After being overwhelmed and taken for a ride in Tangier, we were hesitant to arrive in Fes. However, our train ride was great and we enjoyed the company of a Fes native named Salma, who gave us a great rundown on the country, the city and the customs, including the decision regarding to wear a headcovering or not.
We had been out of touch with Karen and Ron, but we knew they were making the LONG drive from Marrakech to Fes. We told the front desk of our stunning riad, Salaam Fes, we were going to the rooftop if they arrived.
Within an hour, we heard the familiar "Hello!" of Karen's voice. It was such an overwhelming feeling to see them. Karen and I both cried and cried out of happiness. It's crazy because in some ways we are able to keep in touch so frequently via FaceTime, but it still is not the same as being able to hug and talk without time or technology constraints. We loved being able to share each day with them, catching up on everything.
Throughout the week Brian and I both learned a lot about a culture so different from our own. I learned how to take a step back and Brian became more assertive in many situations. This was one of the most challenging things about Morocco for both of us - as a woman, it is not acceptable to negotiate or be overly vocal and as a man, you are expected to haggle and negotiate everything. Part of the reason I fell in love with Brian was because of his pure and trusting heart, but he showed a different side in handling Morocco.
We constantly felt taken advantage of, but eventually learned how to get things close to the amount we should be paying-this went for everything from taxis to pottery to food stalls. There are 4 pricing structures in effect under the surface of Morocco and Americans are going to pay the highest price regardless of how much we negotiate, behind French speakers, French Moroccans and finally, locals.
We did have many enjoyable adventures with Karen and Ron, including visiting the tanneries, handcrafted pottery shops, the highly-educated university town of Ifrane with French architecture, and an awesome meal at Dar Roumann.
Side note: In all of Morocco, the tourism industry is highly regulated and only licensed guides are permitted to give tours, directions, etc. Be aware of this and use this to get out of uncomfortable situations with "helpful" locals. But, also take it with a grain of salt. When we ate at Dar Roumann, they sent someone to pick us up from our hotel (thankfully, as it lies within the heart of the medina) but we were stopped by the tourism police and the poor young guy just taking us to the restaurant was threatened with jail time. It worked out and we continued on our way, but if caught the price is steep.
Morocco is such an incredible place, full of unique traditions, delicious food and incredible architectural detail. Our advice is as follows:
1. Without a doubt, stay in a Riad in the medina, but close to a gate. Wandering through the medina is a challenge (especially at night) and you don't want to have to pay a guide each time you want to go anywhere. Also, the beauty of Morocco is behind the doors. The walls, rooms and terraces are incredible, including detailed mosaics, but from the outside, Fes looks run-down. Our riad - Riad Salam Fes - was incredible in every way: the room was luxurious, the food was excellent, the staff people became our friends, the rootop terrace was our refuge, and the architecture was flawless.
2. Be prepared to negotiate. If you are a man, be ready to haggle over everything. Be prepared to rudely walk away. Be prepared to be laughed at when suggesting a price, but then also don't suggest too low. It's all a game and the Moroccans will surely win, but you can at least get to a point where you feel like you've gotten a good deal.
3. Research restaurants in advance. Nearly everywhere in Morocco is behind a closed door, so it's important to book ahead of time and plan where you will eat dinner if it's not a street stall. The main reason is you will need a guide to get you there and back. There are few "western" style restaurants, but a few can be found. La Mezzinine (served alcohol) and Cafe Clock were both great. We also enjoyed Cafe Thami just inside the Bab Boujloud gate. (Don't be confused: there is a Chez Thami right next to it. The real Thami has just two tables and is in the corner of the turn at Tala Saghira).
4. Cover yourself. This is mainly for women, as Brian wore shorts several days without any looks, but I never went out without my arms and ankles covered and if I wore jeans, I had a shirt that covered my butt. It's not something that you need to be crazy about, but be respectful and it will limit some of the looks you will get. Seeing other Westerners in shorts and tank tops looks seriously amiss in Morocco. No one will say anything to you, but it's just additional unwanted attention. Note: In some Muslim countries it is required for women to cover their heads. In Morocco, that is not necessary and would look odd if you are not a Muslim. I chose to wear my hair down though as it appeared to be the most common option for women who did not cover their heads.
5. Find a reliable driver. Ahmed was invaluable to us because we could trust him and he was so genuine and helpful. He owns his own company and if you're ever in Fes, please use him. You can reach him via email at: AhmedFarrat@gmail.com. This saves you so many headaches and many negotiations. You can also fit more than 3 people in his tourism van. Three is the legal limit on taxis in Morocco, so it was difficult for our group of 4 to travel together in taxis.
6. Visit Art Naji. It is a pottery business located in the "pottery neighborhood", a 15 minute taxi ride from the medina. We took a tour of the facility and watched mosaic tiles being delicately chipped by hand and artists paint the most intricate patterns freehand without stencils or a guide. The quality of this pottery is outstanding, and you know you're buying an authentic piece of art when you see them make it. It is very different from the pottery you find in the medina, whose quality you can't trust. Many of those items are mass produced.
7. Walk to the Plaza Seffarine just past the University of Al Karaouine and watch the metal smiths work. These guys create beautiful copper or brass pots, lamps, and other decorations by the old fashioned method of heating and hammering.