaiting car….what they call here a Grand Taxi. For 70 dirhams, the driver would shuttle us to a spot just outside the walls of the medina. From there, we would have to on foot to the riad because the lanes of the medina are too narrow for cars.

Mildred, Aaron and I piled into the back seat, Soon got to sit shot gun and Sayeed laid down in the back of the wagon like car.

It was about a 20 minute ride to our drop off location. Along the way, the driver pointed out the Royal Palace that King Mohammed VI often spends time in.

"The bellhop, Fez style "
The driver pulled off onto an gravel road that was the entrance to the parking lot. There, we all got out and our luggage was transferred from the back of the car to an awaiting wheel barrow. We paid the driver the fare and as we walked away, gave our thanks – Shukran.

We followed Sayeed and the guy wheeling our luggage through the gateway that led through the city walls into the medina.


"The medina come to life "As soon as we crossed the threshold of the gateway, the entire atmosphere of our surroundings changed. We had entered into an entirely different world. Narrow cobblestone streets crammed with small shops and vendor stalls. The streets were crowded with people coming and going. It was noisy and dusty, at times dirty and pretty much always congested with people and things…..all sorts of things. It was the medina of my imagination, fueled by images I had seen in magazines, on TV and most recently on the web. All my senses immediately came to life and I wanted to take it all in!!  Every sight, every sound, every smell.  I wanted to absorb it all.


We headed down hill pretty much all the way and I was determined to remember the route so we would be able to find our way around later on. I tried to take in as many marker points as I can but after a while, there was just much too much to take in so I gave up. We’ll just follow the handy dandy map that I had brought along. Yeah :-)

It was a quite a long distance that we walked, downhill pretty much all the way, dodging the occasional motorbike and donkey along the way. The latter are the preferred mode of transportation in the medina and so you quickly get used to listening for the sound of hooves hitting stone.

We passed the Zaouia (shrine) Moulay Idriss, the façade of which was draped in blue plastic sheeting as the shrine is undergoing renovation. I remember that the riad was located very close by to the shrine so I knew we weren’t far away.

"Home sweet Dar Sienna "
We turned left into a very dark and narrow tunnel like alleyway that led to another alleyway that was equally as narrow though not dark. About ¾ of the way down the second alleyway, Sayeed stopped on front of a pair of very narrow wooden doors. We had arrived at Dar Sienna! We would have never found this place without these guys!

Sayeed unlocked the door and one by one, we squeezed through the narrow wooden doorway and made our way inside. There, we were introduced to a set of narrow stairs. Up and up we went to the first floor where there is a bedroom, a small sitting area and a bedroom. There, we also were introduced to Ahmed, the house manager and Sabah who is the cook and caretaker. Both seemed very friendly.

Ahmed offered us cups of mint tea which we graciously accepted though we wanted to continue to explore this charming house. It’s all about being compact and vertical here but it all works.

As Sabah prepared our tea, we headed up another set of stairs that took us up to the 2nd floor which has a bedroom and a bathroom, a very large bathroom!

One last set of steps led up to the 3rd floor which has its own unique en suite toilet and shower.  I shot this video tour of Dar Sienna a few days after we had already arrived and settled in.  I wanted to remember the experience of what it was like staying here.








I had booked the entire riad for just us so we had to pick our rooms. Aaron had originally said he wanted the terrace but that was until he heard that there were only one double bed in each room. No way, he was going to share a bed with Soon so he then decided on the 2nd floor with its huge bathroom as his choice. That led me to negotiate the 3rd floor for Mildred and I with privileges to use Aaron’s bathroom. Deal was struck between the three of us and with no objections from Soon, he got the first floor bedroom and the lower floor bathroom. So, the girls would share a room and here's what it looked like.






The 3rd floor also led to the terrace where we had wonderful views of neighborhood including the minaret of the Zaouia Moulay Idriss. In the distance, we could see the old city walls, one of the town’s castles and high up on a hill, the Merenid Tombs.


There was also a small pigeon coop sharing space on the terrace. Peeking inside the mesh walls of the cage, I could see some very pretty pigeons roosting inside. These were not your usual, ordinary gray pigeons that you see flocking the city. Ahmed said that he would let them out tomorrow morning so hopefully we’ll get to see them. I’m guessing they’re not trained carrier pigeons but they know where *home* is.

On the way up to the 3rd floor, we noticed a washing machine on the 2nd floor and there were clothes lines on the terrace. Perfect opportunity to get laundry done!

Sayeed brought the tea up on a tray and set it down on the table. As we gathered around, Ahmed handed out registration papers that we needed to fill in. He also gave us a map as well as a sheet of paper that had basic phrases in Arabic and French. Always handy to have these two bits of information on hand.

On the map, he marked where the riad was. It was exactly where I had identified it before coming. I told him we wanted to find a place to grab a bite since it was already early afternoon and none of us had had breakfast so I was certain that at least the guys were hungry. He pointed out a location on the map with a restaurant that he recommended – Sakaya. He said that it was marked by a sign so we should be able to find it.

"No time to waste "
I asked him to point out how to get to Bou Bjloud which is the most famous landmark in Fez and as I had read, you just need to go along either one of the two main streets that run through the medina to get there. Of course, for him, navigating the streets and alleyways of the medina is second nature since he lives here but I figured that for us it would be a challenge and therein, an adventure and the fun!

Full of enthusiasm for whatever lay before us, the four of us headed out the door.  The guys immediately started referring to map and guiding us out to the *main* street of the medina.  It only took a split second before I was taking in all the hustle and bustle that was going on all around me.  I'm loving every minute I'm here.

It seemed like we had barely put our feet onto the street before we had our first encounter with young men sidling up to one of us and asking where were headed because they could take us there....(for a fee of course).  Despite the fact that we had no idea where we were going, we told them we knew, trying to brush them off firmly but quickly so we could make our way.  If this is typical of Fez, it's going to start grating on my nerves very quickly.

"Lunch! "
Despite the lack of any help from a local, without a single misstep and eyes like hawks, we found Restaurant Sakaya! Greeting us at the door was a young man, whom we would soon come to know as Hamza.  Hamza led us up several sets of narrow steps to the rooftop terrace where there were a handful of tables.

It was a beautiful day to be lunching al fresco. We found a table, by the corner of the rooftop. 

For some reason, there were a lot of flies hovering over our table.  Thinking maybe it was the sun attacting them, we moved to another table, located in the shade.








We looked at the menus all the while soaking in the view around us.  Tajines, brochettes....typical Moroccan fare.  I settled for a kefta (meatball) tajine which was something I had not yet had so I decided to give it a try.  It was mint tea for everyone.








While we waited for our food to arrive, Soon and I snuck down to the 2nd floor to have a look at the kitchen.  There, in a room that was barely than my kitchen, were two women and a man cooking.  One of the women was replace the large propane tank that fuels the stove.  Amazing that in this small space, meals for restaurant are cranked out.





It didn't take long for the food to arrive.  First course were the salads and Moroccan bread to accompany.  I particularly enjoyed the lentil one and the one with fava beans - I love stewed legumes!  Very tasty and the gray was perfect for soaking the bread in.

Our main courses followed pretty quickly.  Nothing fancy but it was tasty and filling







It also take long for us to welcome an uninvited guest, a cat.  We don't know if he was a stray or belong to the restaurant or lived in a near by building but one thing for sure.....he wanted food.  I ordinarily don't any four legged creature weaving in and around my legs but with a face like this, even I caved in. I only dropped a couple of tiny morsels of food as he was getting plenty from Aaron and Mildred.






Hamza turned out to be a very charming and seemingly honest, hard working young man.  At some point during our meal, he told us that his father worked in one of the tanneries and that he would be more than happy to take us there.  I definitely wanted to visit one so before we left, I got him to write down his contact information.  You never know when something like that would come in handy!

"To the Bab we go! " Although it was only mid-afternoon by the time we finished our late lunch, it is winter time and the day is short.  I figured we didn't have much time left before sun set so we quickly headed out and continued on our walk towards Bab Boujloud.  We had no idea how far we had to walk but I did know what the Bab looked like so at least I would when we had arrived :-)

The street was narrow and headed up hill.  Stores flanked both sides.  Shouts of *Konichiwa* filled the area around us as we walked. Yes, we Asians all look alike :-(  And, the omnipresent *Where are you going* guide would occasionally come up to us.

I was scanning all the shops to get an idea of what Fez has to offer in terms of handicrafts.  There were plenty of leather goods from shoes to poufs to jackets.  Woolen goods were also plentiful.  Of course, there were beautiful pottery items as well as metal goods like lamps and door knockers.  So many different things and so many shops, my head was beginning to spin.

"Not the strawberry I know "
Of course, food always catches my attention, particularly stuff that is unfamiliar to me.  First thing to catch my eye were little round fruit that were being sold in small paper cones.  When I first saw them, I thought they were lychees but on closer look, I realized there weren't.  None of the other three were interested in trying the fruit so I bought a small cone to try out.  I asked the vendor how to eat them and basically he just bit into the fruit so that's what I did.  There was a slight sweet, perfume to the flesh....something like a raspberry though milder.  The flesh was slightly yellow in color and pepper with tiny seeds.  The texture was soft and slightly mealy.  Very interesting taste sensation.  I had no idea what I was eating but it wasn't bad.

Afterwards, thanks to one of my Facebook friends, I learned that the fruit is called chachnou and it is the fruit of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). In Morocco, the fruit may also be called bukhannou, sasnou, asasnou, or wasasnou, as well as by its French name, arbouse.

The strawberry tree is native to the Mediterranean and in Morocco, it is found in the mountainous regions near Marrakech, Fes, Tangier and Tetouan. In the fall, the small fruits begin changing color from white to yellow to orange and finally to red, which indicates ripeness. Due to the fact that it spoils quickly and has a short season, chachnou is mostly enjoyed by locals so I was very lucky to have come across it.

"Snacking on snails"
Barely before I had swallowed my last chachnou when I came across the snail vendor.  Snail!  I had read that they were a *must try* in Marrakech so I wasn't expecting to see them here but what a nice surprise.  Of course, I must try them and of course, none of my three travel mates would.  So, one bowl for me.

The snails are small brown-and-cream banded snails known as babouche which just so happens to be the same word as the one for the leather shoes they sell here so when the vendor called them babouche, I was at first confused.  By regardless of the name, for Moroccans a bowl of snail soup is considered a great restorative so I must give it a taste test.  Picking out the snails with a toothpick was pretty easy and the soup was surprisingly tasty....a little peppery and I think there were herbs used in the cooking but I couldn't figure out what they were.  No matter, I drank up everything :-)


Okay, back to business.  We still have to make to Bab Boujloud.  More walking. More stores and things to look at.  Lots of things.  More shouts of *konichiwa* to ignore.  I was starting to get numb to all the annoying stuff.

"The Blue Gate of Fez"
Eventually, we made it to a gate but was it Bab Boujloud. I would only know if I walked through it and looked at it from the other side.  And it was!  It looked like a small tour bus of European tourists had just arrived so we patiently waited for them to thin out before taking our photos.  Unfortunately, the sun was starting to set so we really needed them to hustle along!


Through the Bab, I could see the minaret of the Medersa Bou Inania which was also on my itinerary of places to see in Fez.  That would have to be tomorrow.

Blue is the color of Fez so the Bab Boujloud is blue on side that faces out. It's also why Westerners refer to it as the Blue Gate.  On the medina side, Boujloud is green which is the color of Islam.


The sun was going down fast so we agreed to come back tomorrow to see the Boujloud in brighter light.  For now, we wanted to start making our way back to Dar Sienna.
"We weren't quite ready to call it a day  " so we strolled along the medina.  We made two stops to pick up food.  The first was at a butcher where I bought several links of chicken sausage and of merguez.  Since we had a kitchen, we figured we could cook them up for breakfast or if there was a case of the late night munchies.  The next stop was at the olive vendor.  So many different varieties so we had him mix and match a selection for us.  


There are two main streets that run through the medina.  From Dar Sienna to Boujloud, we walked one route.  On the way back, we took the other route.  I just hoped we would find our way back in this maze of narrow, unmarked streets.  Yes, if there are street signs in the medina, they are most certainly not easy to spot :-)


We soon found ourselves standing outside a European style cafe, the view of the pastries under the glass counter luring us in. We headed inside and were led into a very eclectically decorated room that looked like it might have once been the living room of a riad.  I wanted to make sure I could sleep tonight so I passed on the caffeine but the other three ordered their warm drinks.  Seated nearby were some customers who had brought in their own guitars and were strumming and singing to the music.  Sounded like they were Spaniards which would make sense as we were seated inside the Barcelona Cafe.  It was nice entertainment.

The bill for the drinks came served with four tiny pastries.  Very nice.  Definitely give this place two thumbs up and if we have the chance to come back, I think we will.

Back outside to the medina we went.  By now, most of the stores had closed up and the streets had a very empty and eery feel to them.

Thanks to our expert navigators, Soon and Aaron, we made it back to Dar Sienna.

"Back at Dar Sienna " we unwound from the day.  There is no TV here but the WiFi strength is good and that was enough to keep everyone, who wanted to surf the web, happy.  Aaron decided to break into some oranges.....it would be the first of countless.  It didn't take long for Soon to get glued to his tablet.  Mildred was watching a movie on her Mac and I've been writing this posting.  Feels like everyone is at home.  Nice.

Fez and I fit like hand in glove.  I hope tomorrow will be another day filled with new and interesting experiences.  But for now, it's bed time.

Goodnight Fez!