The No. 1 destination is Marrakesh, Morocco. And while the "the Daughter of the Desert" is a worthy winner, I'm a bit disappointed that Fes, one of the country’s three other Imperial Cities, didn't get any recognition...at least for its amazing barbershop scene.
It was there that I received the best haircut I've ever had. It cost 40 Moroccan dirhams (about $5) back in 1999, and was as meticulous and stylish as something costing six times as much in Canada. The barber, Youssef, even threw in a straight-razor shave, with some wonderful warm towels at the end.
But the best thing about the experience was that is was so unexpected.
We had expected to get a bit lost while exploring Fes el Bali (pictured below), the world-famous medina of Morocco’s former capital and third-largest city. It is said to be the largest car-free urban area in the world, with 150,000 people living within its 1,200-year-old stone walls. Its 9,500-plus streets, passageways and squares — some no wider than a donkey’s rump — make maps resemble an overhead view of an enormous, intricate maze.
After waving off the pesky faux-guides who insisted we would “disappear forever!” if we did not avail ourselves of their services, we reached one of the medina’s most popular points of entry: the Bab el Mahrouk gate (pictured below), where a line of food vendors offered sustenance for the adventure ahead. Suddenly, the touts vanished — a vendor told us there were some plain-clothes police officers around — and sipping our now-habitual fresh-squeezed OJ we walked through the intricately carved gate and into...chaos.
It was immediately apparent that the trail of breadcrumbs we had joked about earlier would be obliterated by passing foot, animal, cart and moped traffic. Thankfully, we had a secret weapon: Fes Medina Tourist Circuits, a slim volume from the tourist office that covers six themed walking routes, which we picked up for around $20 at our hotel.
Our first move, then, was to locate the colour-coded, star-shaped signs that helped us navigate. Trouble was, there were so many distractions — shops selling everything from fine silver jewelry to suspicious-looking herbs, eateries ranging from tajine joints to French patisseries — that is was very easy to lose sight of the markers.
Sensibly, however, the signs usually reappeared as we approached the medina's most famous sights. The Bou Inania Madrasa, for example, offered peaceful respite from the buzzing medina. Non-Muslims such as ourselves are barred from entering mosques, but the elaborate Islamic architecture and decor on display in this a 14th-century religious college gave us a satisfying taste of what we were missing.
At the other end of the spectrum was Seffarine Square. The bustling market — ironically hemmed in on one side by the Kairaouine Library — is the centre of Fez’s copperware trade, and is surrounded by craftsmen banging sheets of metal into shape as pots, cauldrons, plates and the like. The sound soon became quite hypnotic — kind of like a perpetual gong — and it was strangely pleasant sipping mint tea and taking it all in.
We didn’t need the guide book to find the Chouara Tannery (pictured below), where sheep, goat, and cow skins have been cured, stretched, scraped, and dyed in honeycombed earthen pits for centuries. The tannery’s pungent aroma, diffused by holding mint leaves under our noses, did not detract from the thrill of watching an ancient trade that still eschews the trappings of mass-production.
Again, we expected to be enthralled by these unique spots. But on our way out of the medina — and just as we determined we were “officially” lost — we ducked into Youseff's barber shop. We entered in search of directions, but Youseff's chair was empty and he encouraged me to sit by saying, “You want to look good for your wife, yes?” There was no arguing with that.
I'm glad I didn't. It took about an hour — Angela entertained herself in the surrounding shops — but I emerged looking spiffier, above the neck at least, than ever before.
To top it off, Youseff personally led us back to Bab el Mahrouk — turned out it was a two-minute walk away. And when I offered him a little something extra for his trouble, he turned it down politely, shook my hand and disappeared into the throng.
A tip turned down in Morocco? Now that was unexpected...