Moroccan Travel Guide: MOT Travel Issue 1
Fés, Morocco, Africa
As part of our vision for MOT Mag, one of our deepest desires is to provide our community with a rich and insightful editorial experience of different foreign cultures from various global destinations. We want to showcase how other cultures relate to some of our core values like veganism, sustainable living, and spirituality. That being said, it should really come as a no-brainer that we had to include a travel section where we can share some of our most recent adventures around the world. For our first issue, we'll be deatiling a Moroccan travel guide.
Fes was the chosen city of exploration to experience our own unique version of Arabian nights. We spent 10 days in the ancient district of the city known as the Medina back in May and also got the chance to experience the annual Sacred World Music Festival which was taking place at the same time. Throughout the entire trip, there was hardly ever a dull moment or lack of sites to explore that each came with its own adventure.
Walk through the ghetto or any derelict district of an urban metropolis and you may get somewhat of an authentic glimpse of how an older version of the city may have looked or been like in its halcyon days. As the global property market and rate of urbanization around the world continues to rise every year, more and more of these older spaces are becoming gentrified and renewed into more modern developments that usually erase all memory of the old world. Increased Moroccan travel from around the world means a slight loss of authenticity.
Occasionally some developers with a more mindful understanding of cultural preservation make a conscious effort to retain certain aspects of antiquated neighborhoods, and its residents then get to enjoy the best of both old and new worlds. The city of Fes, in Morocco, is one of the rare and few places remaining in our time that is characterized by a clear dichotomy that divides the old and the new worlds: Morrocan travel, and Morrocan culture. Fes is home to one of the oldest medinas in the world, which has been declared a heritage site by UNESCO. It’s also one of the largest car-free zones in the world. Medina is the Arab word for town, and in contemporary language, it also refers to a distinct historical section of a city that was walled around in ancient times and consists of narrow, maze-like streets as part of its infrastructure.
I would highly advise anyone planning a trip to Fes to try their utmost to get a direct flight to the local airport, Fes-Sais Airport, as opposed to arriving in another major city like Rabat or Marrakesh because it’s a fairly long distance from Fes. I landed in Casablanca on a Thursday morning just after 8 AM and caught a train from the airport to the main train station, Casa Voyageurs, then changed onto another train that took me a painstaking 5 hours to get to Fes. Although the journey was fairly scenic at some points and allowed to me to get a view of how the different towns look, the ride itself wasn’t the most memorable. From crying babies to passengers listening to the radio on their mobile phones on loudspeaker, there was hardly ever a moment to sit back and let time fade away. The train carriages and corridors can get quite chaotic and crammed at times so if you already have a hard time as it is dealing with long flights then avoid getting to Fes by train at all costs.
Upon arrival in Fes, Moroccan travel and mobility around town is very straightforward and simple to access via the many red taxis, which are always cruising the streets. However, if you aren’t fluent in either Arabic or French, have the details of your destination on hand to show your driver in case his English isn’t that great. Most taxi rides to and fro around The Medina cost 10 .د.م MAD (Moroccan Dirham), which is roughly just over $1 USD. Everything within the old city is in fairly close proximity for one to get around on foot, although sometimes the weather may be just a little too hot, or you may be too fatigued after a long trek up and down the marketplace. If this is the case, you can easily hail a cab.
Perhaps one of the most iconic aspects of The Medina experience is staying within one of the many beautiful refurbished riads. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with an enclosed garden and courtyard that sometimes also has a terrace on top with spectacular scenic views. It is an essential part of Moroccan travel. All of the structures within The Medina are attached and self-enclosed, meaning that there are no standalone houses at all or any exterior residential spaces that extend beyond the front door. riads were developed as residences for the more affluent folk of the old days such as merchants and consisted of multiple stories with different sized rooms. In more recent times these riads have been renovated and transformed into luxurious hotels that give The Medina a sense of opulence, which starkly contrasts some of the more squalid areas littered with animal excrement and all sorts of other unsavory matter.
I was treated like a king while staying at the Riad Braya in the Batha area of The Medina and also got the chance to visit a few others like the Palais Sheherazade and the Dar Attajalli where we got an amazing cooking class. Some of the common characteristics among all the riads include beautiful mosaic ceramic tiling used for the interiors, excellent hospitality and free mint tea served upon arrival and every 5 seconds thereafter. (Expect mint tea everywhere you go, around every corner you turn, inside each and every eatery or social hangout spot that you may find yourself in.)
Apart from those three aforementioned characteristics, the rest of the features of each riad differ tremendously. Some riads have elevators and several indoor swimming pools in the courtyard, while others have bars and informal lounges to pass time during the afternoon over more mint tea. The one piece of advice that I would give with regards to selecting which riad to stay in would be to try and get one as close to the city outskirts as possible. This will ensure that the walking distance from wherever your taxi drops you off to where your hotel is located isn’t too great, otherwise, all that walking with your luggage could feel like a journey to Mordor.
As far as eating is concerned, the three main traditional dishes you will find on offer almost everywhere you go are Couscous, Tajine, Pastilla and every possible form of flatbread. All of the aforementioned are staple foods and come in almost every possible variant of meat (so cruel) or assorted vegetables. Although these dishes are very common across the entire Maghreb (Northwest Africa), some recipes can consist of very exotic ingredients and take the dishes to entirely new levels of greatness that you cannot miss if you're looking for a true Moroccan travel experience.
Couscous is a carbohydrate food made from small coarse grains known as semolina, which is formed as a leftover byproduct from the process of turning wheat into flour. It is widely referred to as the North African national dish. Before it became a mass-produced food for commercialization around the world it was (and still is in some rural parts of the Maghreb) handmade by sprinkling the semolina with water and rolling it in your hands to form small pellets. These are then sprinkled with flour to keep the pellets separate. This rigorous process is usually repeated several times until the pellets develop into fine granules. Cooking the couscous has remained much the same throughout history and is done through a process of steaming using special dual pots, which are stacked on top of each other for also preparing other foods at the same time. The bottom pot is usually used for making a stew, to be served alongside the couscous, and the top pot (which serves as a lid) usually has small perforations at the bottom. These allow the steam from the stew to cook the couscous until it is soft and fluffy. Most couscous dishes are served with a variety of vegetable stews consisting of carrots, peas, and turnips which are made in a spicy broth. For the carnivores, a poor chicken or lamb is usually the preferred meat served in addition to the veggies. On a rare excursion outside of The Medina into the new city for lunch, we got to enjoy a vegan couscous dish, which consisted of vegetables mixed with raisins and was served alongside a spicy relish called Harissa – a red chili pepper paste which gave the meal an extra wow factor.
Tajine is an earthenware pot used for making different kinds of spicy stews which are named after the clay pot that they have been made in (i.e. the food is called tajine because it is made in a tajine - similar to a casserole). The pot consists of two parts, including a shallow base plate with low walls where the food content is cooked, and a cone-shaped lid that is used to cover the base plate. Most ceramic tajine pots are beautifully decorated and also used as serving dishes in addition to their functionality as cooking vessels. Traditional Moroccan tajine dishes are slow cooked, savory stews that are made with any preferred choice of meat that’s mixed with a variety of vegetables and seasoned with strong spices and various dried fruit. Popular tajine dishes have a sweet and sour flour in their essence that is created by fusing savory spices like turmeric, cumin, and paprika with sweet fruits such as dates and raisins. Tajine is typically served with traditional Moroccan bread alongside different types of small Moroccan cold salads, although lately, couscous has become a popular side dish to accompany it.
Pastilla is a traditional Andalusian dish that has also become a staple in the Mediterranean and North Western African countries such as Morocco. Traditional Pastilla is a meat pie stuffed with pigeon meat mixed with apricot, but it has also been modernized into a vegan variant that consists of assorted vegetables. The dish is normally served as a starter and can consist of both sweet and savory flavors. The name of the pie is Spanish and can loosely be translated to mean ‘small pastry’ and the Arabicized version of the name is Bastila. The pie consists of several crisp thin layers including one topped with roasted and ground nuts. For a true Moroccan travel experience, be sure to try all of the cuisine staples.
Without a doubt the most popular restaurant in the ancient Medina for both tourists and expats, Café Clock is a mandatory point of Moroccan travel and experience for all vegans visiting Fez that want to enjoy traditional Moroccan food with animal-free options. Café Clock is more than just a restaurant and is considered a cultural café where Moroccans and tourists can enjoy social exchange. Although notoriously known for its famous camel burger, Café Clock also has a selection of plant-based meals which are equally tantalizing in their own right. The restaurant was founded over a decade ago by British expat Mike Richardson – a former maître d’ for a number of notable eat outs in London. Besides visiting on a number of occasions to keep on trying different meals on the menu we were also blessed to have a chat with one of the other cofounders, Kamal, who told us all about the journey to make Café Clock one of the most memorable eat outs in The Medina. Kamal began working with Mike from the inception of the restaurant in 2007 when it was still only a fraction of its current size and housed in just one building. Today Café Clock is structurally made up of two multi-story buildings with the interior designed in a maze-like motif inspired by the pathways of The Medina. Over the years the Café has evolved from being more than just a restaurant known for its great food into a social venue that offers various other activities and experiences like cooking classes, movie nights, open mic storytelling sessions and much more. The name Café Clock was inspired by an ancient water clock in the city that no longer works, which is located on the same pathway leading to the restaurant. The name of the pathway on which the café is located is called ‘Dar al-Magana’ which means clock house in Arabic. Whilst staying true to some of the aforementioned traditional Moroccan foods, the inspiration behind the Café’s menu was to also offer tourists food which they are more familiar with (i.e. hamburgers and fries). As demand over the years increased for more healthier options, the restaurant also incorporated vegetarian and vegan dishes on their menus such as falafel and hummus. All the ingredients used for food served on the menu are sourced locally from the market every day with only the freshest of produce making the cut.
The Ruined Garden
Located just 5 minutes away from the Batha roundabout which leads into The Medina and just around the corner from where I was staying at the Riad Braya is The Ruined Garden, another special eat out with a truly unique concept and aesthetic. The restaurant building is a semi-informal structure composed of in and outdoor remains from an old dilapidated merchant’s house that evolved into a rubbish dump and was then converted into a garden. Similar to Café Clock, The Ruined Garden was founded by a British expat, Robert Johnstone, who is also a former maître d’ at some posh eat outs in London town. Johnstone is a chef and a gardener so it should come as no surprise that the restaurant décor is more of a horticultural experience than your typical metropolitan restaurant setting, with fine art and all the other modern trappings of contemporary interior design. The restaurant is a lot lower key and less vibrant than Café Clock, but the ambiance is still pleasant and serene nonetheless. The deconstructed setting is definitely a wow factor that enhances the entire dining experience and the waiters are very friendly and well versed in elaborating on the different menu options. Once again we opted for a vegetarian tapas and also added a saffron and vegetable tagine to the mix. Nothing on the menu is specifically created just for vegans, but the chefs are happy to convert the vegetarian options into vegan dishes. Without a doubt, the best selections on the menu are the juices of the day, which are all freshly squeezed fruit concoctions that will wash away whatever form of fatigue you may be harboring within. In all honesty, once you’ve had your fair fill of the traditional dishes and try them elsewhere they just start losing their luster and that just makes critiquing the next place you order them very difficult because they’re just no longer as appealing.
The world sacred music festival is an annual event that takes place in Fes for a little over a week showcasing different world sacred Music from far east Asia, Andalusia, South America, West Africa and other regions. It is an essential experience for Moroccan travel. The festival celebrated its 23rd anniversary this year, which was themed around the element of water and its essence to life. Some of the highlight performance acts included Toumani Diabate with Spanish flamenco band Ketama, Vincente Amigo alongside an orchestra and Titi Robin in collaboration with Moroccan maestro Medhi Nassouli.
The festival is hosted at various venues throughout the city with different performances that take place throughout the day from early morning until midnight. The end of each day is closed off with Sufi nights in the Dar Tazi area where the festival headquarters are located. The highlight performances are all hosted in the iconic Bab Al Makina venue, which is where the opening ceremony is held and officiated by her royal highness Princess Lalla Salma, the festival's patron, who also happens to have been born in the city. The Bab Al Makina is a historic military fortress turned plaza, which is one of the iconic stonework landmarks that forms part of The Medina’s unique visual identity. Another memorable venue not too far away from the Bab Al Makina is the Jardin Jnan Sbil – a private garden decorated with beautiful palm trees, fountains, lush greenery and a small lake with a panoramic view of the old fortress.
During our attendance at the festival, we were enlightened with the educational and fun fact about the difference between world music and sacred world music: normal world music is simply traditional music from the developing world, whereas world sacred music is a bit more emotional and ethereal.
Alain Weber, the creative director of the festival, was kind enough to give us a brief moment of his time to answer the MOT 5 – our universal set of interview questions asked to people specially featured in the magazine.
Describe what you do in your own words to people who don't know you
I try not to judge people by their social origin, clothes, way of talking, or professional background. It is quite difficult not to categorize people and not to put them in boxes.
I have been quite surprised by people looking very common and having at first a mainstreamed character which seemed without personality or being too politically correct. Then, by discovering them you realize that they are doing exceptional things in their life in ecological, art expression or social levels and that they refuse many compromises in their life, following a certain consciousness.
Why do you do it?
I think I am very influenced by a Christian attitude and Sufi approach. It is like the story of the good Samaritan: he was at his time considered socially from a low background and he became the most generous man in his generation and an example.
What is the biggest influence on your worldview and outlook on life?
I have been traveling a lot searching for traditional music in the world and spent much time among simple people, rural and poor people, where there is the most interesting music tradition.
They are all so much human, not spoiled by materialistic values. They a have a sense of joy and generosity even if they are struggling in life. These people had a strong influence on me.
I come from a « bourgeois » background in Paris - very tight and austere - and when I started to discover this world it changed my way of living.
What is your message to the world or the most important thing that you would people of today or future generations to know?
If they are still there!!! They will have to face a very strong issue. Right now the emergency is to change the economic system justified by the materialist spirit of the world, and then at the same time people will free themselves and strengthen to the things that remain.
What is your favorite song?
My favorite song: any song of Bob Dylan’s. Maybe Shelter from the Stormor I am a Lonesome Hobo for example.
Without a doubt, one of the most amazing and humbling experiences throughout our attendance at the festival was getting the chance to interact and engage with some of the headlining acts. Over the years the festival has hosted some of the most iconic and legendary artists on the African continent such as Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita.
On one of the special main event nights at the Bab Al Makina, we were privileged to witness a performance by legendary Malian griot Toumani Diabate and new flamenco band Katema. Toumani is a two-time Grammy award winner and a descendant from the 71st generation griots and kora players. His son Sidiki Diabate is also a famous musician who plays the kora and has been featured in our MOT Music section on a couple of occasions. Toumani is a critically acclaimed and globally renowned artist that specializes in Mandinka music, the traditional indigenous music of the griots, which is made with the kora as the main instrument. The griots are a collective group of storytellers, poets, historians and other creative types who practice and believe in passing down history through oral tradition and music. Toumani’s performance with Katema was based on a collaborative project they had worked on in the 80s called Songhai, a sonic fusion of the Malian kora and Andalusian flamenco.
We got the chance to kick it with Toumani backstage for a bit after his performance and were ecstatic to be invited over to his hotel the next day for a more formal interview also hit him with The MOT 5:
Describe what you do in your own words to people who don't know you
My name is Dr. Toumani Diabate – Kora player – goodwill ambassador of human rights from Mali and I’m a kora player from generation to generation. I come from 71 generations who have played the kora from the griot families. My son Sidiki is the 72nd generation Kora player.
My thing based on coming from the griot families is to be more involved in culture and advancing our culture. Today culture has been placed as a secondary plan and the economic situation is the foremost thing, but before what we learned is culture was at the front and the economic situation was second. But today we are all involved in the economic situation and we put the economic situation at the front and put the culture as the second plan.
This is why there is no peace. This is why there is no understanding and less love in the world today. We must keep the culture at the front and this is one of the reasons why I am so happy in what I do because it is my job.
Thank God I am one of the only kora players in the world to have won at the Grammys.
Why do you do it?
I come from a family who is from the griot families. You have to be born a griot and cannot just become a griot. To be born in the griot family is like school. It’s a school where you learn how to be a human being, how to do, what to do.
In the griot family, we are the memory and the archive of the Mandinka empire since the 13th century. We keep on playing our music because it’s a form of oral tradition that one has to keep in their mind. This is a school where we don’t have any writers because we don’t write anything. We keep on moving everything in the mind like this and transfer it from father to son in every generation. I’m so happy to do this job. My father was the king of the kora in Mali and my mum was a great singer in Mali as well and that’s my story.
What is the biggest influence on your worldview and outlook on life?
The state of our organization. We need more power for Africa and more understanding. We need more help. We have the quality and what we need now is how to organize it. We need the relationship to be more honest between Africa and the Western societies.
What is your message to the world or the most important thing that you would people of today or future generations to know?
To be a professor you need to study first. The next generations need to always be studying. Before you become a master you have to go to school and learn first. What we need is to learn. You can’t just rely on technology one day and wake up out of bed and declare that you’re a master! How?
GO LEARN! YOU NEED TO LEARN!!
Some know more than you and you know more than some, so you’re in the middle. Once you understand this then you can build your experience and increase your learning more and more and more.
London has Westminster Abbey, Agra has the Taj Mahal, Giza has the great pyramids and Fes has the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II in the heart of The Medina. Major historical cities around the world have pantheons or structural landmarks built in homage to venerated patron saints who are regarded as founders or forefathers and Fes is no exception. Moulay Idriss the 2nd is a former ruler of Morocco who reigned in the early 9th century and founded the city of Fes for a second time during his rulership. His father Moulay Idriss I founded the city for the first time on the right bank of the river Fes and then 20 years later he re-founded it on the left bank of the river. The word Zaouia is the Arabic word for “assembly” or “congregation” and is used as a name for Islamic religious schools or monasteries. My first impression upon visiting the Zaouia was that it was an informal mosque where Muslims could hang out during the day for quiet time to reflect and meditate, but then I learned that it is actually more of a sacred site which Muslims from afar visit for sabbatical and the locals go to for worship.
The entire building is both a mosque and a mausoleum, which houses a shrine to Moulay Idriss II that people come to pray around throughout the day. The building is beautifully decorated with white and multicolored ceramics in signature Moroccan mosaic style and has an outdoor courtyard with a fountain in the middle where little children pass their time playing around. The mausoleum is considered the second most sacred spot in all of my Moroccan travel. Legend has it that an uncorrupted dead body was found on the site of the shrine in the 12th century and it was believed to be Moulay Idrissi. Along the walls next to the entrance of the mausoleum is a display of burning candles left by young ladies seeking favor with fertility and easy childbirth. Non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians, are not allowed entrance into the mausoleum so I am not sure how my partner in crime and I were both granted access because we both belong to the aforementioned faiths, and yet we strolled right in without any interrogation (without foreknowledge of the prohibition off course). Upon entrance into the mausoleum, all guests are required to take their shoes off and then immediately walk into the room where the tomb is erected. People inside the mausoleum are very friendly and keep to themselves, although a few chancers looking for handouts are also very common.
The mausoleum is a major attraction for religious tourism, mainly for Sufi tourism, which can be understood as a mission or trip of faith to explore sacred sites such as the tombs of saints or other venerated religious figures. Sufiism is the practice of asceticism or spiritual mysticism in Islam in order to achieve greater inner enlightenment and nearness to God. Practitioners of Sufiism are referred to as Sufis. Sufis from divergent sects are known to gather in Zaouias for spiritual gatherings and meetings. The philosophy behind Sufism is based on the idea that faith is a journey of self-discovery of the inner self, which then leads to knowing God. The central doctrine in Sufiism states that oneness between man and God is dependent on one’s heart being pure and void from materialism and impurities. Sufiism is embraced by non-Muslims as well from different ethnicities and religious backgrounds who want to borrow certain wisdom from its teachings. The rise in Sufi tourism has made Morocco a special sacred destination to experience self-discovery and purification. Although not legitimized as an official form of tourism, the concept of Sufi tourism is quickly growing and some believe that Fes deserves to be the Sufi capital of the world because of its many Zaouias. Fes is also home to the University of Al Quaraouiyine – the oldest existing university in the world where people can learn more about Sufiism.
For many historians and culture critics, Fes is viewed as the intellectual and cultural capital of Morocco. It’s not exactly a conventional holiday retreat like a safari, skiing trip or island getaway, but instead offers visitors a vivid journey back in time to an old world that is free from some of the modern illusions that make up the matrix which we live in today: billboards, traffic, skyscrapers, etc. Decorated with panoramic views of the surrounding mountain landscapes, the Medina is truly an antiquated experience like no other, offering an enlightening and surreal view of how far humanity has progressed over the millenniums.
Would I go back for more Moroccan travel? Maybe a few years down the line, but definitely not on a regular basis. While Fes does offer a truly rich cultural experience it can also feel like a drag at times because everything starts becoming familiar real quick (or maybe we were just there for too long). This definitely isn’t somewhere to come with your family because of how busy it gets, but it’s more suited for a getaway with a group of friends or with your missus if she’s interested in Moroccan travel. Otherwise don’t even bring it up because it’s not exactly the most romantic getaway. Some of the hidden gems like the Jardin Jnan Sbil are truly memorable and the riads also make the stay that much more of a unique experience, but the hustle and bustle in the marketplace might not be for everyone if you aren’t especially adventurous.