Our train from Casablanca arrived 40 minutes late. We scanned the hall for a board with our name and seeing none debated what to do. Just as we are about to email the Riad and make our way towards the taxi’s outside a gentleman walks up to us “I’ve been here all the time” he says reassuringly, ‘Welcome to Fez” – he leads us to the taxi and we drive along the streets of Fez reaching a packed village centre, the car crawls along, our driver passes pleasantries with people walking past, everyone seems to know one another. Eventually we reach what looks like a dead end with two arches way too small for a car. An old man is reclining in what looks like nothing more than a deep, square shaped, home-made wheel barrow. Our car stops and the old man jumps up surprisingly sprightly and with unexpected strength he hoists our bags into the ‘wheelbarrow’ and with a few words in Arabic to our driver who tells us to follow the old man, we find ourselves being lead towards one archway magnificently decorated in blue mosaics.
As we pass through this ancient archway – The Blue Gates of Fez – it’s as though we step through to a different time. Here there are no cars, but the narrow alleys are filled with human traffic and donkeys and cats, not to mention lined with tiny shops each one’s offerings spilling out onto the street, food stalls offer dates, nuts and aromatic spices. Built in 1913 The Blue Gates of Fez are the entrance to medina of Fès el-Bali (Old Fez).
Feeling like two hot tired mice we wind our way through a warren of lanes, turning left or right now and then, the old man and his wheel cutting a path through the crowded lanes. Again there is much stopping to shake hands, to greet and I hear much “salamu alaykum”. The walls of this labyrinth are high and while there are signs to various shops I see no road names nor can I discern any house numbers. Suddenly we turn a corner and stop in front of a non-descript wall with a door in it. A brass plaque identifies it as our Riad – Riad Laaroussa – the door is opened to a bright smile and a cool shady interior. Tiled floors, wet from a recent washing down (everywhere there are tiled floors, all with a little drain for easy cleaning). “Welcome to Riad Laaroussa”.
The cool is welcome after the heat and we follow our host up a few stairs and around a corner and find ourselves in a magnificent courtyard open to the sky. In the centre is a fountain with a large orange tree at each corner – wrapped around that is a huge patio with chairs placed here and there under shade. Stairs on the two far corners lead up past the second floor to a rooftop balcony. On 3 sides of the square courtyard we later discover are rooms and the last quadrant houses an office and reception area where we are guided to wait for a welcome drink of mint tea. We wait awhile in the bright cool interior seated on comfortable chairs until our tea arrives. Riad Laaroussa is a family run hotel, Fred, his wife Cathy and brother-in-law Thierry work together to welcome guests into their Riad and there are pictures of what it looked like when they purchased it in 2005 and the renovations as they lovingly restored it to its former glory.
Cathy joins us and apologises – just this morning they were woken by the fire alarm. A problem in the air conditioner caused an electrical fire to start in our room. Fortunately the alarm meant there was no fire damage, unfortunately the smoke damage is extensive. A sooty smudged Fred joins us to bear testament to this. However this is no problem we have been upgraded to the Green room.
We are led to the Green room – however to call this a ‘room’ is a misnomer – it is huge, high ceilings beautifully decorated – as we step from the courtyard patio between two large glass doores before us is a large desk and lamp with a mirror to the left of that is the bed area with a large double queen bed, side tables and bureau. To the right is a couple of arm chairs, a large couch / daybed and desk with a fire crackling in the fireplace. Off here is the entrance to the bathroom, a sunken bath with a showerhead overhead takes centre place. It is like entering Aladdin’s cave, all around are the most beautiful carvings and the floor is decorated with stunning mosaics.
Welcome to Fez indeed! If there were such a thing as an Arabian princess I would feel like one right now.
Cathy and Fred say they want their Riad to “be representative of this country’s reputation for hospitality” and in this they have succeeded admirably. We are the only guests on the first night and feel somewhere between old friends and cherished guests. The staff are not only politely efficient and friendly but chat to us like we are old friends with no sense of rush – happily looking at pictures of our dogs and home, Karim shares he would love a dog, Badiaa tells us she is divorced 4 years and, as a divorced woman it is not easy living among the men of Morocco, Fatima shares tips on how to create lemon preserve. The two resident dogs Bela and Lu a chocolate and black lab come over tails wagging, Lu the attention junkie lays his head against my knee. I later meet two of their four beautiful children who began their early years in an orphanage. Cathy is clearly pregnant with their fifth child.
Settled we climb to the roof top to admire the city from this vantage point, beautiful enough ..but it is truly that evening when we are served the most delicious food in the rooftop garden that the view comes into its own. The lights below made blurry through a combination of smoke from cooking fires and the dusk air that we feel like royalty with the jewel of medina of Fès el-Bali laid before us.