MOROCCO

8 Frightening Facts About Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif

He’s The most gruesome character in the history of Morocco. the country’s own Vlad the Impaler has some dubious claims to fame — including fathering more kids than anyone else in history.

 Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif believed he was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed — and used that as an excuse for some very bad behavior

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif believed he was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed — and used that as an excuse for some very bad behavior

Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif was propelled to the throne of Morocco in 1672. His brother had been riding horseback after a victory banquet and was killed when his horse galloped beneath the low-hanging branches of the palace orchard.

Ismail’s reign as sultan, from 1672-1727, was longer than any other ruler in Moroccan history. Whether he should be remembered more for his beautiful creations or his cruel tyranny is a matter of dispute — but everyone agrees that Ismail was one of the most important rulers in Moroccan history.

Men who merely glanced at one of his wives or concubines were punished by death.

Here are some of the things that made the sultan so infamous.

 

1. He killed his servants at whim.

Ismail was not, by any accounts, a very nice man. In fact, he’s been quoted as having said, “My subjects are like rats in a basket, and if I do not keep shaking the basket, they will gnaw their way through.”

It’s estimated that 30,000 poor souls met their deaths at the hands of the sultan — often for no reason. He was well known to kill people during fits of rage. According to one story, the sultan lopped off the head of a slave who had been adjusting his stirrup as he was mounting his horse. They didn’t call him “the Bloodthirsty” for nothing.

 Legend has it that Ismail had sex every single day — which wouldn’t be too tough to do if you had over 500 women to choose from

Legend has it that Ismail had sex every single day — which wouldn’t be too tough to do if you had over 500 women to choose from

2. Ismail was a sex addict — and fathered more children than anyone else in history.

Ismail was well-known for siring hundreds of children. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he fathered 888 children — the highest number of offspring for anyone throughout history that can be verified.

 Each of the 500 concubines in Ismail’s harem had their own eunuch and handmaiden

Each of the 500 concubines in Ismail’s harem had their own eunuch and handmaiden

3. He had 500 concubines, which no one else could even look at.

He was fiercely protective of his four wives and 500 concubines. Whenever a tribe surrendered to Moulay Ismail, the leader was forced to offer his most beautiful daughter to the sultan as a gift.

The women were treated like Ismail’s favorite toys. Each concubine was granted a personal eunuch, a castrated male slave, and an odalisque, or female attendant.

The lake-like Bassin de l’Agdal in Meknès served as an emergency source of water in times of war and a pool for his concubines in times of peace.

Men who merely glanced at one of his wives or concubines were punished by death. It’s said that men who encountered the sultan’s women laid facing the ground, so as to avoid any accusation of having looked upon them.

If any of Ismail’s harem were suspected of adultery, they were severely punished or put to death. The women were either strangled by the sultan himself or had their breasts cut off or teeth extracted.

 Ismail fathered at least 888 kids — more than anyone else in recorded history!

Ismail fathered at least 888 kids — more than anyone else in recorded history!

4. The Sharif family claims to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Ismail succeeded the throne at the age of 26 and established Meknès as the capital of the kingdom. He was a member of the Sharif dynasty, which claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam.

Ismail used this pretense to justify his actions, both cruel and kind. His subjects bowed in his presence, and were not allowed to look him in the eye.

During his 55-year reign, he managed to create magnificent and enormous construction projects. His palace was built exclusively by European slaves, aided by bands of local criminals. The palace was four miles in circumference, and its walls were 25 feet thick.

As soon as he finished one project, he’d start on another. If he didn’t like something, he would order it demolished and a new one rebuilt.

 Ismail killed people for the slightest offense, including even just looking at one of his concubines

Ismail killed people for the slightest offense, including even just looking at one of his concubines



5. The sultan’s favorite wife was once a concubine who convinced him to punish his son in a horrific manner.

Ismail’s favorite wife and queen of the palace was a black woman who started out as a concubine. Her name was Lalla Aisha Mubarka, or Zaydana, the name she acquired after giving birth to the sultan’s first son, Zaydan.

She held sway over Ismail and hatched a scheme to depose his favorite son, Mohammed al-Alim, suggesting that he intended to proclaim himself the sultan of Morocco. For his punishment, Ismail had his son’s left arm and right leg amputated for supposedly having rebelled against him. This was intended to send a message that any disobedience would mean severe punishment or death. Not surprisingly, Al-Alim died from blood loss.

 Ismail’s Black Guard, made up of captured sub-Saharan slaves, acted as the sultan’s personal bodyguards

Ismail’s Black Guard, made up of captured sub-Saharan slaves, acted as the sultan’s personal bodyguards

6. Ismail created a massive self-generating army.

The formidable Black Guard was comprised of slave warriors acquired from sub-Saharan Africa. Considered loyal, as they no longer had any tribal affiliation, the Black Guard were Ismail’s personal guards and servants.

By the end of his reign, he had raised a powerful army of more than 150,000 men. These men had families and lived in communities of their own, but essentially belonged to Ismail. The boys were raised to serve in his army, which helped Ismail maintain his position and conquer the whole of Morocco from European kingdoms. The girls would marry, have children and continue the cycle.

The Black Guard exists to this day, though its name was changed to the Moroccan Royal Guard after the country gained its independence in 1956.

 

7. He also had an astoundingly large prison that mostly held Christians.

The Habs Qara (Prison of Christian Slaves) was a large subterranean prison beneath the city of Meknès. At its height, it held an estimated 60,000 prisoners, 40,000 of them believed to have been Christian sailors captured at sea by Barbary pirates. The Christians were used as slave labor to build the city during the day and were shackled to the prison walls in the evening and forced to sleep standing up.

Rumors of the existence of secret tunnels leading from the royal palace to the prison persist, despite lack of evidence.

 Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles

Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles

8. The sultan and the Sun King were allies.

Ismail, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, presided over Morocco at the same time that Louis XIV, the Sun King, ruled France. He and Louis XIV were close allies, and in 1682, Ismail sent Mohammed Tenim, the governor of Tétouan, to be his ambassador in France to sign a treaty of friendship and negotiate the release of Moroccan captives. French Baroque painter Charles Antoine Coypel depicted the Moroccan ambassador’s visit in his painting titled Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne.

  Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne  by Charles Antoine Coypel, 1682

Mohammed Tenim, Ambassadeur du Maroc à la Comédie Italienne by Charles Antoine Coypel, 1682

 Ismail proposed to Princess Marie Anne de Bourbon but was rejected

Ismail proposed to Princess Marie Anne de Bourbon but was rejected

Ismail sent his ambassador with a marriage proposal to Marie Anne de Bourbon, the eldest legitimized daughter of the king and his mistress Louise de La Vallière, but she declined. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to an international incident. –Duke

A History of Meknes, Morocco, the Bab Mansour and Heri es Souanifoot

Explore the historic gate, stables and medina on this day trip from Fès that can be paired with Volubilis.

 Meknès, with its ruined stables, granary, gate and markets, makes for a fun afternoon after touring the ancient Roman mosaics of Volubilis

Meknès, with its ruined stables, granary, gate and markets, makes for a fun afternoon after touring the ancient Roman mosaics of Volubilis

One of Morocco’s four old imperial cities, Meknès lies west of Fès, in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Our driver, Hafid, suggested we make a stop after our amusing guided tour of Volubilis.

Isamil was given the epithet “the Bloodthirsty” for his legendary cruelty. To intimidate rivals, he once ordered that the walls of Meknès be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies.
 A woman sells dates off of the main square

A woman sells dates off of the main square

 There weren’t as many cats in Meknès as there are in Fès and Marrakech, much to Duke and Wally’s dismay

There weren’t as many cats in Meknès as there are in Fès and Marrakech, much to Duke and Wally’s dismay



 A vendor sells greens near one of the arches of the old city

A vendor sells greens near one of the arches of the old city

Meknès was founded and settled in the 11th century by the Almoravids, a Muslim Berber dynasty, as a military settlement and received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1996. The city has retained many of its historic elements, which can be attributed to the ambitious 17th century transformation and monuments constructed under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif.

 A stamp depicting Moulay “the Bloodthirsty” Ismail Ibn Sharif

A stamp depicting Moulay “the Bloodthirsty” Ismail Ibn Sharif

The second sultan of the Alaouite dynasty (the current Moroccan royal family), Ismail ascended the throne at the age of 26, after the death of his half-brother Moulay al-Rashid, who died after a fall from his horse. A descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, Ismail moved from Tafilalt and made Meknès the capital, intent on a creating a grand city on a scale rivalling Versailles in France. It’s believed that Ismail enlisted over 25,000 Christian prisoners and over 30,000 criminals as laborers in the construction of Meknès. Some of the stones were taken from the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, a highlight of this area.

 Meknès is much less touristy — and much easier to navigate — than Fès

Meknès is much less touristy — and much easier to navigate — than Fès



 The market displays, like those of this fruit and veggie vendor, are works of art and riots of color

The market displays, like those of this fruit and veggie vendor, are works of art and riots of color

 Off to one side of the main square, a doorway leads into a teeming local market

Off to one side of the main square, a doorway leads into a teeming local market

Ismail is remembered as one of the greatest and most notorious monarchs of Morocco. His reign lasted 55 years, from 1672 to 1727 — longer than any other ruler in Moroccan history — and left an indelible mark on Meknès. He was given the epithet “the Bloodthirsty” for his legendary cruelty. To intimidate rivals, Ismail once ordered that his city walls be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies. Legends of the ease in which Ismail could behead or torture laborers or servants he thought to be lazy are numerous. During the half century of Ismail's rule, it’s estimated he killed 30,000 people.

 The Bab el-Mansour gate was constructed to impress visitors — and doesn’t really lead anywhere

The Bab el-Mansour gate was constructed to impress visitors — and doesn’t really lead anywhere

Bab el-Mansour, the Gate to Nowhere

As a tourist in Meknès, you’ll feel like you’re stepping back in time. One of the most well-preserved and beautiful historic landmarks of the city is the Bab el-Mansour. The elaborate horseshoe-arched gate and its 52-foot-high wooden doors is located off the sprawling el-Hedim square and provides a glimpse of Ismail’s grand vision. The monumental gate bears an Arabic inscription that translates as “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.” What’s truly interesting though, is that unlike other gates we’ve encountered in Morocco, this one is a folly that leads nowhere and was commissioned by Ismail simply to impress visitors. It’s now the entrance to a building that features art exhibits.

 Could the gate be more beautiful? Probably

Could the gate be more beautiful? Probably

To further illustrate his cruelty, one popular legend tells the tale of Ismail asking Mansour Laleuj, the architect responsible for the impressive city gate if he could have made the gate more beautiful. When Laleuj responded yes, the sultan immediately had him beheaded. This is unlikely, though, as the gate was completed by Ismail’s son, Moulay Abdallah, in 1732 — five years after his father’s death. However, the notion that the sultan would act so impetuously at the slightest offense makes for a great story.

 Nature has taken over the massive stable complex

Nature has taken over the massive stable complex

Stable Conditions

Equally impressive is the Heri es-Souani, the former imperial granary and royal stables. A remarkable engineering feat, the massive stable yard was constructed to comfortably house no less than 12,000 royal horses. I can only imagine the amount of shit there was to shovel! It has been said that Ismail was a fanatic about his horses, and two slaves were employed to look after each horse to ensure that all their needs were met.

 The granary complex was an architectural marvel of its day

The granary complex was an architectural marvel of its day

 The granary was empty when we visited, lending it a creepy vibe

The granary was empty when we visited, lending it a creepy vibe

 Underground cisterns kept the granary nice and cool

Underground cisterns kept the granary nice and cool

One Great Granary

We entered the complex and found ourselves in a cool, barrel-vaulted structure. The chambers are constructed of 13-foot-thick adobe walls with small rectangular windows overhead for circulation. Many chambers have their original cedar doors.

Be sure to look for the noria, a water wheel half submerged in the sandy floor, where horses were once used to raise buckets of water from an underground reservoir connected to the nearby Bassin de l’Agdal.

A series of cisterns beneath the granary kept the floors cool, perfect conditions for storing provisions to feed the city and the sultan’s precious horses.

 The stables are impressive — because the sultan who built them pampered his horses

The stables are impressive — because the sultan who built them pampered his horses

 Sturdy stone arches once supported the roof of the stables

Sturdy stone arches once supported the roof of the stables

 Duke ponders the M.C. Escher-esque labyrinth

Duke ponders the M.C. Escher-esque labyrinth

Golden Arches

Stretching beyond the granary are the ruins of the royal stables. The wooden beams are long gone due to the seismic waves that radiated from the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Nary a horse in sight, its walls remain intact with a great forest of columns and open-air arches forming the arcades of the massive stable. Nature, as well as a few cats, have taken over, lending an otherworldly quality to the ruins.

 Wally likes to pretend that he’s playing real-life Dungeons & Dragons in settings like this

Wally likes to pretend that he’s playing real-life Dungeons & Dragons in settings like this

 Duke thinks the seemingly neverending archways are a photographer’s delight

Duke thinks the seemingly neverending archways are a photographer’s delight

Regarded as one of Ismail’s finest architectural achievements, the stables are a testament to his immense wealth and the great lengths he went to ensure that his horses lived comfortably.

 The ruins of the stables are a favorite with film scouts

The ruins of the stables are a favorite with film scouts

Additionally, filmmakers are drawn to this amazing structure. The site has been featured in Ishtar, The Jewel of the Nile and The Last Temptation of Christ.

 The medina in Meknès pales in comparison to Fès’

The medina in Meknès pales in comparison to Fès’

If you’re looking for a day trip from Fès, Meknès makes for an interesting place to spend an afternoon exploring. –Duke

Jardin Majorelle: A Moroccan Garden Oasis in Marrakech

What exactly is Majorelle Blue? What does Yves Saint Laurent have to do with the Majorelle Garden? And what’s this about a new Musée Yves Saint Laurent?

 Escape the chaos of the medina for a calming visit to le Jardin Majorelle 

Escape the chaos of the medina for a calming visit to le Jardin Majorelle 

Marrakech, Morocco is famous for many things: thick, fortified ramparts of beaten red clay, the towering minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque and the vast open square Djemaa el-Fna with its network of narrow, winding market-filled alleys known as souks. Oh, and “Berber whiskey”: hot, sweet mint tea served in small glasses.

 Duke and Vanessa in the Majorelle Gardens

Duke and Vanessa in the Majorelle Gardens

On our last full day in Marrakech, Wally, Vanessa and I walked from the medina to the Nouvelle Ville — French for New City. Our plan was to visit the Jardin Majorelle and to purchase a new memory card for our digital camera. We hoped to retrieve the images from our corrupted memory card, which had stopped working when we arrived in the Sahara, further proof that jinns exist.

We found a camera store, and Wally conversed with the shopkeeper in French, who took the card and inserted it into a reader. He looked up at us, shook his head and said, "C’est grillé.”

“I think that means it’s toast,” Wally said, sadly.

 Towering palms seen through an archway

Towering palms seen through an archway

We went on with our day, happy to at least have a new memory card to start taking more pictures. As the three of us made our way around the walled enclosure surrounding the Jardin Majorelle, we became a bit concerned it wouldn’t be open. Our guide from our desert trek, Barack, had told us that the most important prayers of the week are those at noon on Friday, and because of this, Muslim cities essentially close from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. We were in luck, though — the garden was open.

We entered the garden through a weathered wooden door, and although there were many people visiting that morning, I was struck by its serenity. The pebbled garden path led through a dense cluster of bamboo. Sadly, countless visitors have left their mark by carving their initials into the shafts of bamboo.

 Visitors past have left their mark in the bamboo section of the garden

Visitors past have left their mark in the bamboo section of the garden

 Wally loves the exquisite Moroccan detailing at the nearby villa 

Wally loves the exquisite Moroccan detailing at the nearby villa 

 The villa houses a gift shop and Berber museum

The villa houses a gift shop and Berber museum

True Blue: The History of the Majorelle Garden

The garden’s creator was Jacques Majorelle, a French Orientalist painter, the son of furniture designer and manufacturer Louis Majorelle. On the advice of his physician, Majorelle the junior travelled to Morocco for the sake of his health, and was immediately captivated by the vibrant colors and quality of light.

He settled in Marrakech in 1917, and in 1923 purchased four acres of land bordering a palm grove outside the city’s ancient walled medina. Eventually, Majorelle purchased an adjacent plot, expanding the property to 10 acres.

In 1931, he commissioned architect Paul Sinoir to design a Cubist villa to serve as his studio. Majorelle painted the fountains, planters and atelier a specific shade of cobalt blue, now appropriately named bleu Majorelle.

 This striking cobalt is known as Majorelle blue

This striking cobalt is known as Majorelle blue

Around his new dwelling, Majorelle, a passionate amateur botanist, cultivated the gardens, which he opened to the public in 1947 to help offset their costly maintenance. After Majorelle’s death in 1962, the gardens remained open but gradually fell into a state of disrepair, lacking the care necessary to maintain them.

 The designer Yves Saint Laurent saved the garden from disrepair

The designer Yves Saint Laurent saved the garden from disrepair

Yves Saint Laurent to the Rescue

Couturier Yves Saint Laurent acquired a second guesthouse, Dar Es Saada, in Marrakech in 1973 with his then-boyfriend Pierre Bergé. Arabic for the House of Happiness in Serenity, it was located near one of their favorite places, the Jardin Majorelle. When they learned seven years later that the gardens were slated for demolition to make way for a pool and bungalows. Saint Laurent and Bergé decided to purchase the 12-acre garden and villa. The couple enlisted American landscape architect Madison Cox to meticulously restore the gardens. According to Cox, Saint Laurent had the vision to have the flowerpots scattered throughout the garden painted in lemon yellow, sky blue and the famous bleu Majorelle. Saint Laurent and Bergé kept the garden open for visitors to enjoy, just as Majorelle did. 

(Bergé and Cox married in a private civil ceremony shortly before Bergé’s death in 2017. Cox is  also the director of the Fondation Jardin Majorelle, an organization that operates under the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.)

 YSL’s genderbending aesthetic included le smoking, a feminized take on the tux

YSL’s genderbending aesthetic included le smoking, a feminized take on the tux

Musée Yves Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent often designed his collections while in Marrakech, inspired by the city’s colors and shapes. So it’s fitting, pun intended, that a museum dedicated to the influential designer’s life and legacy was built next to the Jardin Majorelle.

Although it wasn’t open when we visited, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, abbreviated as mYSLm, was spearheaded by Bergé and conceived by Studio KO architects Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty. The museum contains an extensive collection of couture garments, sketches, fashion photos and assorted objects showcasing YSL’s signature genderbending style from 1962 until his retirement in 2002.

 The bamboo copse at Majorelle

The bamboo copse at Majorelle

Secret Garden

We passed through a pergola covered with bougainvillea and paused to look into a reflecting pool containing water lilies and a pair of turtles resting at its edge.

 The garden is mostly green with periodic bursts of pink and red

The garden is mostly green with periodic bursts of pink and red

 Drought-tolerant cacti make up the majority of plants at the Majorelle Garden

Drought-tolerant cacti make up the majority of plants at the Majorelle Garden

Following the garden path, we came upon a modest memorial dedicated to Saint Laurent. When he passed away in 2008, his ashes were scattered amongst the garden he and Bergé so lovingly restored.

 This decaying column serves as Saint Laurent’s memorial 

This decaying column serves as Saint Laurent’s memorial 

 Wally and Vanessa enjoy the serenity of this oasis

Wally and Vanessa enjoy the serenity of this oasis

 Artists paint the plantlife

Artists paint the plantlife

 A peek over an artist’s shoulder

A peek over an artist’s shoulder

The magnificence of this garden reminded me of the exotic Generalife gardens located beside the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The arid landscape, originally almost devoid of vegetation, like the gardens of the Alhambra, were utterly transformed by Majorelle over a span of 40 years. From what I could identify, the garden includes agave, bamboo, cacti, cypress, datura, succulents and bougainvillea.

In the Cubist villa, there’s a gift shop and a museum dedicated to artifacts from the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, the Berbers. Just don’t try to sneak in, or you might get kicked out, like Wally did.

Birds chirping, bamboo rustling in the breeze, and the sound of trickling fountains truly turn the garden into a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of the medina. –Duke

 We recommend adding le Jardin Majorelle to your Marrakech itinerary

We recommend adding le Jardin Majorelle to your Marrakech itinerary

Jardin Majorelle
Rue Yves Saint Laurent

Admission: 30 dirham, or around $3.25


 Spinach-filled phylo puffs at the neighboring Kaowa Café

Spinach-filled phylo puffs at the neighboring Kaowa Café

Nearby

Thirsty and hungry after visiting the gardens, we dined on the terrace of Kaowa Café, a snack and juice bar situated across the way. We ate delicious puffs filled with cheese and tried some of their signature juices.

9 Tips for Navigating the Fes Medina — and Making It Out Alive

OK, that’s a bit dramatic. But Fez, Morocco is an intense city to explore. Read these tips before you go.

A donkey overpacked with boxes is about as much of a traffic jam you’ll encounter in the Fès medina

Fès is a city of discoveries. You never know what lies around the next corner. You cannot imagine the beauty that hides behind a plain wall once that wooden door opens.

As such, though, it can be intimidating as well. I’m not gonna lie: That first day we had booked to explore the medina on our own, we were hesitant to leave the riad. We really had to work up our courage. Because once you step foot outside the door, you have to be prepared to not only get lost, but also to deal with local men making snide comments, hoping to get you to pay them to act as guides.

For the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Landmarks like mosque towers don’t really help you find your way around the medina — there are lots of them, and once you turn a corner, they’re gone

1. Get a guide on your first day.

It’s nice to put yourself in someone else’s hands on your first day in Fès. Our guide, Abdul, was fantastic, and we just followed him around as he led us to the major sites. It’s nice to get them out of the way, know you’ve ticked the “important” stuff off your list, and that you have nothing left but to shop and eat (and hit a hammam for a spa day).

 

2. Pay close attention to how to get to the Blue Gate.

It all comes back to the Blue Gate, it seems. We took a daytrip to the Roman ruins and mosaics of Volubilis, and had a guide from the riad lead us to the Blue Gate just outside of the medina to meet our driver (there aren’t any cars allowed in the medina — and anyway they wouldn’t fit on the narrows twists and turns).

I literally just kept track of the major turns we made: left, left, right, right, right. And that was all we needed to retrace our steps the following day. Sure, we took a turn too soon a couple of times, but just backtracked once we hit a dead end. We got back to the Blue Gate eventually. And from there you can hit one of the major thoroughfares of the medina.

You never know what lies around the next corner in Fès. It might be a bunch of roosters tied to a cage in front of a gorgeous doorway

3. Ignore the hustlers.

As mentioned, you’ll pass young men every so often who want to con you into paying them to act as guides. “There’s nothing that way,” they’ll tell you. “The Blue Gate isn’t down there,” they’ll say. Don’t pay them any mind. Unless, of course, you truly are hopelessly lost. And then agree to a reasonable fee before you have them lead you back to your hotel or guesthouse.

We didn’t end up having to do this in Fès but did so twice in Marrakech.

 

4. Chat with your fellow travelers over breakfast.

Because we talked with a lovely British couple, Susan and Colin, our first morning at Dar Bensouda, we learned about the gardens (which happened to be closed for the Sacred Music Festival, but still) and the tapas bar across the street, Mezzanine (a welcome change from couscous and tagines).

They also told us about the Ruined Garden, which was close to our riad, and ended up being our favorite restaurant in Fès.

 

5. Follow the signs.

One of the best ideas Fassi business owners ever had was to put up small rectangular signs throughout the medina. Coming back from the souks or the Blue Gate, we started noticing signs for nearby dars and riads (guesthouses). After a day or so, we knew which ones would lead us close enough to our own lodgings that we could find our way.

We also knew that there were signs that led from Riad Dar Bensouda to the Ruined Garden. So once we passed that, we followed the signs back to our temporary home. This gets a bit tricky — you have to turn a corner and then glance back to make sure there’s a sign pointing back to the restaurant. But for the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Abdul took us to the narrowest street in the medina:

6. Walk with confidence.

This was advice given to us by Susan and Colin. It really did help put some of the would-be guides in their place. They’d look at us, walking with a purpose, and then go back to their conversations.

To help get you into the mindset, imagine yourself a local. Or at least someone who’s been in the city for some time.

This was harder to do when we made a wrong turn, hit a dead end and had to walk back past a group of men. But fake it till you make it. If they say something, just tell them, “We’re good.”

 

7. Try your smartphone.

We didn’t have a data plan abroad, so we didn’t use use our phones. But fellow travelers said that there were Google Maps or another app that was surprisingly helpful for navigating the medina. I’m a bit skeptical, given the labyrinthian nature of this ancient city — but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

A butcher in one of the more-populated areas of the medina

8. Let yourself get lost.

Everyone doles out this advice. And it’s all well and good, as long as you’re not trying to find something specific. For our third day in Fès, we had nothing planned but wandering the medina and shopping. And that was the day we didn’t worry if we didn’t know where we were going — just so long as we were back in the safety of our riad by dark.

 

9. Friday is a great day to have as an early day in Fès.

This is the day of worship for Muslims. So wandering on Friday is actually a lot more chill. You’ll get hassled less, as mosques keep many of the people away. As an added bonus, shops that are open are often willing to give a good deal since business will be slow.


As I mentioned, the Fès medina can be intimidating. But by following this advice, you should be able to navigate the seemingly endless twists and turns on your own…somewhat successfully. –Wally

Photos of the Fes Medina That Will Take You to Another World

Fez, Morocco’s old city is an often intense, often beautiful experience. These pictures only begin to tell the story.

 

Fès is a city like no other. You could say that, I suppose, about many cities. But Fès is the real deal. The old part of the city is entirely car-free, and consists of a maze-like series of narrow, enclosed walkways. You literally never know what lies around the next corner: a gorgeous zelij tilework fountain, a bunch of roosters tied to a cage, a butcher stall marked by a decapitated camel head, a young man sitting in the faded beauty of a crumbling doorway, a donkey laden with Moroccan textiles or, of course, kitties! Lots and lots of kitties! –Wally

Fès was like the stairwells at Hogwarts. I’m convinced the roads shifted behind me.
— Greg, a friend and fellow traveler

The Best Shop for Blue Pottery in the Entire Fez Medina

Fès is known for its delightful blue and white pottery

If you’re shopping in Fès, just off of Place Seffarine is a small shop with a friendly owner and great deals.

 

Each morning our breakfast at Dar Bensouda, our riad in the depths of the Fès, Morocco medina, was served in the most charming cobalt blue and white hand-painted pottery. Having read that Fassi craftsmen are known for their ceramic artistry, we ventured out to see what we could find.

RELATED: 8 Tips to Get the Best Deals in a Souk

Miraculously, by day three, we managed to make our way through the medina’s maze of alleyways and back to Place Seffarine, the metalworkers’ square. It was a Friday, so it was relatively quiet. Local guides will advise against shopping the souks on Fridays, the Islamic holy day, telling you that shops are closed in observance. However, we have found that this isn’t completely accurate. Although some shops may be closed, the souks are generally less chaotic and easier to navigate.

The shop was a visual feast for the senses. Every square inch of the floors and walls was covered with bowls, platters, soap dishes and pitchers.

A shop to the side of the square had some interesting and old-looking metalwork pieces on display. One in particular, a palm-sized tarnished brass astrolabe caught my eye. These scientific tools were used to track the position of the sun and stars to astronomically determine the five specific times of prayer and as an aid in finding the Qibla, the sacred direction of Mecca. I should have downplayed the fact that I was interested in it, as Wally’s ability to barter like a Berber seemed to have little to no effect on the shopkeeper.

 

Fès Bleu Art is overflowing with handcrafted pottery made by local artisans

True Blue

We moved on, following one of the offshoot alleyways. Located just off Place Seffarine, a pair of whimsical outstretched hands of Fatima drew us into Fès Bleu Art, a shop filled with hand-painted Fassi pottery.

The shop was a visual feast for the senses. Small and narrow, the shelves were full of petite, richly varied tagines and small lidded vessels like the ones we had seen at our riad. Every square inch of the floors and walls was covered with bowls, platters, soap dishes and pitchers.

The charming shop owner, Zouhir, offers reasonable deals — perhaps the best in the medina

The affable shop owner, Zouhir, who told us he was a descendant of the Idrisid dynasty, struck up a friendly conversation with us. Asking where we were from, he spoke to us in earnest, explaining how he offers a fair price on his pottery and how to identify the authenticity of a piece: Locally produced stoneware have the word Fas (the Arabic spelling of Fès) hand-painted on the bottom.

We had heard Zouhir speaking with another couple when we entered his shop, and during his exchange he had mentioned pricing, which we were pleased to realize is quite affordable.

Fassi pottery is glazed in white and embellished with cobalt oxide, which produces a vibrant shade of blue during kiln firing. Designs typically feature motifs and patterns including flowers, zigzags, chevrons, dots, triangles and crosshatching, all of which are used to convey messages.

For example, diamond or star-shaped lozenge motifs represent an eye that deflects evil, while a shape with five points or branches conjures the protection of the hamsa, or hand of Fatima.

We began to pick out pieces and put them to the side. What makes these so exceptional in my opinion is that matched sets do not exist, as they are entirely handmade. I think we purchased almost every hand-painted hamsa tile Zouhir had. Wally decided to give them out as gifts to his coworkers.

Zouhir’s prices, as we mentioned, are quite fair. So don’t expect him to come down substantially in price. And don’t worry — you’ll still be getting perhaps the best deal in the entire medina.

On our last day in Fès, we returned to the shop to purchase even more pottery — many of which I made sure to carry on, for fear of returning home with broken shards. –Duke

These Gruesome Photos of the Meknès Market Are Enough to Turn You Vegetarian

This is about as tame as the Meknès meat market got. More graphic shots to follow

Local markets provide a glimpse into the daily life of a culture. Just watch out for the decapitated cow heads.

 

One of the best ways to see a local culture in action is to visit a food market. You’ll also get plenty of awesome photo opps.

I first discovered this pleasure one day when I wandered off on my own in Cusco, Peru and stumbled upon a local food market. Since then, markets — whether they’re in Spain, Vietnam or Morocco — are must-stops for Duke and me.

It was as if we had found ourselves suddenly the unwitting victims of a horror movie.

So, when we noticed an interior market connected to the stalls of the main plaza in Meknès (on a day trip that included the Roman ruins of Volubilis), we were excited to wander through it. At first, we passed stalls of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. But at the back, it was as if we had found ourselves suddenly the unwitting victims of a horror movie. We had entered the horrific domain of the meat market.

It was unlike anything we had ever seen. In the United States, we’re so used to brightly lit, sterile supermarket aisles, where our meat is often deboned, trimmed of fat, individually wrapped in plastic. There’s no real hint that the pinkish cut of meat was once a chicken or that the hunk of red beef actually came from a cow.

That connection to the meat’s origin was like a slap in the face in the Meknès market. It’s inescapable.

Click on the photos below to enlarge. You know you want to see them in all their gory glory.

We wandered through the butchers’ stalls, dazed and amazed. Many chuckled at our reaction, while some of the men scowled as I snapped away quickly on my camera.

The images came quick and violent. Decapitated cow heads, their tongues lolling out. A boy digging his hands into a bowl of brains. Goat heads amidst a splattering of blood. Razor in hand, a young man intently shaving the side of an animal’s face. Haphazard piles of bloated legs, a nauseating yellow, ending in cloven hooves. Macabre dissections revealing raw, red tissue in stark contrast to the white of sawed-through bones.

Duke and I couldn’t stop smiling. –Wally

Decapitated cow heads, their tongues lolling out. A boy digging his hands into a bowl of brains. Goat heads amidst a splattering of blood.

A Tour of the Roman Ruins and Mosaics of Volubilis

 The ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis can be paired with an excursion to Meknès

The ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis can be paired with an excursion to Meknès

When visiting Fès, Morocco, be sure to take a day trip to see the remarkably well-preserved tile mosaics of the ancient city of Volubilis.

 

It never occurred to me that there’d be Roman ruins in Morocco, though I suppose I knew on some level that the Roman Empire extended to Northern Africa.

But when I read about the remains of the town of Volubilis, just outside of Fès, I knew it had to make our itinerary. And, as someone obsessed with Ancient Rome — poor Duke has had to sit through countless shows about the subject — I knew a visit to Volubilis was exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday. (A lady never reveals her age. But I’m not a lady. It was my 44th.)

“Bulemics. Vomitoriums. Feather to tickle the throat. They vomit. Eat more.”

He pointed across the way. “Then happy ending. At brothel. Secret passage from hammam to brothel.”

Even a rainy forecast wasn’t going to disappoint me.

Duke and Wally didn't let a little rain get in the way of an enjoyable trip to Volubilis, Morocco

We arranged a day trip to Volubilis and Meknès through our riad. A guide led us through the twists and turns of the narrow lanes, through an ornate gate and out into a square. Our driver for the day was a friendly young guy named Hafid.

RELATED: 7 Must-See Historic Sites to Visit in Fès, Morocco

The drive wasn’t what we expected. I’m not sure what we thought the Moroccan countryside would look like but we were pleasantly surprised to pass through rolling green and golden hills dotted with green poofs of trees.

The view on the drive from Fès to Volubilis

A half-hour or so later, we arrived at Volubilis. Hafid asked if we wanted a guide to the site and we decided we did. Boy, were we glad we made that choice. Our guide, Rashid (which I learned appropriately means “rightly guided”) was a complete comedian. He’d walk through the ruins, his hands in his pockets, the bright red hood up on his stylish black coat. Rashid, who was obviously very knowledgeable about the site, spoke in short sentences, everything layered with a dry wit. Like bullet bursts of naughty poetry.

If the dry-witted Rashid is around, we recommend requesting him as your guide

“Carpe diem,” Rashid said. “Roman motto. Short lives. Lived life to fullest.”

We clamored over the damp grass to the remains of a nouveau riche home opposite the town baths. Rashid pointed to what was once a bathroom.

“Bulemics. Vomitoriums. Feather to tickle the throat. They vomit. Eat more.”

He pointed across the way. “Then happy ending. At brothel. Secret passage from hammam to brothel.”

We learned that the structures of Volubilis amazingly had heated floors and plumbing. Unfortunately, that plumbing was toxic.

“Romans all crazy,” Rashid said, his face a mask revealing no emotion. “Lead poisoning. Pipes.”

As we walked along a muddy path, Rashid pointed to wildflowers.

“Morning glory. Very pretty weed. We call it ‘mile-a-minute.’ Grows very fast. It’s what Volubilis means.”

Flowers color the surrounding area, making a nice contrast to the stone ruins of this Roman town

I didn’t know if I should believe everything Rashid told us. But I was also too entertained to worry too much about veracity. I’ve always been a huge proponent of Why let the truth get in the way of a perfectly good story?

Atop the crest of a small hill, we turned in a circle, surveying the landscape.

“Strategic location,” Rashid explained. “Water. Wheat. Olive. What more you need?” He put his head down and began descending the hill. We could barely hear him add, “Chocolate.”

Rashid was obviously very proud of this little-known historic site.

“Like Tuscany,” he said, his chest swelling ever so slightly. “Who would know this is Morocco? No one. If they do not come. Everyone should see Volubilis.”

The stork nests atop columns at the remains of the forum of Volubilis have become a tourist favorite

The rain came down in spurts. Duke, trying to look on the bright side, pointed out that the site was probably a lot less crowded due to the inclement weather.

“We should pray to Apollo for the sun,” I said as we approached the forum, with its slender columns topped with stork nests.

“No,” Rashid said. “Jupiter was the god of the weather.” He pointed to a stone slab in the middle of a piazza. “You can make sacrifice. Goat or sheep.”

“We should have brought one,” I said.

Rashid commented, “Yes. Barbecue.”

 

Mosaic Masterpieces

The site is most famous for its mosaics. These are remarkably well-preserved, especially those in the wealthier part of town, away from the hammam and the nouveau riche home. The rich didn’t need easy access to the public baths — they had their own.

Frankly, I’m astounded these mosaics haven’t been completely picked apart. They’ve been here in the middle of the countryside for centuries, with no security, nothing to stop pillagers. Imagine having a Roman ruin remaining relatively untouched for so long. I was giddy with excitement.

This mosaic of a guy who got on his horse backward is known as the acrobat

One of the mosaics features Diana, the goddess of the hunt, bathing. When the poor fellow Actaeon came upon her, and saw the goddess nude, she punished him by turning him into a stag. He was torn apart by his own hounds.

A mosaic of the goddess Diana bathing — before she catches a peeping Tom and devises a horrific fate for him

“Oh, deer!” Rashid said as he finished the story, and Duke and I burst out laughing.

Many of the mosaics of Volubilis are in surprisingly good shape

After we had toured the mosaics, Rashid got a mischievous glint in his eye. “Come, come,” he said. “I saved the best for last.”

We hurried after him, wondering what he was up to. “You’ll see,” he said. “Best site in all of Volubilis.”

He stopped and turned around, blocking a rectangular stone. He almost cracked a smile as he moved to the side in a dramatic reveal.

There before our eyes was a carving of what was undeniably a huge penis.

Rashid explained that this marker designated the brothel. I of course couldn’t resist. I straddled the stone while Duke took a picture.

Wally clowns around with the phallic marker that designated the local whorehouse

“Great photo,” Rashid said, utterly deadpan. “Can be your Christmas card.”

If he only knew that wasn’t so far-fetched. –Wally

Read more about the history of Volubilis here.

The Ruined Garden: A Fairy Tale Fez Restaurant

The Ruined Garden, one of the best restaurants in Fès, Morocco

A magical, secret spot with great Moroccan food, friendly servers, quirky décor and kitty companions.


In Fès, it can be said that beauty lies concealed behind the modesty of its windowless exteriors. The Ruined Garden, a restaurant tucked in the heart of the medina, is such a place.

The Ruined Garden features adorably mismatched tables and chairs and is overrun by flowers and other plants

Located within the centuries-old roofless shell of a former merchant’s house, its interior has been converted into a charming, magical place — a bric-à-brac of mismatched chairs and colorful wax print fabric tablecloths where a fairy tale could be set.

Wally got the rfissa, a noodle dish that one of the servers told us is traditionally served to pregnant women

Located within the roofless shell of a former merchant’s house, its interior has been converted into a charming, magical place — where a fairy tale could be set.

The restaurant was created by chef and gardener Robert Johnstone, a veteran of both the Wolseley and one of London’s most celebrated restaurants, the Ivy. Be sure to check out the Ruined Garden blog, which features images of the café, recipes and general goings-on at the property.

Serving some of the best food in Fès, made from local ingredients, we ate there twice on our four-day visit. The al fresco restaurant has a low-key vibe and features artfully prepared riffs on Moroccan classics such as lamb pastilla served with a tomato and orange salad.

Duke opted for the lamb pastilla, a common Moroccan dish

Be sure to save room for dessert and then check out the corridor to the back of the restaurant, where handcrafted lemon wood spoons, saffron and hammered copper tajines are for sale.

The restaurant is connected to Riad Idrissy, a former merchant’s house that has been lovingly restored and converted into a palatial guest house. –Duke

 

 

Secret Garden

Wally caught up with Robert via email and he kindly answered a few questions regarding the Ruined Garden, how the space was acquired, why it was left as a deconstructed space and what has become of the very pregnant black cat who lounged on the bench next to us when we last dined there.

 

How did you acquire the space and what did it look like at the time?

John Twomey and I own the business together. John bought the house and the ruin adjoining it in 2006. Restoration took four years.

I then came out to furnish the hotel and to turn the ruined house next door into a garden and then into the restaurant you have visited.

 

The crumbling shell that frames the open-air restaurant. Note the cat climbing the wall in the distance

How did you decide to keep the ruined aspect and not rebuild the courtyard?

The house was unrestored but sound. However, the ruin next door had actually been a rubbish dump. It took five donkeys five months to clear the site and reveal the original mosaic floors.

I wanted to keep the ruined nature alive as a contrast to the precise decoration in the riad as well as to give visitors a “soft focus” space to be able to relax and think about what they have been seeing in the medina — as you have seen, it is intense and very urban.

 

We started with a soup course: harira for Duke and bessara, a fava bean soup with a Moroccan star in oil, for Wally

How would you describe the restaurant’s cuisine?

The food is essentially Moroccan — some traditional dishes and been reimagined, though we steer away from the French influences that have crept in.

We grow some of the herbs and flavorings in the garden and buy all of the vegetables and fruits from the medina souks.

 

What else do you offer at the restaurant?

We run a bread-making course, by arrangement in the garden (550 dirham per person), where you can learn to cook five local breads with Najia and go to the community bread oven.

 

Tell us about the riad.

The hotel, Riad Idrissy, has five rooms. Guests have access to the Evita Balcony, overlooking the garden and the roof terrace.

 

What’s the décor of the riad like?

The style of the riad I would describe as casual luxury, with handmade bedspreads and bespoke furniture. There are rain showers and heated towel rails in the bathroom.

All ornaments and furniture has either been made or bought in Morocco.

 

Where do you find such charming servers?

The charming servers found us really, and some have been here since we began. The riad is served by the same guys you met in the garden.

 

Madrigal lounges in the courtyard by a table. She has since given birth to a litter of kittens

When we were there, we dined with a pregnant black cat that Duke named Madrigal, after the mother figure in Tales of the City. Did she have her kittens?

The black cat has had her kittens. She usually has them across the road. She is an occasional opportunist visitor rather than a pet — though she is rather chatty and does love a sardine.


CAT FIGHT: Who’s cuter: the Cats of Fès or the Cats of Marrakech?

What’s the Best Hammam Spa Experience in Fes, Morocco?

Get pampered (and scrubbed and steamed) at Palais Amani’s hammam spa in Fès, Morocco

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

A spa day in Morocco isn’t quite the same thing you’d expect in the United States. But hammams have been a part of the Moroccan culture for centuries — and you’ll leave literally transformed. I'm not quite exaggerating when I say you'll feel like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

So if you’re in Fès and you don’t stay at Palais Amani, you at least need to undergo its one-of-a-kind hammam experience. I recommend doing so your last full day in town. If you go earlier, the sometimes stressful navigation of the medina’s winding pathways might negate its calming, rejuvenating effects.

You’ll leave literally transformed. I’m not quite exaggerating when I say you’ll feel like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

Here’s a walk-through of our day of bliss at Les Bains Amani:

 

Chambre No. 1

The changing room

After a brief wait in the lovely interior courtyard, amidst the gurgling of a fountain and the chirping of birds in the lush foliage, Soukaina, who works in the spa at Palais Amani, approached us. Her beautiful face framed by a head scarf, she led us to a side entrance near the dining area. Up some stairs and into a cozy room with two lounges.

We had been told to bring swimsuits, but to be honest, the typical men’s swimming trunks would be too bulky. If you’re a Speedo type guy, you’d be all set. I instead opted for boxer briefs, which worked out great. They ended up soaking wet by the end, so just remember to bring a spare pair of underwear or you’ll be going commando.

We donned the fluffy robes provided for us, stretched out on the lounges and wondered what awaited us.

 

Chambre No. 2

Hand and foot scrub

Our hostess returned and led us down to the hammam. It’s in the basement, where the original kitchen once was. Inside a small antechamber, Duke and I sat on a marble bench while the silhouettes of two women emerged from the dark — jagged chiaroscuros in the flickering of candlelight.

Using a mixture of rose water and bran, they began scrubbing our feet and hands.

When my woman got to one of my strange, bulbous thumbs, she stopped, confused and looked at me.

“No problem?” she asked.

I didn’t really know what to say, so I laughed and assured her, “Ça marche.” That works.

Then she got to the other thumb and grabbed it playfully.

“Les deux,” I told her, to indicate they’re both like that. I was really growing fond of her.

Finishing off the process, the women ran a white clay and henna mixture through our hair. Soukina had assured us it wouldn’t dye our hair at all, though I think it would have been fun seeing what it’s like being a faux ginger for a bit, like the adorable vicar on Grantchester.

 

Chambre No. 3

Rinse, scrub and steam

This is where things got pretty intense. We were led into an adjoining room. It’s larger, with seating along two sides and a fireplace along one end, a large cauldron of water in its depths.

You stand in front of the cauldron, and the women alternately scrub your epidermis raw with exfoliation gloves and pour warm, soothing water over you to rinse the soap off. They grab handfuls of what is referred to as black soap (and is actually a dark brown abrasive goo made of argan oil and mint).

We had visited the small hammam attached to our riad in Marrakech, and after the vigorous scrubbing, I told Duke that, believe it or not, it actually hurt more than getting my tattoo.

I might have been exaggerating. A bit.

It’s almost too bad it was so dark in the room. You can’t see all the skin they’ve sloughed off. I can attest from our last hammam, when there was more light, that there are dark rings of dead skin that collect around your wrists and, presumably, ankles.

You'll feel like you’ve been rebirthed. Fresh, soft and new.

After the dermabrasion, the ladies left us to soak up the steam. We sat on our benches as the room filled with thick, billowing white clouds. It grew more and more difficult to breathe. Soukaina had mentioned that if it gets too hot to let the staff know, and they’ll release some of the steam.

I could tell Duke was starting to freak out, so I suggested we both lie down. That definitely helped us relax.

And just when we thought we had been forgotten and would end up a puddle of water like Frosty the Snowman in the greenhouse, our scrubbing saviors came to fetch us.

 

Chambre No. 4

Douche

That’s French for shower, sillies. Here’s another useful phrase: un peu trop chaud (“uh puh trow show,” more or less). A little too hot.

It came in handy when my attendant expected me to enter the scalding hot shower.

We were left on your own for this portion. I was so used to being completely pampered, I would have just stood there all day, waiting to be lathered up if Duke hadn’t gone first and let me know we actually had to do the work during this segment.

Again, I could only imagine the skin I shed. It must’ve looked like a snake had molted before it slipped down the drain.

 

Back to Chambre No. 2

Drying off

The shower room led back to the antechamber where we had our foot and hand scrubs.

Here the two women dried us off. Mine made an adorable production of including my belly button, which made us both giggle. Then they put us in hooded robes. I felt like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.

 

Back upstairs to Chambre No. 1

Tea and relaxation

In the changing room once again, we found a pot of tea waiting for us, along with a plate of coconut macaroons. We nibbled on the delicious cookies and exalted in our luxurious excursion. I could literally do this every day. Maybe I was royalty in a past life. It just felt right.

Chamomile tea and coconut macaroons awaited us after the hammam experience

 

Chambre no. 5

Massage

After 20 or so minutes, Soukaina knocked on the door and led us down one floor to the massage room. Duke and I got massages next to each other. It’s not a relaxing rub — but it’s also not a deep-tissue to work through knotted muscles either. It’s something in between.

At one point, my masseuse bent my legs and arms into bizarre contortions. It confused me at first, but ultimately felt good.

After the massage, you shower in the en suite bathroom. This was when I realized I didn’t have dry underpants. I survived.

 

Wally basks in that post-hammam glow

Feeling utterly transformed, relaxed, pampered, ready to face anything, Duke and I emerged into the gorgeous courtyard and sat at a small table to eat the light lunch that was included in the Drop In and Unwind package.

Following lunch, we explored a bit of the hotel, then enjoyed drinks on the rooftop terrace. I can’t imagine spending a lovelier day. –Wally