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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fes, Morocco: Scams, Dars and the Medina

Deep in the Medina, Fes
 Travel Date 1st - 3rd July 2013

The Ibis was basic but good value and I slept well – which is my main criteria for a good hotel room. It was a short walk after checking out to the Tangier ONCF rail station. There was no difficulty being understood by the booking clerk for my first class ticket to Fes for 155 Dirhams (~$20) for the next train in about an hour. I had time for a chicken and vegetables item similar to a samosa, with a coffee for breakfast. Rail travel is so much less hassle than air travel.


I will write more about trains in Morocco in the next post. For most of the five hour trip I had the clean, comfortable and pleasantly air-conditioned six-seat 1st class compartment to myself. For the final hour I was joined by a mother with a quiet baby and a young man who spoke good English and was very helpful with information. I'll mention him more shortly. He helpfully arranged for a driver to pick me up to take me to my accommodation in the Medina on arrival.

La Source Bleue Dar Atrium
I booked La Source Bleue months before after research on the web and email discussions with their representative Youssef. My choice was partly based on reviews but mainly on his good command of English and assurances of a pleasant stay. This was one of those occasions when internet bookings don't always work out. There appeared to have been a change of management, Youssef was no longer there and the owner and manager had no English. We ended up communicating via Google translate on pedestrian wi-fi. The air-conditioner in the room I had booked did not work, but it took an hour of increasingly strained discussions to convince Mohamed that it was only blowing hot air on a 40C day. The second room offered was up thirty stairs. 
 

The Dar was gloriously over-decorated with some sections displaying quite stunning mosaics and craftsmanship. Although I appreciated the decor my main need was a good night's rest. The room I eventually accepted for that night had a lumpy bed, poor privacy and no TV – but a working aircon. They had difficulty understanding why I departed the next morning and, because the initial booking was for three nights, demanded a higher one-day rate than I was prepared to pay. I paid the cash I felt was due and left. I walked to several possible Dars and Riads on the first afternoon, but found most were already booked or were much too expensive. I booked the Splendid Hotel on the web. It was OK but did not live up to its name. At least I slept well there.

For dinner I enjoyed a delicious tagine at a restaurant on Rcif Square, a short walk from the Dar. Apparently the difference between a Dar and a Riad is the atrium. A Riad has a garden in the centre and is usually a grander building. 


The Dar was about four storeys high, with a flat roof where breakfast was served. These are views from the breakfast table.


Hotels and transport are really side issues. I mention the occasional problems of travel but they do not deter me from enjoying my journeys. They are just annoyances along the way and become less as I learn from each experience in a new country. I learned quite a lot in Fes, especially about bait-and-switch con men. 

 

I was there to see and experience the medina. It did not let me down. On my first afternoon I wandered the medina alone, being careful to note my bearings and location. I managed not to get lost. On my second day I had a guide who grew up in the medina.

 
 
In Saudi Arabia Medina is a city. It is the site of the tomb of Muhammad and the second most holy city of Islam. However, in the Arabic-speaking cities of North Africa the medina is the ancient quarter of the city. Each of the cities I visited – Tangier, Fes, Meknes, Moulay Idriss and Casablanca – had its own medina but Fes was the most interesting and possibly the least changed by modern times.

The medina of Fes is a vibrant, living community, with some modern conveniences, in streets, alleys and houses that have changed very little for a thousand years. There is electricity, indoor plumbing, TV and occasional air-conditioning but apart from that many of the people here appear to live in a time-warp. There are tens of thousands of streets and alleys; one guide said ten thousand, another 30,000. Even if they were exaggerating a little, there is no doubt that navigating the back alleys of Fes would make the labyrinth look simple. Often I found what looked like a building built over an alley was another alley crossing above – and there would be several other levels criss-crossing above that.

Once we left the main streets cars were banned and even scooters and motorbikes were fewer. The main means of transport, apart from feet, are donkeys and mules: the Medina Taxis.



I saw mules carrying everything from incredible loads of cement bags and bricks for builders, to elderly ladies and sometimes a whole family of mum and kids. I learned quickly to watch where I stepped, but that was natural anyway because there seems to be a cultural aversion to building anything, especially a lane, on flat ground in a medina. I also learned to react quickly to the call 'attention' (to Aussie ears: a-ten-see-on!) when loaded mules were approaching unseen. Everywhere is up or down, nowhere is flat, with frequent steps when the slope became excessive. Most lanes are cobbled or irregularly paved, so it was wise to watch my step for that reason too.

I reckon that a Berber building a new town on flat ground would probably build a hill before the first house was built.


Remember that helpful young bloke on the train? Even the most experienced tourist can be sucked in. He explained that his wife worked in a travel agency. After a chat about prices he convinced me to let him arrange a lift to the hotel and a guide for the next day.

He rang his wife at the agency and passed the phone to me. I gave her my name and accommodation (Dar) address. I was duly met by 'John' at the Fes station on arrival. He took me in a beautiful air-conditioned Mercedes to the limit for vehicles in the Rcif Square and then helped me find La Source Bleue, my accommodation, in the medina.

So far no cash had changed hands. Abdou, in the train, had told me the total price for the lift to the Dar and a day's sight-seeing the next day with a guide would be 100 to 150 dirhams (~$12 to $20). I thought that was very cheap, but he reassured me it was the going rate.

I was still unconvinced about the low price so I asked John as we travelled to the Dar. He responded with “we'll discuss money at the end of the tour”. I said that without a clear knowledge of the price there would be no tour. Eventually his answer was 400 dirhams ($50) for that evening's lift, a car the next morning and the guide for the morning and afternoon. Although I was not impressed at the quadrupling or tripling of Abdou's advised price, that sounded fair so I agreed and expected to see him the following morning at the Dar. 


Experience is a great teacher. Next time I'll know. I should have paid him off there and found another guide the next day.

In the morning a different man arrived, also named Abdou although he said that was his nick-name, not his real name. After going through the same “we'll discuss money later” routine he eventually said the driver and car in the morning was an extra 200 dirhams so the total would be 600. At that point I asked how much I owed for the lift to the Dar the night before, advising him that I would pay for only that and make my own arrangements to tour Fes.

After some confusion he decided to charge 400 including the driver as I had originally agreed with John. I gave in and agreed.

The morning tour in the car was interesting, seeing the medina from points outside the old city and also seeing some of the old forts and the exterior of the royal castle. It got a bit messy after that. 


My usual view of my guide - his back.

We left the car before midday. I asked for a typical Moroccan cafe or restaurant for a soup or small tagine for lunch (I told him I eat very small lunches). He took me through a multitude of winding alleys to a 'tourist trap' Dar restaurant with grossly inflated prices for a set four-course lunch. 



He then disappeared out the back for his complimentary 'I brought you a tourist' lunch. I renegotiated lunch with the waiter to be a chicken tagine at a more reasonable price, with no other courses, and for 120 dirhams was given the only tough, dry tagine I ate in Morocco. 

I had asked Abdou to travel slowly. I can walk miles up and down hills if left to my own pace. I easily did my 10,000 steps most days on this trip. But, despite usually trying to forget my venerability I sometimes have to grudgingly accept that I am a sexagenarian who can no longer walk quickly for hours, and certainly not in a winding medina up and down steps and steep slopes. He had problems with that and tended to stride out and would wait impatiently after he turned corners so I would lose sight of him. He didn't want that to happen as I did not pay until the finish. It was a nuisance, as I was constantly hurrying to keep up and often did not hear his talk over his shoulder about the points of interest. 


To be fair, we did see all of the major points of interest in the medina and, when I could catch up and hear him, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the place. The famous tanneries were a highlight. The complimentary sprigs of mint for crushing under one's nose were essential. The guide told me that they now use chemicals rather than urine in the tanning process. Personally, I don't believe that because the odour was similar to the gents lavatory at half time at a crowded football match.

  
After the tanneries he took me to several of the obligatory craft shops and museums with items for sale.


I know those visits are part of the deal in these situations and I enjoy wandering through the shops or museums looking at the exhibits. The items on display were very interesting. Some appeared to be quite old and many were jeweled. I am not qualified to speculate on their value, which is one of the reasons I never buy from these places. I also travel very light and do not gather souvenirs. Most of the shop owners accepted that graciously, but my guide wasn't very impressed at the lack of commissions.

  
After further unsuccessful attempts to slow him down I gave up at 1:30 and asked him to take me to the Rcif so we could call it quits. 

A market in the medina - and my guide again.
I told him I would pay him cash there and go back to my hotel. He decided he would call his friend instead to take me to the hotel. I would have preferred a Petit Taxi but could not persuade him. Eventually his friend arrived: the original Abdou from the train.

I paid Abdou mark 2 and got in the car. From there to the hotel Abdou mark 1 tried to persuade me to go to Moulay Idriss and Volubilis the next day using their tour services. He could not quite understand why I declined, despite me making my feelings about the unsatisfactory experience very clear.

They run a smooth tag-team operation. Yes, even the most experienced can be sucked in. I actually followed his advice, in a sense. I took the train to Meknes the following morning, then a Grand Taxi to Moulay Idriss and made my own way to Volubilis.


Despite the problems with my guide I managed to enjoy my visit to the medina over the two days, soaking in the atmosphere and the sounds, smells and sights of a culture quite different to Europe and East Asia.

Cheers, Alan

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