fès

15 Best Articles of 2017

Our top blog posts cover the Paris Catacombs, India’s transsexual hijras, jinns, vintage Halloween, Fès hammans and more.

 

Duke and I tend to be drawn to the bizarre. We’re fans of the strange (chambers lined with skulls and bones, creepy vintage Halloween postcards and photos). We like to meet those who are societal outsiders (like India’s legal third sex, the hijra). We’re obsessed with the supernatural (jinns, gypsy love spells). But we also appreciate a good pampering (at a Fès hamman, say) and architectural beauties (such as the Milan Duomo).

Seems like you do, too. Here are the top 15 blog posts from last year. What was your favorite? –Wally

 

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1. GRUESOME FACTS (AND HELPFUL TIPS) ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS

No bones about it: If you think piles of skulls and hallways formed of bones are pretty effin’ cool (like us), then the Catacombs of Paris are for you.

 

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2. SECRETS OF THE HIJRA: INDIA’S LITTLE-KNOWN TRANSSEXUALS

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

 

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3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

 

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4. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

 

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5. 24 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN CARDS THAT ARE NOSTALGIC — BUT A BIT CREEPY, TOO

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

 

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6. 21 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN PHOTOS THAT ARE SO CREEPY THEY'LL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

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7. WHAT’S THE BEST HAMMAM SPA EXPERIENCE IN FES, MOROCCO?

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

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8. 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

 

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9. LOVE SPELLS FROM THE GYPSIES

How to cast a love spell to make someone fall in love with you — or fall out of love with you. Plus, secrets from the Roma that will reveal your future spouse!

 

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10. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

 

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11. WAT RONG SUEA TEN, THE BLUE TEMPLE

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

 

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12. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

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13. THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM EXPLAINED

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

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14. HOW ST. NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

The surprising origins of jolly old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

 

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15. THE BEST SHOP FOR BLUE POTTERY IN THE ENTIRE FEZ MEDINA

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

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

20 Best Instagram Photos of 2016

You saw, you liked. Here are our best-rated travel photos on Instagram of last year.

 

Looking back, 2016 taught me the importance of staying connected to friends near and far. Seeking new perspectives to overcome hurdles and nurturing the labor of love Wally and I call the Not So Innocents Abroad.

Our hope is to share our experiences of other cities and other cultures. Whether exploring the unusual 161-year-old Dhundiraj Ganpati Mandir wooden Hindu temple in Baroda, India or asking our friends abroad to vocalize how they felt about the polarizing effects of the American election, we’re grateful for the role you’ve played and look forward to welcoming a year filled with optimism and new adventures.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

As the old adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Predicting what makes one image more engaging than another can be difficult to determine and often, like art, is simply subjective.

From amazing destinations that include Cambodia, France, India and Morocco, here’s a look back at our most popular Instagrams of last year.

Follow us on Instagram — and be a part of the action! –Duke

1. If Aix-en-Provence, France doesn’t charm you with its markets, food and architecture, there is no shortage of magnificent elaborately hand-carved entry doors to look at.

2. The beautiful Italianate courtyard outside the Darbar Hall at Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara, India.

3. Deco Darling. Tucked away in the Fès Medina, Morocco, is the beautiful Palais Amani. Originally owned by a prominent Fassi family of merchants, the majority of the residence was rebuilt in the Art Deco style after a landslide badly damaged the 17th century property.

4. The Café St. Regis was one of our favorite spots to enjoy breakfast when we visited Paris, France.

5. The façade of Notre Dame in Paris has many interesting details, but perhaps none as unique as the sculpture in the left portal holding his head. The statue is of St. Denis, said to have picked his head up after being decapitated and walked six miles, while preaching a sermon of repentance the entire way. If it takes me 45 minutes on the treadmill at 6 miles per hour, he would have walked an hour plus!

6. Both covered and open-air, the green metal pavilions from the 1900s form the charming flower market located on Place Louis Lépine in Paris, between the Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte Chapelle chapel.

7. A view of the magnificent Rajon Ki Baoli stepwell in Delhi, India, built by Daulat Khan during the reign of Sikandar Lodi in 1516. Chambers located behind the arch-shaped niches once provided respite from the heat and a place for patrons to socialize.

8. One of the splendid staircases with its elegant wrought-iron railing inside the 18th century Hotel d’Albertas mansion in Aix-en-Provence, France. Embellishments such as these were a sign of family wealth intended to call out the social status of the owner.

9. Neptune wielding a trident riding on a fish by sculptor André Massoule on the Beaux-Arts Pont Alexandre III in Paris. A marvel of 19th century engineering, this bridge consists of a 20-foot-high single-span steel arch.

10. Musical Chairs. I was awestruck by the hypnotic symmetry of the rows of empty ladder-back chairs awaiting the devout at Saint Suplice in Paris. The ethereal Catholic church, located in the 6th arrondissement, is the second largest in Paris and it was in some movie called The Da Vinci Code. 😜

11. The enormous grooved stump of lime mortar and rubble masonry are all that remains of the unfinished Alai Minar in Delhi. The minaret was intended to rival the Qutb Minar in both size and scale, but was never completed.

12. Part of the Right Bank, this busy square located in Montmartre, Paris is known for its portrait artists and painters. During the Belle Époque, at the beginning of the 20th century, many artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh resided and worked here.

13. Fez was founded in 859 CE. The origin of the name is unknown. Some scholars believe it comes from the old Berber name of the Middle Atlas Mountains, Fazaz. Other stories trace the name back to a tale of a golden axe that divided the river of Fez into two halves. In Arabic, a fez is an axe.

14. Built by sculptor Jean-Claude Rambot and situated in the heart of the Mazarin district, the Fountain of the Four Dolphins in Aix supports an obelisk topped with a pineapple. We spent an afternoon here with our sketchbooks pretending we were bohemian artistes.

15. The stunning Angkor Wat temple, the largest religious monument in the world, was built by Khmer king Suryavarman II in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The complex has been in continuous use since it was built.

16. Benched. There is something beautiful in the patina of these benches in Aix Cathedral combined with the well-worn brick floor that has stood the test of time.

17. A Room With a View. Our grand suite at the Udai Bilas Palace in Dungarpur, India looked out onto the tranquil waters of Gaibsagar Lake, where the royal family’s private island temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva floats serenely.

18. Set in Stone. A white marble cenotaph lies at the center of Safdarjung’s tomb in Delhi.

19. Kittens and cats are a common sight among the streets of the Marrakech Medina in Morocco, indifferent to the activity around them. This little guy came to visit while we were sitting having coffee.

20. Louvre is in the air at Paris’ famous museum.

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

Beware This Shop in the Fes Medina

The store itself is full of interesting items — all ridiculously overpriced

When shopping in Fez, there’s one store you absolutely should avoid.

 

Feeling euphoric from our experience at Fès Bleu Art, we passed through an alleyway and entered a shop with an ornate stucco ceiling decorated with stalactites resembling the honeycomb of a beehive.

The shopkeeper invited us in saying, “No obligation to buy — just look around.” Wally began taking pictures and I surveyed the merchandise. The shop really is fun to explore; it’s just that the owner makes the experience awful.

He intimated that a powerful mafia ran the souk, stealing a portion of his profits.

When I paused to look at a stoneware inkwell decorated with Arabic calligraphy, the shopkeeper asked where I was from. I told him we were visiting from Chicago and really just looking.

He used a tactless ploy, telling me that he was Jewish and because of this he would offer us a fair price. He added that because we were his first customers we were obligated to purchase something.

“You have to buy something or you will have bad luck and I will have bad luck,” he told us. Charming.

He also intimated that a powerful mafia ran the souk, stealing a portion of his profits. There was nothing subtle or nuanced about his demeanor.

The shopkeeper does everything he can to finagle a sale, including pleading and, ultimately, cursing

I hadn’t expected to hear a shopkeeper speak this way, regardless of his personal opinion. I offhandedly asked how much he wanted for the inkwell, and he replied 3,500 dirham. I had also looked at a turquoise glazed stoneware basin oil lamp, which he quoted at 7,500 dirham. The basin had clearly broken off from its slender base and been reattached. He told us everything in his shop were artifacts. Honestly, I couldn't identify a valuable antique from an item that looks old, but clearly felt that this guy was duplicitous and trying to pull a fast one on me. I did sort of want the inkwell, but not for the equivalent of $350, so I put the objects down and told Wally we were leaving.

As we made our way towards the door the shop owner suddenly turned nasty, cursing us and muttering profanities under his breath.

We recommend that you do comparison shopping, as a neighboring shop may very well have the same item. We found one offering an array of beaded terracotta heads from Nigeria. We had purchased one in Marrakech three years prior for 250 dirham, and the shopkeeper in Fès started at 700. He also had some excellent bronzes and more than a few basin oil lamps, artifacts or otherwise — none of which were previously broken and all of which were a fraction of the price at the other store.

After exploring the cavernous shop (and escaping the clutches of the evil shopkeeper), flee out this door and back into the meandering medina

If you spot this short, dark-haired man in his pink plastic chair up the street from Place Seffarine, be on your guard. The prices are 10 times as high as they should be, and you just might face a curse from the tactless shopkeep. –Duke

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

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

 

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

The amazing tile and woodwork at the Bou Inania Medersa in Fès

Hire a guide and hit these cultural locations in the Fez medina.

 

We were only in Fès for a few days and knew it would be a challenge to navigate the labyrinthine medina on our own, so we decided to hire a guide. This was easy to coordinate through our guesthouse for our first day.

We were led from Riad Dar Bensouda by Hamid, a member of the riad staff, to a guide who awaited us outside the walled city. He introduced himself as Abdul and began the tour by asking us, “Are you ready to get lost?”

He began the tour by asking us, “Are you ready to get lost?”

As we started our exploration, Abdul explained to us that Fès el Bali, the ancient walled medina, was established in 789 CE and is the largest car-free urban area in the world. Over 350,000 people live here, and it has been said that there are no less than 9,000 winding alleys.

Here are seven sights to see — all easily done in one day.

 

1. Bab Bou Jeloud

Bab Bou Jeloud, better known as the Blue Gate — the entrance to the bustling medina of Fès

The main western entrance to the medina, the monumental Bab Bou Jeloud, or Blue Gate, is in fact blue on one side and green on the other. Built in traditional Moorish style by the French in 1913, the bab (gate) is relatively young compared to the medieval city beyond. The tower of the Bou Inania Medersa is visible from the oversized keyhole-shaped central arch. 

Its surface is blue, the color of Fès, elaborately ornamented with interlacing geometric patterns, calligraphy and floral motifs. The reverse side, which faces the medina, is green, the color of Islam.

 

One side of the so-called Blue Gate is actually green, to represent Islam

 

2. Bou Inania Medersa

The courtyard of the Islamic school, no longer in use

Primarily a residential college for local students, the medersa was an extension of the great university and mosque, once restricted to the study of theology, mathematics and astrology. It’s one of the few religious buildings in Fès that non-Muslims can enter.

The medersa's minaret as seen through an interior archway

Constructed by the Sultan Abou Inan between 1350 and 1355,  it’s an excellent example of Marinid architecture and the only medersa to contain a minaret. The marble floors are original, and the central courtyard fountain used for ablutions still runs its water supply comes from the Fès River.

Our excellent guide, Abdul, standing in the medersa doorway

The mihrab, or prayer hall, has a dry moat, where water from the river once flowed and features stained glass panels.

The medersa prayer hall

The medersa prayer hall

A striking architectural element of the medersa is the refined mashrabiya screen, made of delicate turned wood, with an eight-pointed khatim star. The underlying principle of its design was to provide shade and ventilation while concealing the interior and its occupants without depriving a view of the outside. The intricate patterning is truly incredible. As many as 2,000 individual pieces of wood go into the making of a single square yard.
 

The screen at the medersa allows for privacy but also a peek at the outside world


3. Al Quaraouiyine (or Karaouine) University

A peek inside the oldest university in the world

The historic 9th century university is considered to be the oldest continuously functioning educational institution in the world. Since its origin, it has been a place of learning and religious study, attracting intellectuals and artists alike. We were fascinated to learn it was founded by a woman: Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from the town of Kairouan, Tunisia.

It was incorporated into Morocco's university system in 1963. Despite being founded by a woman, the institution did not admit women until the mid-20th century.

Originally founded as a mosque, this means as non-Muslims, we could only glimpse through its various doors.

The Al Quaraouiyine University contains a mosque — so it's not open to non-Muslims

The structure includes two chandeliers that were originally church bells from Andalusia.

 

4. Chouara Tannery

The tanneries are undergoing restoration, so you don't get to see the colorful dyes in the tubs — but you also don't get the awful smell

One of the sites we were most interested in seeing was the historic 11th century Chouara Tannery. Our guide had pointed out to us that Fès is undergoing a major architectural restoration funded by UNESCO, as many of its buildings are currently held in place with makeshift wooden trusses.

We were surprised to arrive at the tannery without that horrific smell hinting at its presence — typically the dyeing vats are filled with a mixture of water and pigeon poop to make the hides soft and supple. We climbed to the upper terrace where leather goods were being sold and gazed out onto the tannery, sad to discover that its large stone dyeing pits were empty.

 

5. Place Seffarine

You'll hear the clanging before you turn the corner upon Place Seffarine, the metalsmiths' souk

Recognizable by the reverberating sound of copper and brass being wrought and hammered, the metalsmithing soul of Fès is known as Place Seffarine.

A lone, wizened cork oak tree covered in gnarled burls, which I'd like to imagine as being centuries old, sits in the open square.

Place Seffarine, with its gnarled tree in its center, is one of the largest open public spaces in the medina

As the central marketplace for different types of items made from metal, it’s entertaining to watch the craftsmen as they work, pounding and shaping metal bowls.

“This would be a bad place to be if you had a headache,” Wally said.

 

6. The Water Clock

The Water Clock once chimed at the calls to prayer

Opposite the Bou Inania Medersa is the Dar al-Magana, with 12 windows above carved cedar beams. These are identical to the beams of the medersa, which extend out from the structure. It’s said that a magician created an elaborate hydraulic-powered clock that released a metal ball into one of the 12 brass bowls that sat atop the beams to chime out the five calls to prayer that structure each day.

When the Saadian dynasty replaced Merinid rulers and moved the capital to Marrakech, the clock stopped working — along with the mystery as to how it operated.

A foundation for the reconstruction of the medina’s monuments, Agence de développement et de réhabilitation de la ville de Fès (known by its acronym ADER-Fès), is restoring the clock — although it was not yet functioning on our visit.

 

7. The Philosopher’s Stone

Now a private residence, a small marble plaque outside denotes what was once the home of the great Jewish philosopher and physician Moshe ben Maimon (better known as Maimonodes). He lived in Fès in the 12th century, after fleeing Córdoba, Spain.

His 14-volume Mishneh Torah endures as an influential work in Jewish religious thought.

Note: The tourist attraction Cafe Clock is located at the end of this unassuming alley. –Duke

The popular tourist spot, Cafe Clock

The Cats of Fez — Les Chats de Fès

Cute kitties appear around every corner you turn in the medina of Fès

Cat lovers should definitely consider visiting Morocco. There are plenty of other things to do in Fès — but photographing stray cats was near the top.

Duke and I couldn’t help ourselves. Whenever we saw a cat in the medina of Fès, we had to stop to take a picture. Our guide for the first day, Abdul, was patient with us and would smile every time. 

Love of cats is a common trait amongst Muslims. Find out why — and see how the cats of Marrakech compare to those of Fès.

We had many more shots of the well-loved kitties of this ancient city. But I was able to narrow them down to 30. –Wally