29 June 2009

Salaam Fes

From Kristen:

The plane took off over the Mediterranean and I gripped both arm rests as hard as I could. “What are you doing?” I asked myself. “You were lucky in Turkey, this could be like India…are you ready for what could happen?” My breathing becomes a little quicker. I look over at Charlton to gauge his reaction to leaving behind the comforts of Europe, and he is sleeping soundly.

The flight goes by quickly and luckily I am able to get some rest. I have a feeling I will need my wits about as soon as we land and don’t want to be drowsy. We quickly grab our bags and make our way into the terminal. As soon as the guards see our U.S. passports we are led to another room. “Uh oh, it starts,” I thought. Just a quick additional H1N1 form, no big deal. I can practically fill those out in my sleep now. Passport check goes smoothly, and we collect our bags. The terminal is spacious and clean, and with an ATM right through the door. There was a moment of panic when the first group of people waiting did not have a sign for us. “We don’t have the address of the pension! We don’t have their phone number! What are we going to do?” Then there is a moment of relief when we see our driver just on the outskirts, “phew!” The bags are loaded into the van, the door closes and we are headed toward the medina.

I pictured the drive to Varanasi, or even Cambodia. Where there would be honking and chaos. What I got was a fairly leisurely drive through the new city to the old city. Traffic signals were followed, it was such a surprise. The van stopped on the outside of the city walls, cars cannot fit through the narrow streets of the medina. Loaded with our bags we followed our driver through the maze-like streets to a humble looking door.

Once the door opened, it was like stepping into an oasis. The dusty sun-bleached streets were left behind, in favor of rich wood and tile. It was like stepping into Topkapi Palace in Istanbul…but this is where we are staying! Our own palace! Words simply cannot describe its beauty. We sat down in the center courtyard to admire the craftsmanship and were promptly given glasses of delicious mint tea.

After we had settled into our room, we were lead to a nearby restaurant for lunch. The interior there was even more opulent than our pension, which is hard to believe. Nestled on some cushions in the corner we had an amazing meat and prune tagine (served in one too!) I sopped up every morsel with bread not wanting a drip to go to waste.

Full and happy we made our way back to the streets of the medina. Knowing it is like a rabbit wandering we did not feel adventurous enough to walk along the side streets. We knew that we would get a guided tour tomorrow, so figured it was best to stay in the high traffic areas. There was shop after shop selling every type of handicraft: leather bags, lanterns, jewelry, shoes, etc. Everything is so bright and colorful. Then you come across the stalls selling food staples: couscous, beans, spices, dried fruits. And I can’t forget the food stalls and butchers with lamb shanks hanging at the entrance or camel feet or spice carts loaded with mint. It is so hard to take it all in.

We came back to the pension to relax a little and the entire staff was gathered around a courtyard table having a late lunch. They asked us to join them and when we told them we were full they insisted we try some and pulled over chairs for us. They had a large platter of chicken with olives, another specialty here, and bread. The olives were not purchased but pickled by them. It was one of the most amazing dishes I have ever had. Even though I had a full belly I could not stop eating.

After I licked every morsel off my fingers, the owner brought over a beautiful Fez picture book and told us about the city. We chatted for awhile over glasses of mint tea before we headed to our room for a well deserved nap.

Awakening refreshed we decided to walk around the medina a little more. As we were about to head out the door, the owner said if we waited a little he would have one of the staff take us to his other house so we can get a better view of the medina. We headed to the rooftop of the pension to wait, and took a few pictures. The view from here was pretty fantastic, I could only imagine what the rooftop of the other house was like. We made our way through the streets, until we came up to a small little door tucked between two shops. After going through a dark hallway it opened up to another amazing riad courtyard. Climbing the tile steps we treated to more beautiful tile and woodwork. Once we reached the rooftop, the whole medina opened out in front of us. There were miles of twisted buildings and structures. Green tiled towers were visible on the horizon every once in awhile, giving away the location of a mosque. On an adjacent roof, a man was funneling rose water into bottles. It was like out of another world being up there. Off in the distance you could see olive trees growing on the hillside. A platter of fresh melon was then brought up to us, and it was the sweetest melon I have ever tasted, which is why I almost cried when the wind tipped the platter over knocking all the melon to the ground. After we cleaned up the mess we headed back down to the streets of the medina.

We then were on our own and tried to make our way to the Blue Gate and see where all the restaurants and cafes were. There were more shops and stalls along the way, never a moment that something doesn’t catch your eye. We found one gate, and attempted to ask a police officer for directions to the famous Café Clock that we had read about. He was unfamiliar with the place so we tried to find it on our own. After wandering some of the streets and not finding it we settled on trying to have our guide show us tomorrow, and then we caught a glimpse of the sign! We walked down a dark alley and came across the entrance.

The view from the café is said to be fantastic, so we made our way to the rooftop. Once there we saw how spoiled we were after visiting the owner’s other house. Café Clock does have a nice view but it’s nowhere near as stunning as the view of the whole medina we had had earlier. We found a corner seat and ordered some drinks and a bowl of Harira to split. It was delicious and was served with dates and a sample of a Moroccan sweet. After wiping the bowl clean we headed out as it was beginning to get dusk and we knew we would never be able to find our way back at night.

So a little less than 12 hours here in Fez and so far I love it. I don’t know what tomorrow will be like, but if the rest of the trip is like today, I think we are in for a real treat.

This is Charlton's post:

Journey to Africa

It’s a new day and a new continent. A week ago we were in Northern Europe, a day ago, Southern France and today, North Africa. More specifically we took a Ryanair flight from Marseille to Fes here in Morocco.

Unfortunately for us, it was another early morning. Awake by 6:00, out the door by 6:45. Next time when I plan a trip, I see later flights in the cards. Anyhow, we got to the airport, checked in and suffered through the typical Ryanair indignities. “Check in online or pay us forty Euro per ticket to print”, “no your seat will not go back, nor does it have pocket to put anything”, “are you done reading that magazine, either take it or give it to me. I’ll be mad if you leave it” and all the like. Ryanair is an adventure in itself.

Once through our flight, we made it to Fes by noon. As soon as we stepped into the airport from the tarmac we were identified as U.S. citizens. This meant we had to be taken aside, had to fill out a questionnaire and had to get our temperature taken. Whatever it takes to prevent H1N1 I guess.

Afterwards, we met up with our taxi and began our journey to the old city of Fes. Prior to our trip both Kristen and I were a little nervous. We were going to an ancient city, with thousands of alleyways, lots of people etc… From reading about it, we had visited a similar city, Varanasi. While that was a worthwhile experience it was also very tiring and we weren’t sure if we were ready for another round of it so quickly. Fes is a different place fortunately. In a way it looks similar, narrow alleyways, lots of people, but it is different. It’s slightly calmer, has somewhat fewer people (though more donkeys) and isn’t as dirty. So that was a relief.

Once we arrived to our pension we had our best surprise of the day. The pension we are staying at is absolutely amazing. While walking down narrow alleyways and streets, we didn’t know what to expect when stepping into our place. But once we did, it was like stepping into a new world. The craftsmanship here is excellent. There are woodcarvings done by many individuals over many months, wall carvings that rival the best I’ve seen on this trip and doors which wouldn’t look out of place in a royal palace. It’s that beautiful.

Our hosts provided us with some mint tea and sent us off to find lunch. Kristen and I split a tangine filled with beef and prunes for lunch. The food was excellent as well as the décor in the restaurant. I felt as if I were eating in a palace.

When lunch was finished we headed off to walk the alleyways of Fes. We took special care to keep track of where we were walking so that way we could find our way back. All the while we had to dodge donkey, touts, and many people. We also had a new experience of a nine year old begging for some money. While that wasn’t a new experience, when I didn’t give him money, he kicked me and told me to f-off, which was a new experience and a unique one at that.

We then returned to our pension where our hosts were busy eating a chicken with caramelized onions, olives and bread. They immediately invited us to sit and have some, where we added to our already full stomachs. After, we did some much needed relaxing and spent some time gearing up for our city tour tomorrow.

Around dinnertime we decided to go for a little walk. We were invited by the owner to visit his other house down the street. By down the street I mean down a confusing labyrinth that if we weren’t guided, we’d be lost. However once there we were treated to an amazing view of the city. It was breathtaking and absolutely enjoyable.

Afterwards we went on our walk and had a quick bite to eat at Café Clock which is a highly recommended restaurant here in Fes. We got a local staple, Harira, which was delicious. On the way to the restaurant some kid cursed me out again, so I’m up to two for today. It’ll probably happen about six times during our stay here. We’ll see.

Overall I am pleased with Morocco so far. Yes it’s a little bit rough around the edges, but many interesting places are. I’m looking forward to the next few days as we get more comfortable with our surroundings we’ll be able to soak in the infinite number of sights and experiences that are encompassing us.

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Photo Catch Up

June 26 - The Way to Dijon



June 27 - Dijon to Aix



June 28 - Aix to Monaco to Cannes to Aix Once More

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