Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dr. Plotnick's Moroccan Cat Adventure - Day 5 - Fes

Day 5 – Goodbye Marrakech, Hello Fes.   (Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4)

Today is a bittersweet day.  We were sorry to say goodbye to fascinating Marrakech, but excited to check out Fes.  We woke up early, took one last look at our beautiful riad from our balcony, and one last look at the lovely balcony outside our door.

We bid Sara and her brother adieu.  Anyone traveling to Marrakech would be guaranteed an excellent time if they stayed at Riad Tamarrakecht.  Sara and her brother really made the trip a pleasure.

Now we’re off to the train station.  Track 3.  Destination: Fes.

Estimated time of arrival: 7 hours.  Ugh.

Actually, the train ride wasn’t too terrible.  My research said we should go first class, and so we did.  The price difference was a mere $12; it was $36 for a first class ticket, vs. $24 for second class.  In second class, the compartments hold eight people.  In first class, they hold six.  First class is air-conditioned.  Not sure if second class is.  Mark and I were lucky; our tickets said we each had the window seats.

We were the first people in the compartment, but remaining seats quickly filled up.  We shared our compartment with a retired couple from Montreal (the husband was born in Morocco), a young woman from Toronto traveling by herself, and an Muslim woman who tried to steal my window seat (but I wouldn’t let her.)

We all made pleasant conversation, until they all cleared out when we reached Casablanca.  We had the entire compartment to ourselves for the rest of the trip.

We finally got to the Fes station

 and were met by a driver holding up a sign that said “Riad No. 9”.  That’s us!

Part of the service you get when you book a room at Riad Numero 9 is being picked up at the airport, and then being taken right to the door of the riad. This was key, because Fes is a labyrinthine city of 9600 alleys, and finding the place would have been totally impossible.  Once we arrived at the door, we were met by Atika, the (very pregnant) housekeeper.  She greeted us warmly and led us inside.

Whoa!  The place was stunning.  Check out the back wall of the central courtyard area. 

 Here’s the doorway to a lovely sitting room off the main courtyard.

This fountain had incredible woodwork and tile work

Here’s the wood in detail.  

I chose Riad Numero 9 based on my research.  The place got rave reviews on TripAdvisor, and I saw a video about the place that really sold me on it. The video is taken from a segment that was broadcast on Home and Garden TV (HGTV).  Check it out yourself; it’s only about 3 minutes long.

The riad is owned by a native Philadelphian named Stephen di Renza.  He came to Morocco a few years ago, fell in love with the place, and decided to buy a riad.  He purchased this 18th century riad for a mere $36,000, and spent the next three years renovating it.  When you buy a riad in Fes, you’re not just buying a residence; you’re really buying art.  This residence was a masterpiece, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at it pre-renovation.  The floor tiles were covered with century’s worth of paint, and the beautifully detailed window frames were painted over with nasty turquoise paint.  Stephen had it all painstakingly restored, which took 3 years.

I struck up a nice e-mail correspondence with Stephen; I mentioned that he and Mark probably have a lot in common, in that they’re both from Philly, and that Mark is Vietnamese (Stephen lived in Vietnam for a while). I told him that I saw that he had a cat at the riad, and that I loved cats, and he told me that her name was Ruby and that she was friendly with the guests.  I also commented on the great reviews his place had received, especially the food.  He was flattered by my comments, and he offered me and Mark a complimentary dinner at the riad upon our arrival.  Well, let me tell you, of the ten dinners we ate in Morocco, the dinner at his riad was absolutely the best we’d had.  It was prepared by Atika’s sister, who also worked at the riad. In the center of the riad was a small square pool, adjacent to the little rectangular koi pond.  However, they weren’t using it as a pool.  Instead, they put a table over it, and in Asian style, they put cushions on the floor around it, and you eat at the table with your feet dangling into the (empty, of course) pool.

Dinner started with a little grouping of four different appetizers on the plate.

Then came the tagines: mine was chicken with olives, carrots and potatoes,

while Mark had the lamb with prunes.

We were also in for a very pleasant surprise. The riad has only three rooms, and we had booked the “middle” room; not the most palatial room, but not the most low-key room, either.  You really can’t go wrong with any of the rooms; all three rooms are beautiful.  Well, we were the only guests in the riad, so they upgraded us to the biggest room!  We had the entire third floor! 

Check it out! 

Totally fabulous. The room was huge, and wonderfully decorated with vibrant fabrics.  The mosaic tile floors were great. But the real stunner was the ceiling.  This is what we stared at every night from the bed.

 This view of the room really shows it all.

The window in the bedroom looks down onto the central courtyard.  Here’s the view from above. 

That’s a dining room table in the center, with four cushions around it.  We ate dinner and breakfast at this table for nearly every meal.  The best perk?  It comes with its own cat!

That’s Ruby, the cat that lives at the riad.  She’s adorable, and we became fast friends.

I had done a lot of research about Fes, and felt reasonably confident about trying to navigate my way around the maze-like medina.  But at night, the winding alleyways were said to be very confusing, and since we arrived in Fes at 6:00 p.m., we still had some of the day left for us to explore.  I had arranged for a tour guide to pick us up at our riad and show us the city at night.  The tour guide arrived at 7:00 and took us on our two-hour sojourn.

Immediately he took us through some crazy dark winding alley. 

We peered into a doorway along the alley and saw a local craftsman making decorative ceramic tagines.  

 On the floor in the corner was his impressive handiwork. 

Two days later (and more confident in my navigation), I found the place, and we bought a bunch of those little tagines for gifts/souvenirs.

He then led us to the famous tanneries.

The medieval Terrasse des Tanneurs is where leather is dyed, in the ancient dyeing vats of reds, yellows, and blues.  They’re unforgettable, not least because of their putrid smell.  The stench comes from bits of rotting animal flesh still stuck to the sheep, goat, cow, and camel skins, as well as from pigeon poop, which is used in the process.  Here you can see the different vats of dye in the foreground.

In the background are the vats of pigeon poop.  Way on the upper left are yellow skins drying on the rooftop.  A close-up of the yellow skins reveals a black and white cat snoozing amongst them.

I also saw some brown ones drying in the distance. 

After the skins go through the pigeon poop, they are put in the dyeing vats and are stomped on by the tanners.   It’s an ancient art, and the people doing it have been doing it for generations.

 The guys down there are used to the process and are not bothered by the smell, but let me tell you, the stench is really intense.

In fact, upon entering the tannery, an old guy hands you a sprig of mint, for you to smell, to counteract the stench.  Some folks stuffed a mint leaf into each nostril.  It was all very interesting, but of course there was a catch.  After the guy shows you the tannery, he leads you to his leather shop, where the hard sell is on.  Hundreds of shoes,



 ottomans (deflated),

 and jackets,

dyed naturally in the tanneries.  The tour guide undoubtedly gets a commission for leading us through this particular tannery.  We were not interested in purchasing anything he had to offer, and it was getting awkward, as he was really pushing it.  To his dismay, I stood my ground and said no, and all he could do was give us his card and hope we come back the next day, like we promised.  (We didn’t.)

Frankly, I was a little (well, very) disappointed in this tour.  It was supposed to be “Fes by Night”.  I chose this tour because Fes is confusing enough by day, but to the novice it would be nearly impossible to navigate at night, and I read that you should not wander down certain alleys at night, out of safety concerns.  The photos on the tour website showed nighttime scenes of Fes.  As it happens, the tour began at 7 p.m., and it was perfectly light out.  I was expecting some lively evening scenes, but alas, it was just the sites that I had planned to see the following day.  As a brief intro to the city, the tour was okay I suppose, but definitely overpriced, considering that it didn’t live up to the “night” expectation. 

Day 6
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