Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Welcome to Fez! I've been here for about a week and am just about settled. I arrived in the wee hours of Tuesday, April 13, even later then anticipated because the immigration line went wicked slow and I was literally the last person in line. I guess I can't complain because I actually made it to Fez, which is more than I can say about my first trip to Morocco a few years ago when the Moroccan airline nearly stranded me in Casa. I had a driver pick me up at the airport and bring me to the hotel so I wouldn't have to deal with cabbies at 1 in the morning.

I spent the first two nights in Fez in Hotel Menzeh Zalegh, about half a block from ALIF, the school I will be attending for the next few weeks. The school, the hotel, and the villa in which I am now living is in the Ville Nouvelle, about a 10 minute drive from the medina. I'm actually okay with it, because there's more space, things are cheaper, I don't get as lost as I would in the labrynth, and men out in the Ville Nouvelle are much less pushy then those in the medina. And there would be no way I could run in the medina. Here, people look at me like, "What the hell is that girl doing?" but no one bothers me. I was a bit suprised about the extent to which Morocco is a cash-based society (no one except the banks and supermarket take credit cards), but the Ville Nouvelle is pretty modern. Menzeh Zalegh is apparently one of the nicest hotels in the area, and my room was huge with a wicked view of Fez.

View of Fez el-Bali from the Ville Nouvelle

After breakfast the first day, I went on an AMAZING run, then over to ALIF to secure a room in the villa, and then hopped in a cab and went down to Fez el-Bali, or the medina. I think the people at the hotel thought I was crazy to go there alone, but it was okay. Just ignore the men and keep on walking. I entered through the Bab Bou Jeloud, the main entrance to the old city, and wandered around for a few hours. I got to see the Medersa Bou Inania, built between 1350 and 1357 by the Merenid sultan. Unlike most medersas, it had an elaborate mosque and minaret. I peeked inside the Kairaouine Mosque, which is the focal point of Fez' religious community, and the mausoleum of Moulay Idris II. It's huge, accomidating up to 20,000 during prayers, but closed to non-Muslims. I also visited the Medersa el-Attarine.

Panorama of Fez

At one point, I was relaxing just outside the old city's walls, reading my Lonely Planet to try to catch my bearings and see what other sites I missed. Two women sat down near me, and without me even looking over, gave me one of the yummiest oranges ever. Little things like that remind me why I fell in love with this country in the first place. Despite the pushy and disrespectful Arab men, most are welcoming and want visitors to feel comfortable.

After my trip to the medina, I came back to the Ville Nouvelle for dinner. I found a yummy restaurant called Restaurant Marrakech. It was a wonderful experience (I got chicken tagine with prunes--yummm!) until the waitress asked me to leave the table before I was finished eating to make room for other people. Had she brought me my check with dessert, I would have eaten, paid, and left. But instead she moved me to the bar area, so I paid and left no tip. It was kind of embarrasing, being a solo traveler and all.

The next morning, I moved myself over to the ALIF villa, kind of a grown-up dorm for students in the school. My next-door neighbor is a British girl named Harriet, and we've been hanging out a bit. There's also a Danish musician named Simon, an American named Trevor (?), a couple from Bristol, Virginia, named Mark and Mona, an older Italian man named Francesco, a Japanese girl named Ayya, and another American girl from Maine whose name I can't quite remember.

I got myself settled, then tried to go out to find lunch. All cafes are very much male-dominated. They just sit there, drinking tea and looking at women. Needless to say, I wouldn't have felt very comfortable there. After searching for an hour, I just got some bread from a bakery and later asked the school for good places to get lunch.

Thursday was the first day of classes. Both of my teachers, Sana and Abdulhaziz, are really great. Friday we had a free couscous welcome lunch, and I went with Harriet down to the supermarket. I love going to the grocery store. I was able to get all the essentials--my yummy chocolate cereal from Leb, APPLES, mangoes, fish, and couscous. YUMMMM!

On Saturday, the school organized a trip to the medina, and since it was free I tagged along. Our tour guide was a very, very good looking Moroccan man, which definitely made the trip more fun. We were to meet for the tour at 9am, but since we're on Moroccan time, he didn't get there until 10:15. We walked from ALIF to the Fez el-Jadeed, or New Fez. "New" and "old" are somewhat loose terms. New Fez was built in the late 1200s, and "old' Fez in the 800s, I believe. We walked by the Royal Palace, which is not open to the public but used by the royal family when they are in town. The Palace's golden doors are framed by Moroccan mosaic, and our tour guide showed us how artisans always purposely made a 'mistake' in their mosaics to show nothing is perfect (i.e. put a green tile where a red one should be). The Palace's grounds cover about 1/4 of all of Fez, and the guide told us it would take about three hours to walk around the walls of the complex. We walked though the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, right outside the Royal Palace. Mellah is the Arabic word for salt, and the Jewish community was one of the main actors in the salt trade. The proximity of the Jewish quarter to the Royal Palace is meant to show the importance of the Jewish community to the Moroccan state. Even today, one of the king's main advisors is Jewish, which our guide said earned him the scorn of many Palestinians.

After walking through Fez el-Jadeed, we went to the medina, where we walked by the Fez river, now mostly covered by a street. One of the things we visited that I could not find in my first trip to the medina was the tanneries. Animal pelts are dipped into vats of dyes, which I believe are mixed with chemicals, cow pee, and pigeon poop, making work in the tanneries very dangerous. Visitors are given a sprig of mint to hold against their noses to take the edge off the stench.


After the tour, we grabbed a late lunch at a restaurant outside the city's walls, and then walked back to the villa rather quickly to beat the rain. It's been raining off and on since Wednesday, when it hailed and my room flooded. It's supposed to stop raining tomorrow, inshallah.

Perhaps this means it will stop raining soon?

After relaxing for a bit, Harriet, Simon, and Francesco and I went over to Menzeh Zalegh for some Moroccan wine (the men had Moroccan beer).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

10-12 April 2010: BCN > MAD

10-12 April 2010: Barcelona

Well, Barcelona was quite an experience. I loved the city, but my hotel was horrible. I stayed in a total of four different rooms over the two nights. The first room they gave me had no window and smelled like smoke, so I asked to move. They moved me into a really nice room on the top floor with a sky light. Then the second day I took a shower and the entire room flooded; there was about a quarter-inch of water on the floor and it seeped into the floor below. Big ol' mess. They offered me a new room--room number three--but it was midnight by that time so I accepted it as a place to brush my teeth and shower because they turned the water off in my room. The next morning, I went to talk to the manager who basically told me tough shit, that I should have moved, and then put me in another room for the final day there and as "compensation" let me stay there past checkout.

The city was amazing. The first two days had beautiful weather, sunny and warm. I walked around about 8 hours both days. After arriving the first day, I took a short nap then walked past the Placa de Catalunya, down the pedestrian shopping area and tourist trap Las Ramblas, and to the harbor, where I sat on the bridge and people-watched. After the rest, I continued to the maze-like Barri Gotic, where I saw people dancing in front of the Cathedral. Starving but not really wanting to eat Spanish food, I grabbed delish street shwarma and then went to a bar in the Barri Gotic to catch the Barcelona-Madrid football game.

The second day was my outdoors, hiking day--poorly planned, really, because the two sites I visited were literally day-long hikes. I walked to Montjuic, a mountain on the outskirts of the city, and then walked up it to get an amazing panorama of the city. There were also various sights and I believe a few museums up there, but I didn't wear shoes made for walking up mountains so basically ran back to the hotel to change after a few hours. After changing shoes and grabbing a snack, I headed to Park Guell, which was probably my favorite sight in the entire city and designed by Gaudi.

After the park, I treated myself to dinner in a square off Las Ramblas and then went to La Ovella Negra, a bar in the backpackers' district, per Payal's suggestion for the best sangria in town. Boy, was she right--best sangria ever. Puts La Tasca to shame.

I guess my planning on doing all the outdoor activities before my last day in Barcelona was actually good. The last day was rainy, but it didn't matter too much because the three main sights I had left to see--la Sagrada Familia, la Pedera, and la Boqueria were all indoors or covered. La Sagrada Familia is the city's cathedral designed by Gaudi, and La Pedera is one of his casas turned into a Gaudi museum. Payal, who had spent a semester in Barcelona and knows my love of apples, made me promise not to smuggle any fruit into the country and instead buy fresh fruit at La Boqueria. It was a great outdoor, covered market. You could get any shaped gummies imaginable, fruit, meat, veggies, alcohol, snacks. I got mango--YUM!-- and a couple of apples.

For photos, see my Facebook page or ask me for the link. I'm on a minicomputer and not sure it has enough memory to upload all the photos.