I was feeling almost cocky as Steve and I pulled into the Fes airport yesterday afternoon. In our six days on the road, we had avoided getting into any of the trouble that I knew some visitors get into (breakdowns, collisions, vandalism, speeding fines, etc.) We had decided along the way to cut our stay in Merzouga short by one day so we could drive in more leisurely fashion to Fes (say, two four-hour drives instead of one grueling day). That had worked just as we hoped. We easily spotted the turn-off for the airport and arrived around 2:15 p.m.
We didn't immediately see any sign for rental car returns, so I asked a guy in uniform and he waved me into the only parking lot in sight. But a little warning bell began to ring when no one there showed any recognition of the Malta Car name. To make matters worse, even though S and I had bought Moroccan SIM cards in Marrakech for our phones, we'd never mastered the task of figuring out how much time they had left on them (let alone buying minutes to recharge them). So both phones were out of minutes. But the guy in the parking-fee collection booth, seeing my obvious distress, dialed the number I had for Malta Car and handed his cell phone to me. I got Jawad, the owner, and it soon became clear what had gone wrong.
When we'd picked up the car in Marrakech, perky Karima and her colleague had asked us when we'd be returning the car in Fes. At first we'd said 4:30, but we'd thought better of that. Figuring they might be planning to turn it right around and rent it to someone else, we told them we would have it back by 6:30 (p.m.)
That may be the way it works in America, but the reason Malta Car needed to know our arrival time so that they could have a return-driver driven the 290 miles from Marrakesh to Fes to pick up our car (and drive it back to Marrakech, I assume). We'd said 6:30 p.m., so the guy theoretically was supposed to arrive at that time! I pointed out to Jawad that we really hated the idea of having to wait for several hours in the airport parking lot. He said he'd call me back. (We then dashed into the terminal, where we did manage to buy more minutes and get our own phones operational again.)
Several more calls passed between us. Finally we suggested this solution: I would call our riad in Fes and have them send a car to pick up me and all our luggage. Steve would wait in the parking lot, reading our guidebook about Fes. He'd return the car to the driver, when he showed up. And then he'd try to talk the driver into taking him into town. If that failed, he'd get a taxi.
Happily, it all worked out. The riad found a reliable driver who was already at the airport, so I had to wait almost no time at all. He drove me to the walls of the enormous old city, when we transferred the bags to a guy with a wooden cart. We followed him on foot through passages that seemed darker and older and far more confusing than the ones in Marrakech. Finally, at the end of a dimly lighted dead end, we rang a bell next to an impressive wooden door, and I was admitted to Dar Seffarine.
We're staying here because our good friends Treacy, Erin, and Maya Lau so warmly recommended it. They'd been guests 6 or 7 years ago, shortly after the couple that owns it (Allah's an Iraqi and Kati is Norwegian) began welcoming visitors. The city of Fez is more than 1000 years old; it claims to have the oldest university in the world, founded about 700 years ago. The building that Allah and Kati bought is not far from the university, and for that reason it's believed to be about the same age.
Allah's an architect and he supervised a renovation that has brought it to its current magnificent state. He's kept it as true as possible to its Islamic architectural purities. It's one of the most beautiful and amazing buildings I've ever had the privilege to stay in (and in my mind a heck of a bargain, at $110 a night including munificent breakfasts.)
Steve arrived, driven by the kindly car-rental guy, who managed to find the right spot despite being unfamiliar with Fes and getting lost several times. On the rooftop, S and I overlooked the old city, and at sunset the call to prayer surrounded us. (The city has more than 300 mosques.)
In a few minutes, we're scheduled to go out with a guide for few hours to begin to learn our way around town, then we'll have all day tomorrow to continue on our own here. I don't expect to have time to write again until we're on the bus to Chefchaoun late Thursday morning. Fes is the kind of place that demands all of one's attention, and then some
(No time to add photos now. Will do that when I can.)