At a time when Spain, like much of the EU struggles to formulate and execute effective policies to deal with illegal immigration into the country, it is interesting to consider that at one time, the flow was in the other direction. About 800 years ago, Andalucia was an Islamic stronghold. The cultures of Southern Spain and countries like Morocco became intertwined and people left Andalucia to start a new life in the sophisticated, educated and artistic Arab world. Many Andalucians emigrated to Fez, an elegant Moroccan garden city, surrounded by fertile land.
Last week I decided to escape work and the daily routine of emails, client meetings and deadlines, to take a moment to reflect and enjoy some genuine “free time”. I decided to take my trusty old 4 x 4, (now with over 130,000 kms on the clock!) to Morocco and explore Fez!
In a week I learnt to effectively and discreetly bribe police; overtake overloaded, smoke-belching trucks (whilst avoiding oncoming speeding dark Mercedes); navigate the narrow, shady alleys of the Medina with little more than my camera and some low denomination dhs (for “buying” directions and advice); as well as eat much less! (It is Ramadan, so the Arabs are fasting during the day and visitors are encouraged to respect this by not eating or drinking outside – I realised just how much I snack during the day! I lost over 2 kilos in 5 days!) My journey started in Tarifa.I took the fast ferry (35 mins) to Tangiers. My previous trips taught me that good humour and about 20 euros gets you through customs without much delay or hassle. So, by last Monday lunchtime, I was on the open road, starting my 5 hour drive to the city of Fez.
There is now a toll motorway network in Morocco, skirting the coast down from Tangiers to Rabat, where it forks out either to Fez in the east or south to Casablanca. I took this for about 100km, and then confident and excited, I exited for Larache and took the small “national” roads across country towards Fez. The roads took me through rolling, pastoral countryside and forests – all surprisingly verdant.
Morocco often conjures up images of the deserts and high Atlas Mountainssouth of Marrakech, but in the north it looks just like Andalucia, with cork oaks, aloes and pine forests.
I negotiated hair pin bends, crazy truck drivers, donkeys, and people that just wandered out into the road as it blind and deaf to oncoming traffic! Speed limits are strictly enforced – throughout my trip I was pulled over twice for the most minor discrepancies in speed.
However, the first time I was pulled over, the police office kindly showed me how to bribe with confidence and discretion. Taking a 100 dh note (about 10 euros) out of my wallet, he folded it smaller and smaller, so it was no larger than a postage stamp and then took it as he handed me back my license and green card s wel wishing me well on my trip.
From then on I knew that so long as my papers were in order and I wore a smile, a tightly folded 100 dh note handed over with discretion would get me out of most problems!
Morocco is two hours behind Spain, so by 6pm it was getting dark. I found the right arched gateway of the ancient walled Medina that I needed to get me to my hotel (there are 14 to choose from!) The Medina of Fez still retains the authentic feel of an ancient Arabic city – the crumbling architecture, dirty streets, the pungent smell of the tannery and the sweetness of the cedar wood crafted by carpenters, and the freshness of the vegetable and spice vendors creates an exotic mix that is unlike anything in Western Europe.
My hotel was in the heart of the Medina, in a traditional Riad – a courtyard style house that I really loved. The tranquility and lushness of the courtyard garden with babbling fountains and a still pool, was a fantastic contrast to the noise, smell and autumn heat of the old town. Gardens and mosques from the Andalucian period dominate the style of the Medina – with some buildings modeled directly on Andalucian/Islamic master pieces such as the Alhambra in Granada. Sadly, however, many of the original public green spaces have now been sacrificed for large ugly blocks of low cost housing as the local government seems to struggle to cope with the needs of the growing population and its obligations to maintain a World HeritageCity.
New town is much like any growing Arab town. Wide avenues with rows of tall date palms, fearless scooter riders; aggressive taxi drivers; and pedestrians that prefer working in the street than in the shade of the pavement! Add the French convention of giving way to the right whilst on a roundabout and the combination means you really need to concentrate when driving.
In fact the French influence was visible in many ways – not just in the language spoken to visitors but in the shops and patisseries and the architecture of the new buildings. As one drives out of town through the wealthier suburbs one can see that even new villas are still being built in a 50s style. Since the French left, the architects seem to be in some kind of neo modernism architectural time warp.
Out of town, about an hours drive south is a French-style Alpine ski resort where the Mosque tower some how looks incongruous amongst the steep roofed chalets and hotels. A little beyond this pretty town are the majestic cedar forests, from where over the centuries wood has been harvested for the mosques and palaces of northern Morocco.
West of Fez is Volubilis, a well preserved Roman city that sits beautifully framed by rolling fields and dramatic mountains. Fez is now increasing popular with foreign visitors, with direct flights to the UK and France. As a foreigner you have to negotiate your way through the pushy “guides”, determinedly offering their services. Everything has an unfixed, negotiable, yet inflated price; from parking your car, the use of the shabby smelly loos, to asking directions. Everywhere you are confronted with the evidence of the uneducated poor, left outside the economy but determined to get their share of the action. They are swift to offer help but of course for a price and are surprisingly pushy in naming that price.
For example, when I arrived at the parking in the old town I knew that I would have to walk through the Medina with my cases to the Riad, as the narrow alleys meant it was inaccessible by car. The hotel’s email confirmation had suggested I call them upon arrival and a bell boy would come and get me. Yet at the parking the attendant offered to take me – how friendly I naively thought. Although I had already paid him to look after my car in the “free” public parking and tipped him as well I though that his toothless grin indicated this was a friendly gesture to a weary, disorientated visitor. Yet as we arrived at the hotel 5 minutes later he asked for 100 dhs more – another 10 euros for just helping me for 5 mins! Of course I obliged – I didn´t really like the idea of alienating the person that was looking after my car!
For more pictures of my trip to Fez click here.