- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

FEZ, Morocco — To Westerners, Morocco sounds exotic and remote. It is plenty rich in the exotic, but from New York to Casablanca, the distance by air — 3,600 miles — is 20 miles fewer than New York to Paris and just 160 miles farther than New York to London.

Casablanca is the hub of airline transportation in Morocco, and most flights between cities are routed through that famous city on the Atlantic Ocean. Rabat, the capital and also on the Atlantic, is a short distance from Casablanca.

Fez, though, is the spiritual and cultural city of Morocco, at times called the Holy City. The medina, or old native quarter, of Fez was selected for the United Nations’ World Heritage List in 1981 — the first site in Morocco on the list — and later was joined by the medinas in the cities of Marrakech, Essaouira and Tetouan.

Fez, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat also are called the imperial cities because each has at one time been the capital of Morocco. Founded in the ninth century, Fez is home to an old university.

I am in the medina of Fez in mid-January, and it is quite cold at night, cold enough to have an electric heater to make my room comfortable at La Maison Bleue’s riad, a small hotel in what was built as a family palace in 1915.

The typical architecture — sometimes called Andalusian, Arabo-Andalusian or Moorish — of these private homes uses an open central courtyard from which the rooms open on each floor, similar to the buildings Moroccans’ ancestors built in southern Spain during the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula before they were expelled in 1502. The ceilings are high; the courtyard has a small pool and an orange tree heavy with fruit.

From one end of the top floor, guests can look upward to the 16th-century fortress near the old city wall. It has become the Borj-Nord Museum, housing a collection of weapons. The fortress is most impressive when it is illuminated at night, becoming a crown sitting on the top of the city; it also is one of the best points for a complete view of the city on the hillsides below.

La Maison Bleue also is near Bab Boujloud, the city’s famous Blue Gate, the entrance to the medina.

A short walk from the riad is the Maison Bleue restaurant, one of the best in Fez. There I enjoy my best dinner in Morocco, especially a tagine of beef heavily flavored with cinnamon, one of Morocco’s many popular spices. The restaurant is in a building similar to the riad, with a large but covered courtyard. Typical low Moroccan tables are in the courtyard area and in the surrounding rooms.

One night in the dining room at the riad, I am served another fine meal, this time including a b’stilla, a nicely spiced meat pie, often made with pigeon and salt-preserved lemons and with a layer of sugar on the top. The b’stilla varies in different areas of Morocco. It can be sweet; spicy; made with chicken, beef, rabbit or lamb as well as pigeon; and contain rice, eggs and couscous. The b’stilla makes a spectacular first course, whatever its ingredients.

The cook at the gastronomic restaurant of La Maison Bleue, I am told, is a longtime employee of the family that owns the hotel and restaurant. Her cooking shows how exciting Moroccan food can be while using traditional ingredients and methods — no fusion food here. It is not needed.


After breakfast, I leave with one of my excellent guides from Heritage Tours, Driss Yacoubi, a resident of Fez when he is not working with travelers anywhere in Morocco. From Maison Bleue, it is down the hill to the old medina of Fez. This quarter, Fez el Bali, is the oldest of the three main areas of the city.

The newest is called Ville Nouvelle, which shows a French colonial influence, with trees along boulevards. Morocco was a French protectorate before independence in 1956, and French is still spoken frequently. The third quarter is Fez el Jdid, home of the mellah — the old Jewish quarter — and the Royal Palace.

Cars and buses cannot negotiate the narrow passages throughout the medina, although shoppers probably can find some automotive supplies in one of the souks. Goods are brought in by donkey cart or carried by back. To say everything is for sale in the medina is an exaggeration, but much is available. Some of the vendors are desperate to sell an item from what may be a small collection, such as one pack of chewing gum, a cup, a bottle of aspirin, a pack of sugar, a bowl.

Each shop specializes in a type of merchandise. Some sell spices, while others carry fresh meats; clothing; leather goods; plastic bowls; pottery; books; candy; towels and sheets; appliances; furniture; boxed food products such as breakfast cereals, teas and coffees; coffins; and shoes.

Mr. Rachidi, wearing a hooded burnoose in cream-colored wool — the Moroccan women wear djellabas — points to his black leather shoes and says, “I bought these in the medina. The price is much better here than in the French section.”

Thinking of supermarkets and grocery stores with their goods separated into small shops gives an idea of what is available in shops and at stalls. Everything seems to pass through the medina. Some of the traffic can be jarring to Western sensibilities, especially when an open cart containing the heads of recently slaughtered goats and sheep bumps down the stone passages, blood still dripping from the back of the cart. Or when a passing mule, laden with the hides of the same animals, passes, but headed for the tannery farther down the hillside.

In the distance, I notice large puffs of black smoke and am told they are from the factory that makes the tiles that are cut into patterns for the Arabo-Andalusian designs still used in mosaics.

I discuss the weather with Mr. Rachidi. “You should come in spring,” he says. “That is the best time. That is when Moroccans travel. Trees are in bloom; the temperature is perfect.”

Had I known. Anyhow, I am enjoying Morocco despite the cold — and standing in the sun is warm and pleasant. In the shade and at night, though, it is cold in Fez even with a leather jacket and an electric heater.

We continue walking downward in the medina to the tannery, passing through a tangle of shops selling leather goods. Here I see the most tourists in one place — speaking English, German, French and what sounds like Swedish.

Life is crowded and busy and not always comfortable in the medina, but it must be seen for an unforgettable slice of living history in Fez.


Marrakech, another imperial city, is very different from Fez in looks and location. Marrakech is flat, and its stucco buildings and walls usually are painted in shades from pink — as in the venerable La Mamounia hotel — to a red terra cotta. The yearlong sunlight — well, maybe just 300 days of sun each year — plays magic on the colors, depending on the sun’s angle. Sunrise and sunset are spectacular.

Marrakech also has large, well-tended gardens and miles of orchards, especially of citrus and olive trees. Visitors must take time to smell the roses, but it is impossible not to do so.

This medina is crowded, too, but its streets often are wider than in Fez, in a smaller area. Obviously there are more tourists here.

Marrakech is the home of the famous Djemaa el Fna, a large square that seems to entertain more than it feeds and clothes. Dancers, acrobats and costumed musicians move about hoping to collect money from spectators. Snake charmers perform, also for money, holding one snake in the air while their other snakes remain coiled on a nearby blanket.

Food stands sell hot cooked meats next door to vendors peddling vegetables, olives, dried fruits and nuts, fresh oranges, compact discs and video games. Drinks, from water to Coca-Cola and juices, are available. It is a food fair and carnival that comes alive about sunset, as the air cools.

Marrakech is a more popular tourist destination than Fez, and it is possible to come here on an international flight without passing through Casablanca. Though expatriates from many countries have had homes in Morocco, particularly in the 20th century and especially in Tangier, Casablanca, Agadir and Marrakech, Marrakech has become the favored place, especially with people who come just several times a year.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is an increasingly popular period for jet-setters and other travelers from France, the United Kingdom and the United States to celebrate the holidays in Marrakech. It may be too cool for a long walk at night, but for those going between their hotel rooms, parties, restaurants and bars, a jacket or sweater usually is wrap enough.

I find Marrakech noticeably warmer than Fez at the higher elevation, although both are a short distance from the mountains, where Moroccans and winter visitors can ski. Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains — divided into the High Atlas, Middle Atlas and Anti-Atlas — has an elevation of more than 13,000 feet.

Marrakech also has more hotels than Fez, from international luxury chains near the edge of the old city to riads fashioned into boutique hotels in the medina. Marrakech’s most famous hotel, La Mamounia, will close from May 1 to Dec. 15 for a major renovation. For fans of art-deco decor, including furniture, this is the time to revel in it at La Mamounia, for the new look will be more Moorish, with a Parisian flair. May it have more of Morocco than fez-wearing doormen and the bathroom doors painted to remind guests what country they are visiting. Less attitude would be another improvement.

Hotel guests can walk to Djemaa el Fna, the casbah — originally a fortress — and souks and stroll through public gardens. At La Mamounia, guests also may bask in lounges by the pool and enjoy the hotel’s own extensive garden whether getting a tan or just daydreaming. It is that sort of place.

La Mamounia was a favorite hotel of Sir Winston Churchill, for whom a suite was named. I also hear that Alfred Hitchcock got the idea for “The Birds” while staying at La Mamounia. Indeed, birds provide plenty of song as they fly about the garden and onto the balconies of the guest rooms. Maids must be careful about opening the balcony doors so birds do not fly inside looking for a bowl of fruit.

The rooms facing the large, old garden of La Mamounia are on the sunny side, and guests can relax on their balconies instead of going to poolside.

The first place I visit in Marrakech after stopping at the hotel is Jardin Majorelle Museum. The tropical garden and the museum were bought and restored by couturier Yves Saint Laurent, whose home adjoins the garden. The museum is painted a rich blue, and outside are large yellow and blue jars that are typically Moroccan. The gardens are named for Jacques Majorelle, a French artist who lived and worked in Marrakech.

Marrakechis use more colors than their countrymen in Fez, where green is the popular color for doors and window frames — it also is the background color of the Moroccan flag.

The ruins of Palais el Badi, built in the late 16th century, only hint at the grandeur that fit the place’s name, the Incomparable. Most of the palace was destroyed by the troops of invader, conquerer and then ruler Moulay Ismail. The looting and destruction lasted for more than a decade.

Marrakech also is known for the quality of the crafts for sale. A visit to a metalworker’s shop can include a demonstration of how designs are hammered into a brass bowl or tray. One of the designs still in use is the Star of David, which is hammered into the metal in geometric repetitions to become mosaics in the overall pattern. At one shop, I am told that the star was used by Jewish craftsmen when they worked in brass and that today’s Muslim craftsmen keep the tradition.

About 250 Jews remain in the mellah of Marrakech, as most of Morocco’s Jewish population has emigrated to other countries, especially Israel and France.

The wall around old Marrakech can seem almost too perfect, squeaky clean, but visitors will find within plenty of opportunities for learning history and for shopping, whether for Moroccan carpets, brass plates, lamps, fabrics or clothing. There are many pleasant spots to stop for a cup of Moroccan tea, which is made from green tea and fresh mint and is very sweet unless little or no sugar is requested. Pastries, many showing a French influence, also are available.


A day trip to Essaouira, west of Marrakech on the Atlantic coast, is doable and is worth the ride on a good highway through rather desolate countryside in winter.

The trip also reveals another aspect of Moroccan cities, this time a Portuguese influence. At one time, particularly when Portugal was dominant in the spice trade, that country also dominated Morocco’s coastal cities on the Atlantic. Earlier, there were Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans.

Most of the buildings in Essaouira are painted white, usually with blue trim, a blue as bright as the city’s wooden fishing boats. The restaurants here — I recommend Le Chalet de la Plage on Avenue Mohammed V ([email protected] — are noted for fresh seafood, and the craft shops are famous for woodwork, whether it is carvings, boxes, tables, furniture or other items.

On my visit to Essaouira and Marrakech, I have another excellent guide from Heritage Tours, Abdellatif el Kherchi. The Essaouira’s medina is along one long street, again with the shops selling — like medinas in Fez and Marrakech and other cities — almost everything. These three cities are just a touch of what visitors can see in friendly Morocco. Much more awaits, including:

• Roman ruins at Volubilis near Meknes, another imperial city close to Fez.

• Rabat, the capital, a favorite with Moroccans looking for night life.

• Casablanca and its boardwalk, the Boulevard de la Corniche.

• A night in the Atlas Mountains, followed by a camel ride.

• Beaches along the Atlantic.

• Tangier, in the north, formerly a favorite of celebrities such as Barbara Hutton and of artists and writers.

• • •

Heritage Tours, 121 W. 27th St., Suite 1201, New York, NY 10001; phone 800/378-4555; fax 212/206-9101; e-mail [email protected]; Web site www.heritagetoursonline.com. In its 11 years, Heritage Tours has become highly rated by travel publications and professionals.

Friends have agreed with me that Heritage Tours does an excellent job of arranging private and group tours of Morocco, including airline, hotel and restaurant reservations, a car and driver, the best guides, and outings such as a night in the Sahara and camel rides or treks. I would be reluctant to go back to Morocco without Heritage Tours planning my trip. The company also arranges tours in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Peru and southern Africa.

Le Riad La Maison Bleue, 33 Derb el Miter, Ain Azliten, Fez, Morocco; Maison Bleue (main building and restaurant), 2 Place de l’Istiqlal, Batha 30 000, Fez, Morocco; phone 212-55-636052; fax, 212-55-740686; visit www.maisonbleue.com; e-mail [email protected]

For travelers from Washington, the most convenient flights are operated by Royal Air Maroc from New York to Casablanca and cities beyond.

Suggested reading: “Morocco” (Lonely Planet) and, especially for photographs, “Escape to Morocco” by Pamela Windo (Fodor’s).

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