Like a Real Berber Girl: Day 1 in Fes

This morning, we bid farewell to Chefchaouen, our charming blue riad, and the white cat who lived there.

IMG_20160328_091328516Riad Koutoubia, and its resident white cat. Did you know the prophet Mohammed had a white cat, too?

Mohammed II picked us up in his grand taxi, and I sat in front to converse with him in French while Sarah, Isa, and Keith squished in the back. As it turns out, Mohammed II did not speak French or English nearly as well as his father professed, so conversation was not as fluid as we had hoped. Still, we had a very pleasant 4 hour drive from Chefchaouen to Fes, and watched the landscape become steadily less mountainous and more desert-y.


IMG_20160328_123403277_HDRMorocco is known for its oranges, and the fresh orange juice you can buy on the street is delicious. But, use your own cup – the glasses are communal and not thoroughly washed.

You will notice that I am wearing a headscarf in today’s photos (Sarah too). Isa’s family is Turkish, so Sarah has been gifted with quite a few headscarves over the years, and she is kindly sharing with me. I was on the fence on whether to wear one, because I have seen plenty of young Moroccan women without headscarves, and I didn’t want to seem to be “pretending” or that I felt I should wear a headscarf. Moroccans seem to be very welcoming and accepting, and would never judge a foreigner for not covering her head. But I decided to don one for 2 reasons:

  1. The more my hair is in the sun, the lighter it gets, which I don’t like.
  2. My lighter hair would stick out like a flashing neon sign, making it even clearer that I am a tourist.

Isa said to me later that he thinks it is good Sarah and I wore the headscarves; even though it wasn’t necessary, people would know that we were respecting them and their culture, and would appreciate it. So I think I will continue to wear one, if inconsistently and not totally properly, as I like a little bit of hair to show. Also, Sarah said I looked like a movie star, so there’s that.

IMG_20160328_112453115At a rest stop, we found a playground.


The closer we got to Fes, the clearer it became that this was not a town like Tangiers or Chefchaouen. There were suburbs, and outskirts, and it was very much a city in the sense that we New Yorkers could relate to.

IMG_20160328_192158139These carts are the biggest things that can get through Fez’s narrow maze of medina streets.

IMG_20160328_192235587_HDRHot snails!

There was actual traffic, and a herd of sheep being driven up one of the medieval city walls, and a donkey in service of public sanitation, helping his handler to clean up trash from the streets. Mohammed II hadn’t the foggiest where to drop us off, but after a few phone calls with our riad and conversations with the locals, and then having the locals talk to the riad on the phone, we got headed in the right direction. Staff from the riad met us with a cart for our luggage, and thank goodness, because we then started our winding way through the labyrnth of Fes to our riad. Without the staff and their cart, we would have been hopelessly lost after two turns. More about Fes and its streets later, but here’s a sneak peek.

IMG_20160328_193705424A few typical street scenes


When we finally arrived at Riad Kettani, it was as if we had entered a Moroccan sanctuary, at once suptuously decorated and soothing.

IMG_20160328_145730345_HDRImagine water trickling in the fountain and incense burning, and you can imagine the tranquility.

We were ushered to couches and brought mint tea and cookies, while our bags were taken to our rooms and we filled out paperwork. After quickly dropping our bags in our rooms, we were whisked off to lunch by our Fes city guide Hussein, a charming middle-aged salt-and-peppered man who would be with us for the rest of the day. Lunch in Morocco is typically the biggest meal of the day, and this one proved to be our unanumous favorite meal in Morocco so far.

IMG_20160328_151837254Moroccan salads at lunch. This was just the first course.

Then we went on a tour of some of Morocco’s finest handicrafts and traditions. First was a visit to a rug collective, where we drank mint tea and learned about the different types of Moroccan rugs. Sarah and I fell in love with two rugs, and Sarah had a great success with her first attempt at haggling in Morocco. We both ended up with a rug each for our homes, and quite a bit poorer (although not as much as we would have been, without Sarah’s haggling.)

IMG_20160328_160937068_TOPAbove: the proprietor of the rug collective, where local women’s handmad rugs are sold.
Below: the rug I fell in love with. It will go in our bedroom.IMG_20160328_163056334

Next up was the metal worker’s shop, a veritable museum of metal filigree. We spent a good half hour chatting with the artisan, and would have dearly loved to buy one of these lamps, but of course had just spent ALL our money at the rug shop. The large hectagonal piece you see? $5000 USD.  The smallest, simplist lamp would be abour $150 USD. Every time I pass by one of these shops I stare wistfully in…


Then we took a break from handicrafts for some religion, and visited the Mosque al Qaraouiyine, the second biggest mosque in Morocco, and the Madrasa Attarine, or religious school, from the 14th century. During this time, the call to prayer, adhan, began. I took a video from inside the madrasa with the adhan in the background, but I cannot seem to upload it, so you can listen to it here and imagine it in the background as you see the photos below.




IMG_20160328_172958895_HDRSarah knelt down to get a better view, and our guide asked if she has been called by the Sufi mystics. Though she claimed no, he wisely nodded and said she had started to hear the call. I very much doubt it, but this made for the perfect photo.

IMG_20160328_174335698_HDRA peek into the mosque

Then, we were back on the path of handicrafts, and saw traditional needlepoint, pharmacy/chemist, and la piece de resistance, the tannerie. If you have never been to a tannerie, you can easily find it in the city by following your nose. Our guide made sure Sarah and I had enough fresh mint in our hands to cover our “delicate” female noses.

IMG_20160328_181406353Skins waiting to be tanned.

IMG_20160328_182048408These vats are where the tenners would cure the leather.

But it was in the tannerie shop that I recieved my highest compliment of the trip so far. I was interested in 2 pairs of shoes, and Keith had found a leather jacket. Excellent craftsmanship, handmade, the whole nine yards – and the shopkeeper wanted MAD 3600 for it (about $360 USD). Of course, I had just spent… (well… perhaps it’s best you don’t know how much) on our rug, so I was not about to pay a cent more than I wanted to pay for anything, even a cup of tea. I said no, that is way too much, we just spent all our money on a rug. He handed me a calculater, and said “Ok, we do like the Arabs, you tell me how much you want to pay. You cannot shock me.” I typed in 1000, or $100 USD. He was a little shocked. And thus commenced the most intense haggling I have yet undertaken, during which I actually almost got all the way out of the store, before he chased me down and said “Ok ok, it is the end of the day, it is good luck for us to make a sale at the end of the day. We give you the shoes and jacket for 2000.” (Thanks to some intervention from our tour guide Hussein.) “No,” I said. “1750.” Finally we agreed on 1800, much to the exasperation of the shopkeeper. “You are a real Berber girl,” he said. “This is a good price,” Hussein agreed.

I feel exhausted, but accomplished, because today, I haggled like a real Berber girl.


5 comments on “Like a Real Berber Girl: Day 1 in FesAdd yours →

  1. I would loved to have watch you in action as a “real Berber girl!” I can only imagine how lively the haggling was. Enjoyed the big men on the little playground equipment. And that both you and Sarah decided to wear scarves speaks very well of your respect for the culture. I wouldn’t have expected anything different. At the tannery it looks like the men had “delicate noses!” The architecture is so beautiful, I would have to touch everything. And, expecially appreciated the picture of the white cat against the beautiful blue; colors reminiscent of Santorini, Greece. Looking forward to your next installment.

  2. I am enjoying your trip. You must have a coffee table book made of your pics. I definitely would buy one. You all have are very fortunate to do this traveling. I will take a rug and a few lamps please. Looking forward to the next installment.

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