Wednesday 25 February 2009

Crossing Atlas Mountains (Day 9)

Our plan for this day was a trip from Fes to Meknes. Those two are both referred to as Imperial cities and as such offer many sights worth visiting.

We left the hotel and headed for the bus station. There we were informed that the bus for Meknes is not leaving until 6 PM. It was a long wait so we started looking for alternatives.

After a couple of minutes we were approached by a local and after a short conversation he offered to arrange a ride for Azrou for the same price we expected to pay for the bus. Azrou is a crossroad on the way south. From there the road continues across Atlas Mountains and into the sand dunes of Merzouga.

We didn't trust the guy, but we were very curious what he was up to. "Curiosity killed the cat" says an old proverb, but we decided to play along nevertheless.

He promised us a cheap ride with a Grand taxi to Azrou, where we could catch a fancy bus to Rissani. We liked that idea, because that meant skipping the town of Er Rachidia, against which we were warned a couple of times.
Different touts are supposedly especially pushy and persistent in that town. They know almost everyone getting off the bus in Er Rachidia is on the way to the desert. When trying to sell you a guided tour into the desert they just won't take no for an answer.

Even though we still didn't think the guy was telling the truth, we took his offer.
An old Mercedes was already waiting for us and all we had to do was pay the driver and hit the road. With us in the cab, the car was full. This meant six (yes, that's 6!) people plus the driver.

I guess we were lucky that all four of us sitting in the back seat were quite skinny. Two local guys sharing the back seat with M. and me were obviously amused with the two unusual passengers but unfortunately didn't speak any English to share their reasons with us. It was the same with the driver and other two passengers.

I guess this seems like a pretty uncomfortable event but it wasn't. Besides an occasional not very safe overtaking manoeuvre (on some occasions M. didn't feel very comfortable watching the road, so she tried to focus on something else), the two hours to Azrou passed pretty quickly.

From there on we boarded a bus to Rissani, which was just leaving when we got to the station. Unfortunately it wasn't a new, comfortable one we got used to until this point. CTM buses don't cover this destination, so we were stuck with a less comfortable option.

It is funny really... we always opted for CTM buses, almost the only exception was the longest destination over Atlas mountains.

We didn't have any problems with the winding road. Unfortunately this can't be said for quite a few of other passengers. Some of them were throwing up most of the way.

Despite all of those things we enjoyed the beautiful Atlas scenery. The most annoying thing were a couple of breaks during which we were pestered with locals trying to sell us something.
Some had various fossils to offer at supposedly very affordable prices, others were selling the best desert experience ever. We didn't give any of them a chance.When I was speaking with them and tried not to look too irritated and turned them down politely. M. on the other hand got annoyed by them quite quickly and was soon "a bit" more direct.

As we were nearing the desert, thunderstorms and heavy rain were picking up. In some places the road was totally flooded. On a few occasions I would feel much better if we were on a boat instead of a bus.

When we got to Rissani it was already late and we were pretty exhausted. To top it all we found out that our backpacks stored in the luggage compartment of the bus were soaking wet and covered in dirt.
Besides all that we still had a hotel to find. It wasn't easy but we succeeded after a couple of tries. It was just for one night so this time we weren't too picky.

After a quick shower we fell into the bed and slept like dead till next morning.


Monday 2 February 2009

(A)mazing Medina of Fes (Day 8)

We had a peaceful night at the Hotel Royal and when we woke up we were ready to explore the old part of the city of Fes.

Fes is one of the four imperial cities and has been the capital of Morocco several times in the past. It is believed that Fes was the largest city in the world from 1170 to 1180 and today has a population of around one million. Fes el Bali, the largest of the two medinas of Fes, is not only the largest Medina in Morocco, but it is also believed to be the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world.

Since we even felt lost for a short moment in the tiny Medina of Chefchaouen we were pretty sure we will succeed in doing the same in Fes.

After a quick breakfast (it was finally the end of Ramadan and food was a bit easier to find) we were set for the Medina.

We entered the maze of medieval streets through the eastern gate. Pretty soon we found ourselves in the middle of a river of people, rushing through the narrow streets. Some of the streets were partly covered to protect people from the hot sun. Since it was quite hot various strong smells were hard to ignore. Some were even pleasant, but mostly they were strong and unpleasant. Most of the pleasant ones were coming out of little shops. I didn't dare to wonder about the origin of other ones...

Every now and then we had to give way to a donkey carrying some kind of a heavy load.
I couldn't really decide if there were more donkeys or donkey droppings to worry about.

We walked by various shops crammed mostly with junk. One can find lots of leather shops in Fes. There are loads of bags, jackets (not really latest Italian fashion), belts and babouches (traditional Moroccan slippers). Owner of such a shop will usually take you to some kind of a terrace overviewing tanneries.

Since we didn't plan on buying a leather jacket or some other leather product, we didn't give in to never ending invitations for entering shops.
However we did buy a tea pot. A typical trashy-shiny-Moroccan-type. This is pretty untypical for us but M. insisted on having one of those.

Before the deal was made we had to negotiate for at least 15 minutes. During this time we kind of insulted the shop owner for at least three times. We also left the shop two times just to be called back in with a more affordable offer. It was all a game.

We ended up with a quite nice teapot of reasonable quality (at least when compared to others) for a price of 90 MAD. The negotiation started at 200 for a lower quality and half the size of teapot we got in the end.

Before the negotiation game started, we agreed not to pay more then 100 MAD, so we were quite pleased with the outcome. The shop owner on the other hand didn't seem too happy but we were sure this was also just a part of the game.

Later in the afternoon we bought some nuts, a bunch of postcards with stamps and visited a suspiciously dark little room with Internet access (they had a surprisingly fast connection).

It was quite late when we finally decided to head back to our hotel and find something to eat. We really didn't have a hard time finding our way out of the Medina (we found one of the exits on the south-western part) and before we knew we were standing on a city bus headed in the direction of our hotel. Once again we were the only tourists on a crowded bus. We didn't mind it but some locals were obviously quite amused with our presence.

At he end of the day we were quite pleased with ourselves. We survived the largest maze Morocco has to offer and didn't have to ask for directions once. That doesn't mean we knew where we were at all times, but we surely didn't feel lost.

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