4. Morocco – Chefchaouan to Fez
Waving goodbye to the beautiful blue of Chefchauen, we headed over the Rif mountains towards Fez. A good road, very few other vehicles and lovely scenery – the 3.5 hours passed relatively easily.
Driving in Morocco was a concern before we left. Nobody wants to have an accident especially not in a 60 year old car. We have added seatbelts but we would certainly not crumple. The books all say the Moroccans are bad drivers but this has not been our experience. Vast potholes on the back roads and strange cambers have been much more dangerous than the other cars. On one occasion we discovered just in time that the donkeys on either side of the road were in fact tethered together by a rope running across it. This would have been fine, had their front legs not also been tied together thus they could only move very slowly out of the way of oncoming cars. We have since discovered that donkeys cost less than Euro 20 each but it would have been a horrid accident.
The sun was sinking as we approached the wonderful castellated walls of Fez. Looking like an incredible film set, the ancient medina (started in 900AD) beckoned us in the pre dusk orange light.
An old friend from Hong Kong had put us in contact with a mate of his who runs a couple of guesthouses in Fez as well as 4 WD tours around Morocco (Madaboutmorocco.com). We met up with Mark Willenbrock in the car park by the North Gate (Bab Guissa) of the Medina. We were hoping one of Mark’s guest houses might have room for us, but instead, Mark very kindly led us to a wonderful little house he manages called Dar (meaning house) Mignon (darmignon.com) It was indeed very mignon (sweet in French) with a tiny central courtyard going up three floors to a bougainvillea clad roof terrace. Beautiful tile work, beautiful woodwork, crisp white sheets and two incredible bathrooms with vast marble baths. Hector was so dwarfed in it, he looked like he was disappearing down a vast toilet!
As we looked over Fes medina from the roof terrace, Mark called someone to organise us a guide for the next morning, and showed us on a map key routes we should take on our Moroccan adventure – which piest (dirt roads) were good and where there were particularly beautiful valleys etc.
Amina arrived at 9.00am to give us a tour around the Medina. Her bossiness was just what we needed to chivey us down the twisting alleys. We had thought Tetouan was a maze but Fes medina was something else. 350,000 people live in the medina, which is over twice the size of Cambridge in an area that you can walk across in 20 minutes. It was rather like being in someone’s intestine, if you stretched out the twising alleys they would probably go round the globe 3 times or whatever the intestine statistic is. It sounds dreadful but it has to be one of the wonders of the world and we were inthralled by it. A mass of industrious humanity making everything possible in every square inch of space. Wonderful, magical place but not a place to be if Bird Flu ever actually materialises amongst us humans!
We had loved the Tetouan tannery but Fes’ was far bigger and a sight of bizarre beauty. We were given mint leaves to sniff to combat the pungent aroma of curing skin mixed with pigeon poo.
The oldest Univeristy in the world is in Fes and its right at the centre of the Median, surrounded by incredibly ornate Medrassas (Islamic schools – unlike a mosque, these are open to non muslims to visit and study in.)
I had briefed the kids on the hassle we would get from all the salesmen, touts, and passers by, so was astounded when we got absolutely none! The new king really has done wonders for clamping down on tourist harassment. The image of Morocco which still tarnishes the image for most people is the exhausting hassle one get, but I am delighted to say, that it has gone. In general people are delightful and very helpful, though if you do drop your guard you are very likely to be sitting in a carpet shop being strong-armed into an unwanted purchase. We were amused to see that the Moroccan police have equipped themselves with the last batch of Land Rover Defenders so we sneaked Kabylie up next to one in order to take a photo as she too had been a Police car 60 years ago in Algeria.
That night we moved to our pre-arranged guesthouse. It was the other side of the Medina and no one we asked seemed to even know the area. Petra who is our hotel reservation queen had booked it online and as the kids and I wandered through more and more dodgy looking areas of town we began to wonder if she had made a ‘rubber squid’ choice, (so called after one holiday in a Spanish mountain village I mistakenly ordered us a giant rubber squid and a sheeps bladder for lunch.) The streets became devoid of women and the buildings became occupied by mechanics, oil changers and car part workshops and we began to feel that we were being eyed up by more and more dubious looking characters. Suddenly from amongst the drab industrial surroundings, a sprig of bourganvillia beckoned us down a side street – Phew! It was our Riad and much to our amazement, it was very nice and totally incongruous to it’s surroundings and we could wedge Kabylie into the street outside.
We spent the next day wandering about Fes el Jedid New Fes which is not actually new at all but was the quartier built in the 14th century. I had a silver chain repaired in the Jewish quarter by a jeweller man who was stoned off his head and Tom and Hector visited a local barber. Tom’s bead trim made him look even more like a local and Hector finally got rid of his play-mobile haircut.
After breakfast on the terrace overlooking the strange mechanics quarter, we loaded up and headed South to Azrou and the Middle Atlas. We stopped for a patisserie in Ifrane, the ‘Switzerland’ of Morocco. The parks were so manicured that Petra and Hector were immediately told to get off the grass and there was a distinctly alpine feel about the place, which felt as bizarrely out of place as our guesthouse the night before. The patisseries however felt familiarly French and we rejoiced that though the country had been colonised by both the French and the Spanish, that the former had won the great colonial bake-off. We also took the opportunity to kit out for the desert!
We found a tiny campsite in Azrou, full of cherry trees and just got the tent up in time before a monumental storm lit the sky with sheet lightning. The thunder was so loud, we could not hear our audio-book but it was super cosy in our tent with the fat drops of rain drumming on the plastic above us. Our tent has its faults but it does not leak which given how much rain fell was quite an achievement!