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An Iberian Exploration: Tangier and Fes

The mighty Mediterranean begins meekly enough at the Strait of Gibraltar, where only nine miles separate the continents of Europe and Africa. The shortest ferry departs from the small Spanish town of Tarifa and arrives in the Moroccan port of Tangier just one hour later. Having no appetite to deal with Moroccan city traffic and rural highways after barely making it through Iberia, we left our car in the lot at Tarifa. Mei Ling encountered a group of Chinese tourists in the ferry terminal who were impressed no end by our kids. Soon enough we were on the boat headed to Africa, a first for everyone in the family except me.

Within minutes of arriving in Tangier it was clear that we were in a vastly different place from Europe. It wasn't that the buildings and streets were obviously old, they had been just as old in Lisbon and Cádiz. Everything was just a little bit rougher around the edges. The paint was a little more chipped, the tiles more cracked, the alleys narrower and twistier. We had a sense here that the rules were a little less firm and there was a little less orderliness about daily life. While that feeling may have been just a little intimidating, we quickly saw the innate advantages within the controlled chaos of Morocco. All we had to do was keep walking and exploring the city and the experiences that make travel worthwhile would come to us. The possibilities seemed endless.

We had a traditional hotel in the medina, the labyrinthine historic quarter of the city. Most of the medina was devoted to commercial activity, especially that related to food. It was hard to tell if there was a defined marketplace as food vendors seemed to be everywhere in the old town. The meat, produce and especially the olives were splendid. Eventually we found a restaurant that piqued our interest and had an excellent meal of the Moroccan specialties tagine and bastilla.

In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then headed straight back to the medina. On Saturday morning the old town was even busier. I think we must have been through every street and alley in the quarter and even found a terrace with a view over the ocean.

In the morning all the seafood markets were open and they were very busy and energetic. The counters were piled high with huge, exotic fish and spiny lobsters. The fish had the familiar gleam of having been caught early that morning. The fishmongers knew we were only there to look but they were still friendly and welcoming.

The butchers had rows of lambs' heads, viscera hanging from hooks, and even live rabbits. One vendor held a rabbit over the counter for Cleo to pet. Fortunately she was too young to have any idea what was going to happen to it.

There weren't may things that couldn't be found in the bazars and souks of the medina. Aside from things to eat there were beautiful displays of metalwork and ceramics. After some more exploration of the different markets and street foods we were finally ready for a delicious lunch that included many of the most appetizing delicacies we'd seen that morning.

In the afternoon we jumped on a train to Fes, our first experience with intercity public transportation with the kids. Fortunately we had the foresight to leave the large bag and Ian's stroller in the trunk of the car in Spain which made moving around a lot easier, but it was still a little unnerving hustling the kids and the remainder of our luggage into our seats. Cleo provided the entertainment for our compartment during the four hour trip to Fes.

We were glad we decided to explore Morocco beyond Tangier because Fes had a completely different feel to it. Now there were way fewer Europeans and there was a more authentic feel to the old town. We were based in a beautiful riad, a multistory estate home that had been converted into a hotel, and we were just steps away from the iconic Blue Gate to the medina.

The souk began immediately inside the Blue Gate and followed the widest street through the medina, although most of the sidestreets seemed to be devoted to stores selling food and dry goods as well. Eventually we gave up trying to keep track of where we were and went with the flow. As in Tangier, the stalls selling olives and pickles were the most colorful and intoxicating. The snail stalls looked as though they had been literally overrun with the striped gastropods which encrusted the doors and walls along with filling sacks and baskets.

The most exotic food we encountered was camel meat. It wasn't hard to figure out which restaurants sold it as it was generally advertised with a severed camel's head displayed prominently at the entrance. This was before any connection had been made between camels and MERS, so it was probably the first and last time that we'll be eating camel. It was an interesting novelty, but I wouldn't have known I wasn't eating ground beef.

The souk spilled from the covered arcades into the streets and squares. We braved the intermittent drizzle and plodding mules to traverse every branch of the market we could find.

Outside of the souk there wasn't much of interest to us in Fes. There are beautifully-decorated mosques and madrassas in the city but most of them are off-limits to non-Muslims and we had recently been immersed in Moorish design at the Alhambra of Sevilla. We admired the tile work and engravings at the entrance of one madrassa and then pushed on towards the far side of the medina where most of the city's famous tanneries are concentrated. On the way there were plenty of opportunities to appreciate the amazing diversity of Moroccan artisanship.

Some of the tanneries are a thousand years old and their design and techniques have never changed over the course of time. The large courtyards packed with dense arrays of stone vats filled with colorful liquids are a unique sight. From the terraces overlooking the tanneries are amazing views over the top of the medina.

We could have probably returned to the souk a dozen times and found an undiscovered alley or shop each time. However it was time to take our leave of Fes as we still had the city ahead of us whose very name was almost synonymous with markets, Marrakech.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:45 Archived in Morocco

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