The Beauty Within

Just Like That
Saturday
9th December 2017

After our big day out yesterday, we slept like logs, with a full ten hours of uninterupted sleep. 

Our first thought when we woke up was "I wonder what's for breakfast today?" It turned out to be different yet again. We had no cake this morning but instead we had French toast. It tasted amazing, just so comforting.

Hannai asked us what our plans were today and suggested another taxi tour, this time around the parts of Fez outside the medina walls, such as the Marinid tombs up on the hill, the remnants of an old fort at Borj Sud just South of the city and the Royal Palace.

 As tempted as I was Julie and I had agreed not to rush out this morning.

Instead, once we finished breakfast, we relocated to the riad's rooftop terrace.

From here we could appreciate how the ancient medina of Fes El Bali was it sprawled out over a hill covering quite a large area.

We spent a couple of hours up here, Julie was busy kitting whilst I caught up with writting my journal. A lot happened yesterday!

It was 12pm when we decided to leave the riad and venture out.

Our objective was to get to the Blue Gate as soon as possible, so we could explore other disticts of the city. We could have retraced our steps on Thursday but that would have taken us the long way around. Instead we attempted the shortest route from our riad.

Google maps was neither use nor ornament so I had taken several photograph of a map given to us by Hannai. She had circled Borj Dhab so we could find our way home. The benefit of having an image meant I could zoom in to read street names that otherwise my eyes could not see.

The plan was working well as we quickly worked our way up the hill, knowing exactly where we were at all times. I then got a little complacent and missed a vital right turn, ending up hopelessly off course somewhere in the Douh distrcit.  "More like Doh!" joked Julie still holding on to her sense of humour.

We couldn't find any street names that matched those on the map.

Applying the principle of take the up hill path we somehow ended up in the Batha district. I had long given up on using the map but by chance we eventually popped out of the narrow alleys of the medina into a pleasant open space called Place de Independence with a rather large Post Office on the other side. It was strange to encounter traffic again as we crossed the road.

We stopped a friendly local and asked for directions to the Blue Gate. I tried to pronounce Bab Bou Jeloud but he couldn't understand me. "Porte Bleu" was the one that worked! He sent us in the direction past the Dar Batha Palace museum.

It wasn't long before I saw a sign for a restaurant called Chez Hakim. We had shortlisted this as a potential eatery and knew where it was, so we followed the signs, down Rue de la Poste ending up just behind Bab Bou Jeloud.

Walking through the green, emerging out of the blue, we continued to Place Pasha El-Baghdadi, a vast empty space that was once a military parade ground. The walls, the colour of sand, were massive and topped with pointed battlements, if that's the correct architectural term. I was seriously impressed.

It would have been the perfect location for a market, like the one we saw in Meknes yesterday, or Jem El'Fnaa in Marakech, but with the expception of a few cars parked in the corner it was a large void.

There was hardly anyone here, only us, a few other people criss-crossing the square, and this family, a father and two sons, who were sat down watching us all passing through.

From Place El-Baghdadi we followed the road skirting the walls until we reached a cafe called Mezzanine. It was a narrow building, with many floors, ending up in a rooftop terrace. We weren't quite ready for lunch yet but as it happened neither were they. I ordered tomatoes on toast for us to share but the kitchen wasn't ready. I also tried to order homemade lemonade but they didn't have any. It was a rather unsuccessful pit stop. After an orange juice and a diet coke we moved on.

We followed  a narrow channel of water, Oued Fes, (River Fez) and came to Bab Dekkakin, a large gate in the thick fortified walls. We were now entering Fes El-Jdid, or "new" Fez, although founded in the 13th century it wasn't that recent!

On the other side was a square, Old Mechouar, completely enclosed by the protective ramparts.  At the opposite end I could see a very pretty gate in pastel colours and framed in gold. I walked up to it, taking photographs as I went.  Totally captivated by its beauty I hadn't noticed the striped military sentry boxes on either and some very important looking officials with clipboards and holding their fingers to their ears.

Looking through my camera lens I saw someone wave at me, calling me over. 

For a brief moment I worried I was in a spot of bother and technically yes I was in trouble but the official dealt with me in a very courteous manner. He politely explained to me that I wasn't allowed to take any photos of Bab Mechouar gate, then asked me to delete all I had taken, which he needed to witness.

I apologised, pleading my ignorance. I hadn't realised this was one of the main entrances into the Dar-al-Makzen, the Royal Palace. The word mechouar literally meant a square at the entrance to a palace where the sultan would receive petitions from his subjects, like an inner courtyard/ reception room.

The presence of soldiers made it illegal to photograph.

With half a dozen images deleted from my camera I was allowed to leave.

Before doing so I asked for directions to the other entrance into the Royal Palace, the one with the golden doors that you are allowed to photgraph. He was more than happy to oblige.

Leaving the Old Mechouar square behind we walked down Grand Rue El Jdid, a street that ran parallel to the palace walls. It was filled with market stalls mainly selling clothes and fabrics. In the middle of it all was the El Hamra mosque. 

I still had half an eye open for a traditional djellaba tunic but we seemed to be in the Ladies department. There were plenty of colourful sequined tunics to choose from, as modelled by some surprisingly life like mannequins, but nothing for the discerning gentleman about town.

At the end of the souk we came to the Semmerain Medina gate, which had a cafe squatting inside it. We were getting a little hungry but decided to push on through. Nobody seemed to be eating, only drinking coffee.

We came out of the souks onto Rue Bou Ksissat, a relatively modern shopping street, propably built during the French period at the turn of the 20th century. It however had unmistakably Moroccan features with dark cedar wood balconies and green ceramic tiled roofs.

The shops below were all jewellers to begin with, before turning into household stores selling cookware & crockery.

The street continued past another small guarded entrance into the palace, where my camera stayed firmly out of sight, and then around the bend where the shops stopped, replaced by the tall walls of the Royal Palace.

Finally we reached a wide open space of Place des Alaouites where we found the stunning golden doors of the Royal Palace. We began by walking away from them, down the square towards some fountains in the distance, so I could look back and capture the entire seven door entrance in all its spectacular majesty.

It wasn't at all busy. A couple of people came and went whilst I patiently waited for them to get out of the way.  

Eventually, with the shot in the bag without anyone else getting in the way, we returned to have a closer look at the stunning detail, The doors were made of gilt bronze, the gold leaf still shinning bright despite it being a dull day.

They had an embossed geometric desgin like a mesmerizing constellation of stars. It also had some mighy door knockers which I was almost tempted to knock. If it wasn't for my earlier encounter with the authorities I probably would have done.

It wasn't just the doors that were beautiful, even the arch of the gateway was crenallated to create an even more ornate finish. Then there was the tilework with such exquisite fine detail.  Breathtaking.

The Dar Al-Makhzen palace was originally built during the 13th century by the Marinid dynasty but most of what is there today was built was in the 17th century as the residence for the Alaouite Sultans and expanded over the years. The golden doors were an even more recent addition. You would think with its high standard of craftmanship it could only have been constructed hundreds of years ago but it was actually built in 1969!

The current King of Morocco continues to use Dar Al-Makhzen as a royal residence. Hence the high security.

Once we had our fill of the golden gates we retraced our steps, stopping in a shop on Rue Bou Ksissat, when some pretty plates caught our eye. They were reasonably priced so we bought ourselves two, happy to take the risk of them breaking in our luggage on the way home. (They actually did survive the journey until one night several months later when we had a Greek themed evening at home with the Jones' where they ended up being smashed as per tradition.)

We were getting proper hungry by now,  not hungry enough to be tempted by this trader selling what looked like oddly shaped roasted chestnuts, but hungry enough to head straight back to Mezzanine to see if their kitchen had opened.

To our joy food was being served, We climbed the three floors all the way upto the roof top terrace where we sat down practically on the floor at low tables and ordered a beer and a glass of wine whilst we browsed their menu.

They had plenty of choice beyond the tagine. It was more of a tapas-style small bites. Julie went for a salmon club sandwich and we shared some briouats, (cheese filled cigar shaped pastries) and some well-seasoned tomatoes on toasted bread. 

I also had, all to myself, a baked aubergine dish whch was absolutely delicious. The chermoula dressing was sensational and the aubergine was melt-in-the-mouth soft. At 25 dirhams the dish was great value for hands down the nicest thing I had eaten all trip.

We felt like staying here all aftgernoon, There was no rush for us to leave but we did eventually.

More or less directly opposite the Mezzanine restaurant was an entrance into the Jardin Jnan Sbil, a large formal public garden. We decided to go for a stroll along its pleasant paths. 

We walked down the main avenue where several fountains trickled into star shaped pools. It was a beautiful space and so peaceful. The wonderful tranquility was maintained by its own force of rangers who patrolled the park. If anyone messed about they would toot a whistle to catch their attention before reminding them to be respectful, or face being forcibly ejected.  

Jnan Sbil was originally for the private use of royalty and was only opened to the public in 1917.

To the South of the gardens we came to a man-made lake which was overlooked by a 16th century bastion, a fortified building in the city wall known as Borj Sheik Ahmed.  It dated back to the Saadin dynasty. We stood briefly soaking in the scenary of this oasis before heading for the exits.

We had no plans for the rest of the day but to return to our Riad. Although, following this morning's meanderings that in itself could have been a very big adventure.

It began by walking across Place bou jeloud and through the Blue Gate back inside the medina. As we walked past Cafe Laglali we saw someone sat down at a table busy making paper thin warka pastry. I wasn't hungry but felt compelled to buy two Almond Briouats, small triangular pastries. They looked similar to samosas but were filled with chopped almonds and drenched in honey. 

I bit into one and picked up an odd flavour which I didn't like. I politely folded the rest into a napkin to save for later, or perhaps never.

After a few minutes down Rue Salaa Sghira we decided to chance our luck again by turning off the main shopping street and follow signs for the Ruined Garden.  This time I realised where we went wrong, not only this morning but on Thursday. We reached a point where previously we had either gone up or down hill and then got lost but the key was to stay on the level and walk through a dark underpass that joined these points. It was a wonderful moment finally making sense of the map.

The path back to our riad from here was straightforward the twists and turns were becoming familiar and we reached our hotel in no time. Before retiring Julie fancied some crisps and remembered seeing a grocery store open late as we returned last night.

So we walked past our riad, towards Place Rcif, before turning right up Boulevard Ben Mohammed El Aloui. Eventually we found the shop, and the crisps Julie craved, although the "kebab flavour" was an interesting choice!

We then saw a cafe called Snack Malak which we had read reviews about on TripAdvisor and decided to stop for a coffee. When the waiter brought the menu out the Harrira soup caught my eye and it was almost as cheap as a cup of coffee. Julie joined me in having something to eat and asked for some frites.

My soup came in a deep bowl, steaming hot and very tasty. Unfortunatey Julie's fries, despite looking fabulous were stone cold, they had clearly forgotten to re-heat them! Not wanting to make a fuss she hid them under a napkin.

After our second lunch we returned to the Riad where we drew the curtains and had a few hours sleep.

We woke about 6:30pm giving us an hour to get ourselves presentable and find Restaurant Darori Resto for this evening's reservation. We headed out into the dark, with no idea other than the  sketchy Google maps as a rough idea of our destination.

We knew our way to Place Rcif, where we then headed back into the medina, towards the golden arches, not of a McDonalds but of the Rcif mosque.

Fortunately it was not as complex as last night's labyrinth. From the square it was up some steps, turn left into a small dark square called Rhabet Zbib and exit by the only alley. In a flash we were at their studded steel door. It was shut, to keep the cold out I guess.  It strangely looked like that of a ship, below decks

It was also too dark to see the obvious door knocker but eventually we found it and knocked vigourosly. Within a flash someone came and opened an inner door within the larger door, which was a surprise.  After stooping low to get in we were thrilled to enter yet again an unexpected beauty within the dour walls.

 Despite having made a reservation and receiving an e-mail with a "your table awaits you" greeting when we arrived they had no table waiting for us. We sat in a side room whilst they pepared one for us. It turned out to be a large table, suitable for six people. Much to their credit they they were happy for us to occupy it eventhough it was just the two of us.

We browsed the menu and appreciated the fact we could have chosen a la carte or gone for a fixed priced 3 or 5 course menu. The three course meal price was cheaper than what we would have paid for two course a la carte so we went for that.

We also asked for the wine list. The waitress looked around suspiciously before nodding and returning with what was called the "Blacklist". 

It was our last evening in Fez so Julie was ready to push the boat out with the most expensive wine on the menu. The waitress nodded again and suggested a much cheaper wine. "It's very nice, just as nice as this one" she said obviously directing us toward a bottle they had in stock as opposed to the one they hadn't.

 

The meal began with a four small plates, the best of which was the carrot salad, thick diagonally cut slices cooked to a melt in the mouth consistency with a warm cumin spiced flavour. It was quickly becoming our favourite way to eat carrot!

Our wine arrived. It was a bottle of Guerrouane, a locally produced white wine, from the foothills of the Atlas mountains just South of Meknes. The waitress was right. It tasted just as nice as any other decent French wine. 

 

Whislt we waited for our main course a group of five people arrived. There was room for four at out our table but not five. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable "would be mind moving" was asked of us.

Of course it wasn't a problem.  "At least you can have a different view" the jovial maitre di joked once he was comfortable we were happy with the arrangement.

The main courses arrived. Julie had a Chicken tagine with preserved lemon. She enjoyed it but did say "It's not as nice as the one you make"

I had the standard vegetable tagine which was perfectly tasty but there was only so much of the same dish one could take. There seemed to be a lack of variety in restaurants for the vegetarian. 

Dessert arrived and we both looked at each other with a "you go first" look. Neither of us fancied it to start. It was just simply cut fruits, like apple, banana, pear and an unidentified fruit. The slices of banana were dipped in ground cinamon and the dollop of whipped cream in the middle also had a cross of the ground spice drawn over it.

With the exception of the cream, I ended up eating the whole lot.  Unexpecedly my favourite was the one I wasn't too sure what it was. It reminded me of a mango but this was much darker, almost carrot organge in colour. It was delicious whatever it was. 

 

When we paid our bill Julie got given a pretty looking bag filled with biscuits as a parting gift, which was a nice touch.

We left Darorio Resto, opening the whole door this time, and stepped out into the pitch black alley. Our eyes took their time to adjust to the dark before we could consider making our way back down to Place Rcif. 

Along our route back to the hotel we came across a young girl skipping across the square, with her mother (or grandmother) in tow. The mother wasn't skipping. Julie approached her and gave the little girl the bag of biscuits. The mother was most appreciative.

Back into the narrow alley towards our riad we came across a guy lurking in the shadows. He was dressed in the traditional djbela, with the hood up, standing in a cloud of a certain fragrant smoke.

He approached us, scratched his chin and said "good beard" and then tried to sell us some drugs. "you want some weed?" he asked.

"No, we're good" I replied.

"Man, you must get high before you die" he said "I've got some good hash .... kiff, ganga"

"No, no, we're ok" we said whilst quickening our pace to get out of there. 

"OK, ok" he gave in "I don't push like George Bush"

This made us laugh.  He left us alone after that.

Back in our room it was so cold we headed straight for bed. It could have done with a fireplace. 

  Next Day >>>  
 

ęCopyright 2000 - 2020 Colin Owen