A Return to Amsterdam: Jewish Tour and A Golden Age Uncovered 🌷🇳🇱
More from The Wandering Jew: A return to a place I visited 25 years ago, and some Jewish surprises there
After Marrakesh and the Sahara, Fes—my 3rd of 4th stops—was also my favorite. What makes a city so special?
I awoke in the Sahara sicker than I’ve been in a long time. It was COVID, it turns out, but I wouldn’t know that until I was in Paris 10 days later.
I feel like a schmuck now, of course, unwittingly traveling to 4 countries total with COVID. The good news is: Masks were always on on planes, and in public transit windows were down. No one I met or stayed with got it, so there’s that. But still…
The sands whirling had me sneezing, and congestion started the next day, and I really had myself convinced it was only allergies and a true lack of sleep.
We made a long journey back from the Sahara desert to civilization: First a jeep over the dunes we’d ridden camels on. Most of the rest of the group rode the camels back a couple hours before us, and I’d opted to sleep in with 2 others and drive. I felt like crap and needed the rest and it was a wise decision.
The group met for breakfast before splitting based on final destinations, and I found myself saying quick goodbyes as we stopped on the highway and met a cab driver for the rest of the trip. 5 of us jammed in, me with all my luggage AND SEVERAL RUGS still (!), for a hot, packed, crowded drive. (Windows down, mercifully) 🦠
I drifted in and out, sleeping much of the way, until we stopped in an enormous roadblock and traffic jam en route to Fes. The highway ahead was closed due to construction in the mountains and would clear soon.
A short stop, another espresso, and a lovely talk with an older New Zealand couple later (all outdoors, mercifully, so I really hope I didn’t give anyone COVID), we wound our way up through the hills and the temperature dropped quickly and beautifully.
It looked like Southern California all of a sudden; we passed valleys, cows, and streams, and eventually in the mountains stopped at the top of the pass—Michlifen—where some monkeys live in the trees and come down to be fed by tourists.
Finally, seemingly without much transition, we were in Fes. The outskirts looked like they could’ve been many European cities, and I soon learned there was an old and new part: the hilly, ancient city, and the newer, flatter, European section.
I’ve lived in many places and visited over 20 countries, and I know what kind of cities I like: Hills, history, vistas, nature, architecture, parks, amenities, transportation, and good interactions.
Fes has all of these in spades. And it’s less touristy, less crowded, more authentic, looks better, and much cheaper.
I pulled up to an old city gate where the driver showed me the wheelbarrow kid, a redhead teen, who’d take me and my luggage to my riad.
What a winding, narrow journey that was! I was staying in the thick of it, and the place was gorgeous and a fraction of the price of Marrakesh. Usually when you experience a new place—especially one so walled, winding, and ancient—you’re open-eyed and aware. I felt like I was in a different state; COVID-induced exhaustion and travel (and a stiff camel ride) will do that. But these sights and smells only elevated that experience.
Somehow, in Fes, I felt further from home that I had in the Sahara. Its 9,000 alleyways might do that to you.
I felt run down, exhausted, and couldn’t stop coughing, and holed up in my room, a light snack for dinner, and 12 hours in bed. What a relief.
My time in Fes was super limited, and I trekked out early to make the most of it, perusing the huge, winding markets and scoring some more unique Jewish finds (hamsas, mostly!)
I very quickly was clocked by a young man who insisted on showing me around—free of charge (oy)—including a walk up the hill to see the view, then down to his family’s home and shop, where I got a gorgeous green blanket and some tea. I wasn’t quite sure if he was hitting me, and didn’t want to find out: 1) It’s Morocco, and still a Muslim country; 2) he was like 19 and not for me. But he showed me a rooftop lunch spot where I was the only person in a truly old, intricate building, and en route there: the coolest stretch of the city I saw. I did not snap a single shot or video there, just absorbed, as he led me down an area the tourists don’t visit: it’s where the locals shop, and it truly felt completely different than anywhere else. It was loud, authentic, with every type of vegetable, animal, and vendor you can imagine you’d need for your daily shopping as a local Fesian. Fester? Festes? (Wikipedia says: Fassi!)
But I really wanted to see the Mellah—the Jewish quarter, and upon arrival by taxi, a similar thing happened; an older man this time, Omar, asked to show me around, and I’m so very glad I said yes. He knew the whole district and I would have surely missed all the indentions on the old wooden doorposts where the mezuzahs once stood.
When I asked about the different colors of the Mellah—the Jewish quarter—Omar said that yes, it was more colorful, and that the Jews love blue! He confirmed what I had read (without me even asking), that the blue houses that the town of Chefchaouen are famous for owe their color to the Jewish residents in the past. I can’t wait to visit there next trip!
The Jewish Cemetery of Fes, recently repainted freshly white, was closed that day; but the restored synagogue—the most colorful and vibrant little synagogue I’ve ever seen—was open. Before venturing in, we visited a large covered corridor whose gated windows border the cemetery.
It’s always so sad to see the graves of children. I can’t get used to that.
A couple of guards stand outside down a small alleyway, and inside are beautiful turquoise columns, green-and-white herringbone tile, and even a wood door in the floor that lifts to reveal a peak at the old mikveh, whose water was dirty from no longer being in use.
This synagogue is much more beautiful than the one in Marrakesh; it’s older, more vibrant, and friendlier, for one. The one in Marrakesh—definitely worth seeing!—feels like a newer building on an ancient site, and more of a museum. The Ibn Danan Synagogue is restored and wholly different from anything in style or age that you’ll see in America.
I once again donated to the kind woman (this is a pay-to-pray situation, though you pay to visit regardless of who you are). I say the Shema every synagogue I visit, a sort of check-in, a nomadic convert touchstone. It makes me feel like a part of a culture I didn’t get to experience growing up, and there’s something about doing it in different places—holy sites in various countries—that makes me feel connected with the ancestors and our long, amazing Jewish history and culture.
A visit there isn’t complete without going to the rooftop, up the stairs past the small women’s balcony. The view of the cemetery, surrounding hills, and the old city walls that abut the synagogue: it was incredible, and I got such a grand sense of the history and intricacy of Fes and its mesh of cultures and architecture.
Later, attempting a nap, I quickly realized the post office would close before my departure to Casablanca by train the next day, and I rushed through town, met another cart man who the house manager had called, dragged my newfound wares through twisting alleyways and past everything from chickens in cages to small, closet-size industrial shops where metal and leather goods were being dipped, drilled, and treated. We entered a grand old bank building, and after some awkward back-and-forth with the not-to–happy woman in charge (10 minutes before closing, no box to ship in), I got all my rugs and pillowcases safely squared into one big blue bag and winced awaiting the final total for shipping back to San Francisco. It was $180, a fraction of what I thought it could be, and (it turns out) the package beat me home even.
The next morning I arrived at the beautiful train station in the modern quarter, a little lighter and fresher than I’d first been coming from the Sahara. I couldn’t wait to get to the coast and see Casablanca.