The next stop on our Grand Tour of Morocco was the Imperial City of Fez, reputed to be the most intact piece of medieval Arabia in the world. Someone also mentioned that it was the largest carless urban environment in the world (which, after seeing it, I can readily believe). Having learned our lesson about buses, we decided to take a train from Marrakech to Fez; this seemed to be a good idea, as we purchased two hassle-free tickets from an orderly queue inside a clean, spacious, modern-looking train station. Our tickets were second class, so we set off for the appropriately marked cars . . . but there seemed to be two different types of second class. The first, which was fairly full already even with twenty minutes till the train's departure, had compartment seating; the second looked like bench-style train seating, similar to amtrak, with tons of legroom. The latter was almost empty, and had a bit more space, so we took a couple of seats there rather than fight for a compartment.
Turns out the difference was air conditioning (that is, its presence or its absence). We sweated the whole way to Fez, which actually ended up taking us THROUGH Casablanca again. The train was half an hour late getting into the station, so the entire journey took us through almost 8 hours of hellish heat.
After starting a fight at the Fez train station, with taxi drivers angrily vying with each other for our fare, we crept away unnoticed to a nearby gas station, where we caught a relatively hassle-free cab to the medina. I unloaded my bag from the cab's rooftop rack while gaping at the towering, undulating, crenellated white walls before walking into a scene straight out of Aladdin. Gone were the touristy trinkets of Marrakech, replaced by artisans working their magic before your eyes: a cobbler stitching leather shoes, a stonecarver chipping away at a Quranic tablet, a weaver at a loom in a back room just barely visible from a narrow wooden doorway in a mosaic-tiled wall. Produce, spices, and nuts were displayed everywhere, signs advertising them at a pittance. Tiny awnings draped with dozens of beautiful carpets concealed surprisingly spacious shops crammed full of incredible handiwork from the Middle and High Atlas, with persuasive sellers ready to lure you in with a glass of hot mint tea and the ubiquitous promise of a good price. Children ran by with loaves of unbaked bread dough balanced on trays on their heads, presumably to the communal oven that no neighborhood is without (each of over a hundred districts has its own of the five essentials: an oven, a mosque, a koranic school, a public fountain, and a hammam (bathhouse)). The city seemed like it hadn't changed in hundreds of years.
However, some changes became obvious very quickly-- namely, the adjustment to the very profitable tourist trade. Within seconds of our entrance into the medina, we were fending off the usual crowd of young boys and men who wanted to show us their father or brother or cousin's hotel. However, this was the first city we'd visited without any idea at all of where to stay, save for a few names culled from the ever-dependable Lonely Planet. Two young boys peppered us with questions about where we were going and what we were trying to find, undeterred by our attempts to brush them off. They ''took us'' to the hotel we were trying to find, which we could have found perfectly well on our own, but it looked so grim that we turned right back around to find our unwanted escorts still waiting. They insisted they knew of a cheaper and better guesthouse not far away, and herded us onwards, turning us off the main street into a narrow derb. A right turn, a left turn, a right turn, and we found ourselves outside a simple door with an engraved plaque with the name Abari Youssef. The boys ran inside, and we suspiciously followed up a steep mosaic-tiled staircase into a beautiful house. The proprietor bustled down to greet us and showed us a few of the sumptuous rooms, quoting prices that were comparable to or lower than the gloomy hostel we'd just left.
So everyone was happy: we had a great place to stay, the proprietor had guests, and the enterprising boys presumably got their commission. We dropped our bags and set off in search of dinner and perhaps American company-- though we'd forgotten until an English man pointed it out to us, it was in fact the Fourth of July. We found a place that seemed like an expat restaurant, and indeed it was packed full of Europeans (mostly Brits). We isolated the few Americans by eavesdropping on accents, and went over to introduce ourselves and wish a happy Independence Day. No fireworks, flags, or other patriotic trappings, but at least we met some countrymen (which happened very seldom over the course of the trip).
The following day, we struck out with a vague idea of following the listed walking tour, but quickly lost ourselves in a maze worse than any we'd previously encountered. It wasn't an unpleasant sort of lost, though-- Fez has enough to keep anyone's eyes occupied. The sensory overload was more than adequate entertainment for a morning stroll, and distractions (like an avacado milkshake or glass of peach juice) were delicious. It was at one of these stops that we overheard someone speaking English (!) and introduced ourselves to Geoff, from Oklahoma, and Zoë and Lachlan, from-- you guessed it-- Melbourne. I was happy to spend the next few hours wandering around with them, reminiscing about my all-time favorite city. We finally parted ways some time later--them to nap, and us to find lunch/supper.
One of my goals for this trip was to come back bearing a beautiful Arabian carpet as a wedding gift for my sister and new brother-in-law. Fez is famous for its carpets, but also for its carpet sellers: the long, involved process of buying a carpet was so imposing in its reputation that I almost chickened out. However, I set my jaw and went to talk with Hassan, the carpet seller we had passed several times on our way to and from the guesthouse. He seemed very nice and eager to share a piece of his culture with us, although it was clear that a shrewd businessman lurked beneath the hospitable facade. Ryan came along for the ride, and both of us were seated with great formality inside the carpet shop and given glasses of steaming mint tea as Hassan began to explain the intricacies of carpet craftsmanship. He showed us qilim, flat woven rugs with bright geometric patterns; carpets embroidered and knotted and tightly woven in a kind of triple technique; and the iconic lush carpets with rich natural colors and intricate designs, looking ready to take off at a moment's notice. This last category, though it clearly would be the most expensive, was my favorite. After describing the sort of shape and color that I wanted, the parade began: an endless sucession of incredibly beautiful works of art. We narrowed it down to a single carpet, which I had loved from the moment he showed it to me-- and the games began.
Rambling on about my fine taste, artistry, and authenticity, Hassan made a show of looking up the carpet's price via a numbered tag in one corner. He announced that it was 2600Dh (about three hundred dollars). Laughing a bit and trying to sound incredulous, I told him that I was poor and maybe could not afford this carpet, mentioning that I could perhaps afford 800Dh. He of course laughed in return, as is customary, before knocking down to 2400. I complimented the fine craftsmanship and, with the air of someone making a supreme sacrifice, upped my offer to 950. He smiled and said that since I he liked me and thought I was honest, he could come down to 2200. This process continued for some time; at around 1300 we had a small shouting match in which he ranted about quality and value and I insisted that since it was a wedding gift for my sister he could surely make a better price. He exasperatedly turned to Ryan and stated that surely my name was actually Fatima and I had been doing this since birth. As a last price, I offered 1550; he grasped my hand and we solemnly agreed on 1600Dh (about $180). In a flash, he and an assistant (yet another teenage boy... where do they all COME from) were wrapping up the carpet, and we were escorted to his brother's shop to pay by credit card. Though I'm proud that I bargained the price down so much, I have a nagging feeling that I could have gotten the carpet for much less (general rule is 40-50% of the asking price). Nevertheless, I am very excited to have such a unique and memorable wedding gift for my sister and new brother.
Exhausted and exhilerated, we searched out a Lonely Planet Pick for dinner-- a charming place called Thami's, a tiny streetside cafe with an energetic and charismatic owner. We ate by candlelight under a tree beside a large square, where the people-watching was excellent. Even Ryan, sick of couscous, agreed that the food and atmosphere were among the best we'd had on our trip. I was sad to bid Fez goodbye the following day, but excited to once again leave the sweltering cities for the mountain village of Chefchaouen-- the last installment of this particular voyage.