Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. You can use the search function in the upper left corner of this screen to look for particular destinations. You can also simply scroll through the more than 100 postings. Or you can click on one of the terms below to find postings on a variety of topics and destinations.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Morocco: The Most Intriguing Medina Is in Fez

 
Outside a mosque in the old medina.


We were given sprigs of mint leaves to hold to our noses when we visited the Chouwara tannery where huge vats are used to remove fur, treat skins and eventually to dye them. Pigeon droppings are among the substances used to turn animal skins into beautiful leather for shoes, handbags, luggage, belts and other goods, all on view in sales rooms where the tour ends. Jane left with a pair of shoes.
    It was just one of the places a professional guide showed us during two half-day tours. The first afternoon he took us around the vast old medina, known as Fez el Bali, home to the tannery and the world's oldest university.  It's more confusing than Marrakesh's medina, which has the huge square as a point of reference, and its sometimes steep streets and passages and blind alleys are narrower. The covered sections are larger and darker. Later, we tried to return to a weavers' shop that he had shown us and could not find it. The lesson learned was to buy something when first seen because you may not come this way again.
    The next morning, he took us to the "new" medina, Fez el Jedid, which was established in the 13th century. Here we found the mellah or Jewish quarter and visited a synagogue. We were told that 134 families were members. We didn't visit it, but we learned that there's a museum in Fez el Bali known as Maimonides's house, presumably where the great rabbi-physician-philosopher lived during his time in Morocco in the 12th century.

For the itinerary of our three weeks in Morocco
and links to hotels, click HERE.

    Elsewhere in Morocco we relied on The Rough Guide to Morocco and whatever maps our riads could give us as we explored medinas on our own, sometimes finding what we wanted to see and sometimes not. Using a guide in Fez, we saw and learned about things that we hadn't known existed. Fez is the one city that everyone visiting Morocco should see -- even if it means skipping Marrakesh -- and using a guide for a morning or an afternoon is the way to see and understand it.
     Morocco has had  four imperial capitals, and Fez is the oldest. With more than a million residents, it nevertheless feels smaller than Marrakesh, which had a couple hundred thousand fewer residents, and it feels much older. Walking the narrow passageways in the medina seems akin to time travel. The people around you are working and shopping and praying much as their great-great-grandparents' did, albeit with cellphones. It is considered the most complete medieval city in the Arab world.
    Here we stayed at Riad Laaroussa, a 17th-century palace in Fez el Bali that has annexed a smaller neighboring house to become a relatively large inn. We stayed one night in the smaller house, which has a covered courtyard and pretty small rooms (at least ours was), because when we booked the larger rooms in the riad were not available our first night. After one night, we had arranged to move to a room in the big house, and we were pleasantly surprised to be upgraded to downright regal accommodations in the Grey Suite for our last two nights.  We had dinner at the riad twice (and, of course, all our breakfasts) in a surprisingly modern rooftop dining room, which is reached via the most challenging staircase we encountered in Morocco. I blamed those stairs for a lot of soreness, aches and pains. A lovely and warm swimming pool, on an outdoor terrace a few steps above ground level, offered some relief.
     One night, we dined at Dar Hatim, a home that a family has converted into a restaurant. It's deep in the old medina, thus very hard to find. The solution: a man from Hatim came to our riad and walked us to the restaurant, about 20 minutes away via noisy, crowded streets with so many turns that retracing our steps would have been impossible on our own. We were bringing a bottle of wine; Dar Hatim allows wine but doesn't provide it. Our escort grabbed the bottle from us and wrapped it in his jacket so that we wouldn't be seen with alcohol in the medina. His daughter-in-law was not only the waitress, she also made the chicken pastilla that was my dinner. Her mother-in-law made the steamed lamb that people at the next table ordered. Her husband's brother had made the intricately crafted ceiling in the dining room. With only three other tables of diners, it felt very much like dining in someone's home. Afterward, we were walked home through dark, quiet streets and passageways.
View from the upper dining level of the main floor at Cafe Clock in Fez 's old medina.
Among its culinary delights is a camel burger, which was quite good.

Our room, the Grey Suite, at Riad Laaroussa in the old medina.  Laaroussa is a 17th-century
 palace that has been wonderfully restored and converted into a posh inn. The room
 had modern heat and air-conditioning, but one night we enjoyed a fire in the fireplace.
 Note the interesting tile floor and the hotel slippers by the bed.

It's green on the medina side, but this is known as the Blue Gate.

 
The same gate, blue as seen from outside the old medina. The tower
in the distance is the minaret for Medersa Bou Inania, an Islamic
college or Koranic school that non-Muslims can visit.


The courtyard at the 14th-century Medersa Bou Inania, which is celebrated for the finely carved
dark cedar wood seen just below the eaves and in the many screens.

Tiles at Mederesa Bou Inania carry
religious writings.
The large Jardin Jnan Sbil offers shady walks, waterways with a turning waterwheel,
and a wealth of flora to contemplate, all a short walk from the crowded medinas.

This man, who said he was 92 years old, sells and
sharpens knives in the old medina.

A camel's severed head is used to signal that a butcher is offering fresh camel
meat in the old medina.

Vats hold various chemicals and concoctions (some involving pigeon droppings)
at the Chouwara tannery in the old medina.

These bronze doors at the royal palace complex in Fez give
some hint of the grandeur that may lie inside.

This active synagogue is in Fez el Jedid, the
"new" (13th-century) medina.

The rabbi at Aben Danan displays the synagogue's Torah.

Men worship in this main room in the synagogue. Women worship in a balcony. The
floor is the sort of tile pattern common throughout Morocco.

A museum that we were a bit surprised to find out about, but
which we did not visit.

A view into the foyer of a mosque in the old medina. This is the same mosque
that appears in the photo at the top of this posting.

Narrow and crowded streets such as this form a complicated maze that is the
old medina in Fez. Shops and stalls sell everything that a tourist is likely to want,
as well as most things that local residents need in their daily lives.

Morocco: Meknes and Volubilis

 
A highly decorated door at Riad El Ma in Meknes. 


  Meknes is a city I'd never heard of until we got interested in visiting Morocco. Meknes is largely the creation of Sultan Moulay Ismail, a brutal (but supposedly beloved) tyrant. He reigned for 55 years, until his death in 1727, and for some reason chose the provincial trading town of Meknes as his capital. He took marble and other stone from the nearby Roman ruins at Volubilis to build his city, which at its height had more than 50 palaces and 45 kilometers of exterior walls with 20 gates, one of which, the magnificent Bab Mansour, remains adorned with Roman columns brought intact from Volubilis.
     After his death, his buildings and walls remained, but the government, power, prestige and cachet moved on. What remains today are busy souks in a living and vibrant medina, the tomb of Moulay Ismail (the only shrine in the country that non-Muslims can visit), and a large student population that enlivens the French-flavored Ville Nouvelle, the more modern area outside the medina.

For the itinerary of our three weeks in Morocco
and links to hotels, click HERE

     We stayed two nights at Riad El Ma, a low-key but very comfortable inn in the medina. Even after a seven-hour drive, we arrived early enough on Wednesday, March 22, to explore the medina before a family-style dinner at El Ma. The other guests, a French father and son and a French-Belgian couple who were in Meknes completing the adoption of their year-old son from an orphanage, made for a pleasant evening of conversation over traditional Moroccan tajines.
       A good portion of our one full day in Meknes was spent visiting Volubilis, the ruins of one Imperial Rome's furthest outposts, complete with triumphal arch, temple, forum and private homes. Some of the mosaics rival those of Pompeii. We also briefly visited Moulay Idriss. The town is named for its founder -- who also founded the first Arab dynasty and is considered an important saint. His mausoleum is the focus of the town, and non-Muslims are not allowed to visit. Indeed, there's little in this town to attract western tourists other than the view of it you get  from four kilometers across a valley in Volubilis. Its white buildings crowning a steep green hill make it look like the pilgrimage site that it is.
     Here are some photos:
A narrow gate keeps cars out of  the Medina in Meknes. This street connected
the medina with the Ville Nouvelle.

Our room at Riad El Ma is called the White Suite. 

A water course runs from the reception area and dining room
at Riad El Ma to the fountain in the open-air courtyard.

View from our room into the courtyard at Riad El Ma.

The forum at Volubilis as it is approached from the entrance to the site,
which has a modern museum explaining Roman provincial culture. Roman rule
here lasted from around 40 A.D. (the reign of Claudius) to 285 A.D. (the reign
of  Diocletian) when the garrison was withdrawn.

Corinthian columns of the basilica or courthouse.

This is one of a series of mosaics depicting the labors of Hercules. I'm not sure, but
I think this is meant to be his capture of the Ceryneian Hind, the deer that could
outrun an arrow. 

The triumphal arch was built in 217 A.D. to honor
Emperor Caracalla.

The town of Moulay Idriss as photographed from Volubilis.

The main square in Moulay Idriss. The larger arch
to the left leads to the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss,
a saint and an important figure in Arab as well as
Moroccan history. His tomb, off limits to non-Muslims,
draws many visitors to the town.