La Gare du Fez , being only an hour's journey from Meknes by train, greeted us with surprising modernity and the sunny day.
Fez's medina is huge, with over 9,000 windy streets, and is 15kms in circumference. Our Riad was located in the south east, right near a main Bab (gate). After our happy stay in Meknes, our Riad was less cosy in atmosphere - too many white walls - and service. After enjoying a sweet mint tea welcome, we set out to find the heart of the Medina. That first sunny afternoon however, soon turned to rain, and we were quick to 'take refuge' in... a Westernised bar - many of the bars in Morocco are stricly men-only, where men are men and women are strictly unwelcome, unless they're prostitutes. It was the first modern bar we'd found since Belfast (Chalky was beside himself!). We're not ashamed to say we then spent about six hours drinking white Morrocan wine and eating olives.
Our days were spent wandering the souqs, getting hopelessly lost (in the rain!), and a little annoyed at the touts. Alas, Marrakesh and Meknes had not prepared us for the barrage of polite but persistant young men who tried to get us to visit their father/uncle/brother's carpet/ceramic/artisan/leather shop. Even the little kids have a punt. Again, they back off quickly but there are more of them here in Fez. We did allow one guy to get us 'unlost' amidst a downpour which turned the lanes into small rivers. At one corner it was so flooded, we stood alongside the locals who were all unsure of how to ford the ankle-deep muddy (and probably donkey poo-filled) water. Speaking of donkeys, they were everywhere in Fez, scrawny poor creatures, burdened with sacks and being lead through the souq lanes. Many lanes ingeniously had a plank of wood nailed donkey-head-height to prevent them from entering.
We also let one guy lead us to a Tannery, as it was wet and we couldn't find the leather quarter. He didn't want any cash, being employed by the Leather Co-operative that he took us to. We were given sprigs of mint to ward off the stench and walked up to get roof-top views of the outdoor sludgy dyeing pits, with animal skins heaped and hung everywhere. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of the colours though, due to the rain, which meant the colours would be changed for the next day. Back below in the Co-op, there were two floors full of brightly coloured leather bags, jackets, ottomans, purses and shoes, but alas our packs don't allow purchases!
Our highlight of Fez would have to have been 'Thami's', a little street-food cafe near the main gate of the Medina. Our Lonely Planet had raved on about Thami's modest cafe, and when we stumbled upon it he rushed out, brimming with a wide grin and proudly showed us write-ups from The Guardian and other travel articles in a ratty plastic cover. We weren't terribly hungry, but soon gobbled down his tasty makoda (potato fritters), loubia (round beans in a lamb-stew-tasting sauce) and spicy ladies finger and tomato dip. His small outdoor table was occupied so he welcomed us to dine right in his kitchen, his wife Sandy busying herself around us. It was so delicious we returned the next day and ordered his 'rost chicken' (broiled before deepfried, rather than actually roasted) and his speciality, kefta (meatball) tajine. He doesn't have space for a drinks fridge so gets orange juice, soft drinks and mint tea from neighbouring cafes. Such a cheerful, lovely couple - she cheekily pushing him away when we took photos of them.
Another must-do in Fez was to procure some very rare alcohol for Christmas Day, which would be spent in a very small village called Chefchaouen. We headed to the Ville Nouvelle, which every town has in contrast to their ancient medina, (and every Ville Nouvelle without fail has the ubiquitious Avenue Mohammed V, named after Morocco's King). We checked out the Central Market, which was crammed with trays of foreign fish, shiny fruit and veges and rows of turn-you-vegetarian butcher shops. Our Lonely Planet said there was an alcohol shop right nearby so we searched the neighbouring streets. We were about to give up when we found it and bought three bottles of cheap plonk - two white semillants and a red - for only NZD23! Then, we realised we didn't have a bottle opener (note to self, must buy Swiss Army knife next time if only for that purpose) so returned to the souqs to unfortunately scour the stalls without any luck.
So on Christmas Day we took a bus to Chefchauoen, which was about 4 hours away. We'd gone to the bus station the day before to buy tickets in advance, but were greeted with a grumpy ticket officer and frustrated tourists who were upset that the roads were closed due to the rain! Uh oh. We were advised to just return the following day. Which we did, at 7am, hoping to catch the 8am bus. Again the ticket officer was still grumpy and told us the roads were closed (likely because Chefchaouen was in the mountains) but we could catch the bus to Ouzzane or Tetouan, which curiously were the stops before and after Chaouen. We befriended an German guy who was in the same situation as us, and sat patiently in the cafe for the 10am bus, which a friendly local had said was the true bus time....
It pays to check every bit of information you get given though! Jac decided at 7:50am to double check this benevolent piece of advice, and luckily she did, as the bus was leaving in 10 minutes! We scrambled to down our coffees and teas, gathered our packs and quickly purchased tickets. As we hopped on the bus we met an Australian woman who was surprised to hear that the road to Chaouen was closed, as she hadn't been told that by grumpy ticket officer. We hopped off the bus at Ouzzane, an unremarkable and shabby town, and the ticket lady knew no such thing about roads being closed. We think its because the bus was pretty empty and the Fez ticket officer must have tried to discourage us from going, perhaps to save a bus trip.
We arrived in the rain to Chefchaoen, which is a cute village nestled amongst the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco. Its name literally means 'look at the peaks', the Chef (look at) only added to its name in the 70s. We gave small gasps as we first glimpsed it rounding the corner, as it's entirely blue and white, with tiled terracotta rooves which is a nod to its Andalucian roots. 'What a charming place ' we thought... until we were told by a Canadian traveller that the water was shut off the previous day. And we saw two of the previous day's frustrated tourists board our bus headed out of the town. Uh oh.
Thankfully our hotel, although suffering heavily from leaky-building-syndrome, had running (and hot!) water. We ventured into the main square Plaza Uta el-Hamman for lunch, and ate amongst a horde of snotty-nosed, manky cats who tried every trick in the book to snaffle a bit off our plate. We had few Christmas beverages at a nearby hotel (why, after that afternoon in Fez we realised we missed having our beer-o'clocks!) before retreating from the pouring rain to spend Christmas afternoon/evening in our room. Jac had two Christmas carols on her iPod (one, a Mariah Carey, the other a John and Yoko Lennon) so we played them on repeat, to create that 'department store' festive feeling. The previous day we'd bought not-so-secret santa presents, to be not more than 25 dirham (NZD4.50) and each blindly pulled out a present from a bag. I received a Fez keyring, Mum two small blue and white ceramic bowls, and Chalky a dodgy-English tajine cooking book (with recipies like 'Chicken with Cardoons', and instructions to cut courgettes 'at their extremities'). Chalky managed to open the bottles of wine using his bare hands and a chopstick (don't ask why we had chopsticks on us) and we had a cosy and thunderstormy night in.
We were in Chaouen for three days, two of which were absolutely pouring with rain. We were kept company by our books and the steady stream of straight-to-video American movies on telly (box office hits such as "Narc" and "Half Light" and "Bloodrayne"), while the hotel staff ran around with mops and terracotta pots to stop the leaks.
The third day, thankfully, blissfully had sun - which made us so excited after 7 solid days of rain and patchy sun. We roamed the compact medina, saw its markets and mosques and - made sure we bought our tickets to Casablanca, a day early, afraid that more rains would come and trap us into this charming, but small village.
The only downer to our visit was the hotel management, who tried to pull a fast one and make us pay for the extra night, even though they were okay with us staying 3 instead of 4 nights. They tried to say the one-night deposit we paid over the internet was a 'booking fee' paid to the online 'travel agency', and then when we vehemently protested at the fallacy of that, changed their story to say that actually we still had to pay for the fourth night because they couldn't give our room away. When Jac sternly told them off for bad customer service in not advising us of that on our first night, they then rang the booking agency and said that they (i.e. the Manager's buddy, probably) said that we could instead try to get 25% off the final night back off the agency. As we'd treated ourselves to a 'luxury' hotel, we were not pleased.... time to get the fluck out of here and onto Casablanca!