Morocco Beckons: Lost in Fez

My alarm barely made a peep before I switched it off and got up. I brushed my teeth and got dressed, putting on my jacket and scarf. It was sure to be cold out.

I unlocked the double doors separating my room from the breakfast room, trying not to let them creak. Stepping out, I was surprised to see Mohammed asleep before me on a breakfast-room bench.

He stirred, looking up at me as I entered the common area. I had no idea he’d be there and felt terrible for disrupting his sleep. But he put his head back down as swiftly as he had raised it. I shut the door behind me, heading out the adjacent entrance to the stairwell leading up. Up. Up.

It was pitch dark. I didn’t dare switch on one of the lights, so I used the display of my phone to see my way up the narrow stairs.

After a careful ascent, I stepped into the cold, fresh air. It was still dark, just beginning to show signs of light. And it was quiet. Shapes began forming as the dimness dissipated. Deeply breathing the crisp air, I enjoyed my solitude up there immensely.

Eventually I was rewarded with the early bird’s worm. Or something rather more appealing: magnificent views in hues that kept changing. The sun peered over, then mounted the horizon.

And the horizon glowed.

Another guest of the hostel emerged, but we both honored the silence befitting such majesty — each at our own end of the terrace.

I was happy for my morning coffee and breakfast once the time had come. And after, the local guide arrived promptly at the pre-arranged time.

He, also, was called Mohammed.

Mohammed, my guide through the Fez Medina. Not to be confused with the Mohammed that I met in Germany or the Mohammed who works in the Riad Palais Yazid. Spoiler Alert: more Mohammeds to come!

I showed him the old address, briefly explaining the story of my quest. He examined the English transliteration and explained that the address was somewhere outside of Fez. That I would need to hire a driver to help me find the location. Perhaps Abdul could help me arrange this?

Okay, I thought. That’s more than I knew before. For now, though, Mohammed would take me on a walking tour of the ancient Medina of Fez.

We saw many things: colorful mosaics, markets, mosques, craftsmen, and a Koranic school for children. He pointed out the symmetry in the decor, explaining the importance of numbers in the geometric designs as well as the complexity of a 16-point pattern. And he was patient as I took my photographs. We wandered through narrow and wide alleys, some in poorer areas of the medina, some in more affluent.

Dead end or a road leading somewhere? It’s hard to tell until you reach the turn. Or the dead end.  
A magical place to get lost, though.
70 Dirhams ($7) for a fancy pair of shoes!

I stopped to take digital souvenirs of the real ones.

Only ten Dirhams for a fridge magnet. That’s approx. one USD.
I looooooove ooooooolives.
But I’m not a big fan of decapitated camel…
Not sure what’s in those tubs either, but it doesn’t look very appetizing.
Somewhere there’s a burger with this camel’s name on it.

Mohammed took me to a textile workshop, where artisans make scarves, djellabas, rugs, and more. Djellabas are long, loose-fitting robes, traditionally made of wool that typically have a pointed hoodie. (Or at least the ones I saw did.)

The first time I saw someone wearing a djellaba, I thought maybe it signified membership in some religion I did not know. But they’re actually everywhere, I realized. Djellabas are Amazigh (ethnic indigenous people of North Africa) dress, and once you start traveling around Morocco, you will see many locals donning them.

Wondering what they look like? Check out the dude by the decapitated camel above! There are some beautifully adorned djellabas for women too. I wish I had purchased one, now looking back in hindsight. [Edit: I realized after publishing that the women’s dress is actually called a Kaftan.]

At the textile workshop, one of the vendors wrapped me up in a scarf!

Dude trying to sell me a scarf wrapped me up in it! I bought two.
Exiting the workshop, one must proceed with caution through a tiny door.
Pic of the Kingdom of Morocco’s main man: King Mohammed VI.
We passed beautiful, colorful shops along the way.

There were street cats all over the place. I was told that instead of rats, Fez has cats. I know which of the two I’d prefer.

A feline in Fez: Moroccan street cat

Then Mohammed took me to a leather shop overlooking the tannery. I didn’t want to buy any leather, but it was interesting to see. The stench is noteworthy, so they give you a lovely little bouquet of fresh mint to take up with you. I love mint.

Mint bouquet on a sunny day!
Look closely to see the tannery, behind me on the left.
Another tannery pic! Which of these two should I keep for this blog post? 😉

The stench was strong! The views were great! I didn’t buy any leather.

The minaret of a Moroccan mosque in the distance. Green tiles decorate the minarets in Fez.

On the way back, we also passed an older gentleman making colorful little leather camels, and I couldn’t resist — I purchased this mini souvenir!

From Saharan deserts to my dining-room table. Epic little journey for this camel!

Once our tour was over, I thanked and paid Mohammed, and he brought me back to the Riad Palais Yazid. The other Mohammed — hostel-employee Mohammed — poured me a cup of hot mint tea. It was refreshing.

Sipping my tea and nibbling on a fruit and nut bar, I sat a while observing some of the other travelers in the breakfast room — travelers from a variety of places: the Netherlands, France, Spain. I briefly chatted with an American woman getting ready to leave Fez. It just so happens that she, too, lives in the Seattle area! I love experiencing those small-world moments while traveling abroad.

I thought about what I should do next. I would chat about the possibility of hiring a driver once Abdul was back in the hostel later. Since it was still fairly early in the day I decided to explore some more on my own. After all, I was navigator level: expert, apparently. Ha! 

After finishing my tea, I headed in the direction of Cafe Clock, so I could get back to the main pedestrian street I had walked along the evening before. This time though, instead of heading left on that “main road,” the Rue Talaa Kebira, I took a right.

I kept going for a while, marveling at the shops and sights along the way. I recognized some of the archways and a square I’d seen on my tour with Mohammed. Although I was a bit timid in my interactions, I managed to buy postcards from an elderly, white-haired gentleman who kept speaking to me in French. He was very nice, although I hardly understood much of what he said.

Then I came to an area that looked quite interesting and contemplated diverging from the “main road” to explore this other section of the medina. I studied the intersection so that I might remember it on my return.

That’s when a young man outside a shop started chatting with me. His English was sufficient for some communication. He asked if I would like to go to an area with a fantastic view of the medina, including a view to a tomb where a prominent founder of Fez had been buried centuries earlier.

I didn’t get any weird vibes from the kid. Plus he was pretty young, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. Hmmm. “A tomb with a view?” Well that offer might not replicate itself. Off we went.

So much of travel is about trusting in strangers, I thought. And thus far in my life, I hadn’t been let down in any significant way. Knock on plastic.

I followed the youngin through a literal labyrinth of passageways, up and down steps, left here, right there. I couldn’t keep track of the turns we had taken. I was pushing it to keep up with him, and I’m a pretty fast walker. We entered a completely different area of the medina from where Mohammed had taken me that morning.

There’s no way I would ever be able to find my way back on my own, I thought, and kept following the kid. 

Finally we made it to an open expanse above the medina, onto a hill overlooking the labyrinth. Off in the distance were some impressive structures: the Marinid Tombs. 

I spy with my little eye tombs of the Marinid Dynasty — o’er yonder, above my head and slightly to the left.

According to Wikipedia, these are giant tombs possibly containing royal members or other important officials, which date to the Marinid Dynasty (the ruling dynasty of Morocco from 1244 to 1465), and which overlook the twelve-hundred-year-old Medina of Fez.

The same viewpoint from a different angle with the tombs out of sight. There was no barrier between where I stood and the possibility of plummeting to my death onto the highway below. I was extra careful not to trip to my death during this shot.

We saw the tombs from where we stood, and also the medina — although the light at that time of day didn’t lend itself to great photography.

There’s my impromptu tour guide! Nope, not the hide-bearing donkey. The kid off in the distance, on the left.
The kid was nice enough to take a bunch of pics of me. Bonus: he didn’t run off with my camera!

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the place on which we stood was actually a graveyard. It wasn’t until the moment of zooming in on Google Earth in order to write this story — trying to figure out where the heck that kid had taken me — that I noticed I had been walking amongst the dead that day.

Standing in a graveyard overlooking the ancient medina.
Another shot of the graveyard. There was a lot of garbage around.

I should also mention the drying died hides! At the leather shop I had visited above the tannery that morning, they had spoken about the dying process. The hides are died in vibrant colors and then lain out to dry. And here they were, spread across the hillside to dry: drying died hides.

The drying died hides! It has a nice ring to it.
A few drying died hides with a view of the tombs in the distance and birdies flying above!

Then we went back down into the maze. We passed some kids playing outside; their mom was hard at work. A universal concept.

That’s not the mom in the picture. That’s a man carrying hides. The mom was in the doorway out of sight.

My teen chaperone asked if I wanted to visit his family’s argan-oil shop. I politely declined. After walking a bit further he stopped, asking for payment for the excursion. I gave him some money, but he wasn’t quite satisfied. He highlighted the fact that he’d taken me quite a ways up to a unique place I could not have found on my own. That was true. I gave him some more money.

Unfortunately, he didn’t deposit me where he had picked me up. Instead, he told me, pointing ahead, “this road leads back down to the main road.” Hmmm. I was skeptical. He was gone.

I trekked down the road, which looked much like the one pictured above with the children, except it led downward. Well, at least this will be interesting, I thought. One of the things I love about travel is the feeling of heading off into the unknown. That’s exactly what I was doing.

Well I walked and walked and walked and had no idea where I was. It was still daytime. The thing about being lost in Fez is not to worry too much about it. (Just bring coins!) 

Eventually a couple of boys — maybe ten or twelve years old — made it their duty to bring me back to Riad Palais Yazid. I gave them some coins. They wanted more. We haggled. I gave them more. Maybe I’m not as good at this haggling thing as I once thought. 

Back at the riad, I was happy for some more tea. And Abdul made an appearance — the English-speaking manager of the riad whom I’d spoken with on the phone a couple of times. He sat beside me and asked how I was. Then, “tell me,” he said, looking at me intently, “what is this address you want to go to?” 

Abdul! Them shoes!

Abdul reminded me of some wheeler-dealer character out of a movie. But not in a bad way. He’s got a lot going on! Always organizing something. I told him the story of my Moroccan father and the old address.

He searched Google Maps and after some time, showed me the area on the map where he thought the address might be. The name of the place was written in Arabic. I had only an English transliteration, so I didn’t know if it actually matched up. I had to rely on Abdul for this.

The address doesn’t actually have any house numbers, like addresses I’m used to at home. “How would we find the place without a house number?” I wondered. Abdul told me the place is likely in a very rural area about 40 or 50 kilometers to the East of Fez.

He said I would need to go with a driver who could help with investigating and navigating. He said I’d need a good driver who speaks English and who could be trusted to help me find the place. He would organize such a driver for me.

“This is very important in our culture,” Abdul continued, looking at me earnestly.

Then he got on the phone, back in wheeler-dealer mode, found the right driver, and finally he named the price — which wasn’t totally outrageous, but wasn’t exactly cheap either.

Abdul stressed again that I’d need someone who spoke Arabic, who could help me, who could stay with me for the day. We didn’t know how long the trip would take, after all. If we were able to find my birth-father’s relatives, we wouldn’t immediately turn around and come back. We would want to stay. This takes time. And it costs money to hire a trustworthy driver for the day. 

“If you find them, they will want you to stay. They won’t let you leave right away. You will see.” 

I agreed. What else would I do?

I thanked Abdul for his help, glad finally to have a more concrete plan lined up for the following morning. And I realized I was famished.

Time to head back to Cafe Clock!

It took me a little longer to find the café-restaurant this time around, but I made it there and was glad. I ordered the fig & blue cheese salad with candied walnuts and capers. And another smoothie. It was so nice to sit amidst the beautifully colored walls and aromatic smells and simply to relax.

Finally, it was time to head back to the riad so that I could get a good night’s sleep for my big day tomorrow. It was dark. I walked home, fairly confident of the way.

Time passed, though, and I still wasn’t home. The streets no longer looked familiar either. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

I got my phone out, keeping an eye on the elusive blue dot. But the dot kept deceiving me! Or at least it never was where I thought it should be. I passed two young men and a woman chatting under a street lamp. They offered their services, but I declined adamantly, determined to find the way on my own. Didn’t they realize I was navigator level: expert? They let me go.

I walked and walked, but the blue dot kept getting further from the destination. Then: an impasse. The street I had chosen had no exit. It may as well have been called Rue de Hotel California.

I was hoping to find another way out, so that I could save myself from the embarrassment of having to pass the girl and two young men again, acknowledging my defeat. But after multiple failed attempts, I realized that the only way out of this tangle was the way in which I had come. Perhaps that’s why the three stood there?

They insisted on helping me find my way back. “Put your phone away,” one of the men said, “it won’t help.” I gave in and followed them down a long series of twists and turns before we finally made it to Riad Palais Yazid.

I’d veered much further off course than I had thought. It was late now, and they asked for money. I hardly had any coins left at this point. I gave what I could. They wanted more. “We are students,” the young man said. But that was all I could offer.

As we parted ways, I was feeling slightly frustrated, but glad to be home. What on earth had happened to my expert-level navigation skills? I had been unable to replicate the navigatory success of the evening before, not even once!

Yep, when you get too cocky, the universe has a way of bringing you down a notch. I’d better get some sleep, I thought. Tomorrow will be a big day.


Please join me for the final part of my “Morocco Beckons” pentalogy!

If you're like me, you had no idea what pentalogy meant until just Googling it. "What is the term for a trilogy with five parts?" I asked The Google. "Pentalogy!" The Google answered.

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What lesson has the universe taught you recently? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments section!

4 thoughts on “Morocco Beckons: Lost in Fez”

  1. Teaching of the week for me: Don’t waste a second chance!
    Don’t ask. Lol.
    Remarkable that you made it to and back and to and back and most importantly, to. 💖U

    1. Hi Karin! I hope the second chance is working out well for you! Whatever it may be! Much love! 🙂

  2. Hi Steff, the stallholder picked a very fine scarf to offer you, based on your outfit for the day. I am having trouble with your picture challenge: the second one shows you ‘up close’. The tannery doesn’t come out in intelligible detail in either one. The first photo shows more of that part of Fez. We have other fine images of you…so I would go with the ‘more of Fez’ shot.

    1. Thanks for your input, Jim! Yes, unfortunately I didn’t have any very good picture of the tannery. Must go back and try again! 🙂

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