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Bab Bou Jeloud, Fez

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate) at the entrance to the Fez medina

My daughter and I are huge, huge fans of the show the Gilmore Girls and so it was a given that Fez would be one of our first stops in Morocco. Due to the enormous ash cloud from the erupting volcano in Iceland that grounded most flights to/from Europe that spring (what was the chance of THAT happening at the EXACT time I was flying to Morocco?), our connecting flights through Madrid were delayed. Sadly, we only had about 24 hours to spend in exotic Fez before we needed to meet up with the Cross-Cultural Solutions program in the capital city of Rabat.

The place I had chosen for us to stay in Fez is in the middle of the 1000+ year-old  medina in the oldest part of the city. I chose Dar El Hana for several reasons, one of which was so we would be in the middle of the action and history of the ancient core of the city. The other reasons were that the owner, an Australian expat named Josephine, speaks English and because her dar (the name of the traditional Moroccan house with an enclosed central courtyard) was getting glowing recommendations on travel forums like Trip Advisor.

It did not disappoint.

Josephine arranged for us to be picked up by cab at the Fez airport by a friendly driver who took us as far as the entrance of the medina. Since the medina can only be accessed on foot, moped or donkey, the cab driver connected us to a porter (also arranged by Josephine) who scooped up our suitcases in a wheelbarrow and led us through the winding labyrinth of the medina to the door of the dar.

As we stumbled along the uneven dusty streets and narrow alleys behind the swiftly moving porter, my first thought of being in the medina was “this is like from a movie set of an Indiana Jones film”. (Can you tell I have a thing for Indy since this is now the second consecutive post that I’ve mentioned him in?) Not a very profound thought, I know, and very U.S. culture-centric of me, but there it was. I was awestruck (and apparently dumbstruck) over the little shops and booths selling foods, spices, fabrics, and many other wares. It was simply fascinating.

People had told me that I would fall in love with the first country I travelled to and that’s exactly what happened: it was love at first sight. Morocco had me at hello.

Fes medina

olives in the Fes medina

The outside of the dar didn’t look like much at all. The thick, austere mudbrick walls were plain, if not down right ugly. But once you entered through the heavy wooden door into the center courtyard, the magic that is Morocco was revealed.

Intricate, colorful zelij, or mosaic tilework, gleamed underfoot and on the walls. Ancient thick, wooden beams held up the intricate ironwork balconies and a glorious skylight filtered in the light from above.

tilework, Fez
Intricate zelij, each colorful piece hand cut and shaped to form the detailed mosaic pattern

Dar El Hana is not the most glitziest of places to stay, but it more than makes up for that with the attention to detail and the amazing thoughtfulness of the staff and owner.

dining courtyard at Dar El Hana from the window of our room

Dining room/courtyard at Dar El Hana, as seen from the window of our room

Lounge room at Dar El Hana

our room at Dar El Hana

Our narrow room at Dar El Hana

We were graciously welcomed and shown to our room on the second floor. Up the very narrow stairs we went, glad to finally have a place to rest after travelling for almost 26 hours.

It was approaching dusk by then and we were exhausted, though I was also itching to get out into the streets and alleyways and start exploring. Because the medina is very difficult to navigate by day with a map and because we would have been “unescorted” females, Josephine advised us to not go out exploring alone. Thankfully, I had pre-arranged for a guide to show us around for the following morning so we conceded and agreed to join Josephine and the other guests for dinner in the dar that evening. It was just as well given how tired we were.

After we settled in to our room, we were taken up to the roof top terrace to have the first of many cups of sweet mint tea, the traditional Moroccan drink. Watching the sunset over the city, we toasted ourselves for having finally made it to Fez (Rory would have been so jealous!).

Me, rooftop of Dar El Hana
Me, sleep deprived, having my first glass of mint tea on the rooftop terrace of Dar El Hana
Kenzie, rooftop of Dar El Hana
My daughter, having her first glass of mint tea on the rooftop terrace of Dar El Hana

Back in our room, I opened the shutters on the courtyard window to let in a little more light. As I did, I had a view into the other upstairs room in the dar. Before I walked away from the window, something caught my eye: a bright yellow “O” on a pair of green shorts worn by the guy sitting on the sofa.

I pointed it out to my daughter and said, “That’s so weird. That guy over there has a pair of shorts on that look like they’re from the University of Oregon.” She, too, looked out across the courtyard, both of us now completely invading the privacy of the other guests. Then, even though I am about as shy and introverted as they come, I decided to go over there and knock on their door to see if, after traveling nearly halfway around the world, we were sharing the dar with fans of our hometown university.

As luck would have it, not only were they U of O fans, but the man, woman and their 22 year-old son (who was in Morocco working for the Peace Corps) were also from our hometown. And they happened to live 8 or so blocks from our house.

The world suddenly felt a lot cozier.

(Clearly, my Travel Mojo was at work on his first international assignment – see this post for more on the wily little fella.)

Later that evening, we all had dinner together with Josephine in the dar. Over heaping plates of amazingly delicious food, we chatted until late in the evening, swapping stories from our hometown and listening to their travel tales thus far.

I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Fez.

And I still couldn’t believe I was in Morocco.

In Africa.

Abroad.

I was officially an intrepid traveler.

In my next several posts, I’ll share what we did on our tour of the Fez medina and in our volunteer week with CCS in the capital city, Rabat.

So, dear readers, have you had any dreams fulfilled lately? Anything you’ve pushed yourself to do even though you were nervous to do it? Any serendipitous travel stories? Please share! I’d love to hear about it.

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