Fes-Marrakech, Tajine-Couscous (Weeks 21-22, February 18 and 25, 2019)
There is a silly game I would play with friends after a few glasses of wine, late in the evening when the conversation died down. (I should mention - we are nerds, all of us.) You have to choose - are you a cat person or a dog person? Are you a cake person or a pie person? People tend to know the cat-dog answer immediately. But pie-cake is MUCH harder. (I am cat-pie, because cats can be left alone for the weekend, and while average cake is better than average pie, amazing pie is life-changing.) Your answers to these questions then put you into a given square in the two-by-two matrix, and you can see which of your friends are your neighbors.
After returning from Fes I was chatting with a friend who had spent lots of time in Morocco. He asked if we’d loved it. “We liked it,” I said, “but we prefer Marrakech.” “Well there are Fes people and Marrakech people,” he said, “just like with tajine and couscous.”
Aha! I'm a Marrakech-tajine person, for sure. The truth is, until that moment I had never considered that anyone could like couscous more than tajine. And my Fes experience was similar. I’m glad I went, but who could prefer this to Marrakech?
I had heard that I might feel uncomfortable as a woman in Fes. But it wasn’t gender that was at issue in the end. It was simply being foreign. I was later speaking to a French woman married to a Moroccan man who had spent 10 years in Marrakech. “This makes sense,” she said when I told her Fes was interesting, but didn’t feel as warm or welcoming as Marrakech. “Marrakech is a trading city, they are used to foreigners.”
I was struck by the differences between Fes and Marrakech as our plane descended into Fes airport. There was so much green. The land around Marrakech is all red. The city of Fes itself is white and grey, with hills throughout the medina and around it. Marrakech is flat, dusty, pink, red, and yellow.
The first time we walked through the souk in Fes we saw a camel head hanging up to indicate that the butcher beside it was a camel butcher. Further down was the chicken butcher. The beef butcher just had a sign, but once you got close you could see which tongue or organ was right for you.
The “authenticity” people speak of finding in Fes -- which I think of as “by locals for locals” is certainly there. We tend to be out early by Moroccan standards (shops are just being set up around 10am) and so a post breakfast walk took us by everyone having their tea and msemen (a crispy layered flaky pancake), chatting with their neighbors on stools outside their shops, having just opened the shutters but not yet set up their wares.
In Marrakech, there are absolutely butchers and fishmongers, plus an entire chicken souk that is very noisy that I have not mustered courage to enter -- but most of the places you wander by are selling things to and for tourists. And even more striking, nearly everywhere in the Marrakech medina there are shops. In Fes, the first place we stayed had two tiny places selling chips and water and kerosene (which is delivered by mule). Nothing for tourists at all.
There is a common trick that locals play on tourists in Morocco -- you’ll be walking through the medina, step out of the souk, get a bit turned around, pull out Google maps or start trying your luck with alleys that don’t show up maps at all. I guess all lost tourists look the same in any language, because before long a young boy will see you making a turn and shout something like: “It’s closed! Medina that way.”
This is designed to be a precursor to getting you even more lost, at which point this boy or his friend will offer to guide you to your destination in exchange for some dirham. The whole “It’s closed!” thing has been attempted on us a couple times in Marrakech, though usually we know our way well enough to ignore it. It's an annoying trick, but I should mention that one time we walked past a group of kids playing soccer around 10pm and they saw the direction we were going in and shouted “It’s closed!” We smugly continued (“You can’t fool us!”) and then we came upon a giant closed door cutting off our passage to the next alley. Turns out sometimes it really is closed.
In Fes, however, this “It’s closed!” routine was relentless. In the end, I just found it kind of heartbreaking. We were headed back to our first riad after a walk around the neighborhood on the afternoon we arrived and as we turned onto our street a kid said “It’s closed! Only people living there. Nothing for tourists.”
Dang. I don’t know if that kid represented the feelings of the neighborhood or not, but I did not feel good about our Airbnb choice at that moment. As it turned out, our Airbnb was owned by an absentee Frenchman who was overworking his Moroccan staff and letting the giant 5 bedroom riad he owned crumble. After two nights with only occasional heat we called it, and booked ourselves into a riad-style bed and breakfast right by the Blue Gate. In addition to having working heat, this was a commercial area. We weren’t screwing up the neighborhood.
(Fes was actually our only truly terrible Airbnb experience after all this time, and with substantial prodding by our friend who booked the company did make it right, but dang that was a stressful couple days. We were with friends so there were two babies and a grandma, and these are scenarios where nonfunctional heaters in rainstorms and railings popping out of the walls while you climb the stairs are dealbreakers.)
I think the highlight of my Fes experience was an early (for Morocco) morning at the tanneries. Fes has the oldest continually operating tannery in the world, and we got to see it in action from the balcony of one of the leather shops that surround it. We watched dozens of people dipping skins in ammonia (made from pigeon poop, which locals collect and deliver) and various all natural dyes. We watched two men hand-dying skins with turmeric and saffron (all the other colors, also all natural, are done in vats but yellow is done by hand). Then we went downstairs and bought a yellow camel leather satchel.
The best part of Fes overall though was having friends to share it with. Friends from San Francisco came for ten days, and whenever people come it’s an excuse to behave a bit more like a tourist on vacation than a traveler settling in. So we did a tour in Fes, we went out to dinner in Marrakech. And WP had a buddy, our friends’ 11 month old. Actually the two of them losing their minds with glee at a rug shop together was probably the highlight.
I can’t believe it’s been a month in Morocco already. It’s been relaxing in a way that other parts of this trip haven’t. The weather plays no small part. What were we thinking spending the whole month of January up north? It’s dry and 75 with bright desert sun almost every day here. But the gift of this month has been our housekeeper. Even though I knew in theory that household help in other countries is less expensive than in the US, I’m still astounded that we can afford this. Our SF housekeeper who came twice a month for an afternoon charged the same as our Morocco housekeeper who works six days a week. And having that kind of support is magical.
I write this from Essaouira where we went for a weekend to see the sea. It’s calm and windy and pretty here. We’re staying at a place with a pool. We walk by the water to get to the medina, which is small and manageable and quiet, and if you head off the main drag it's mostly Moroccans going about their business, or making the crafts that will be sold a few alleys over. I like it a lot.
We love Morocco and we are excited for another month in Marrakech, and are plotting our next moves in Morocco and beyond...
(But first, goats. Goats eat argan fruit, and the nuts are harvested for oil. This spectacle is specific to the region just outside Essaouira, the only place in the world for argan.)