With her daredevil parents in tow, Flip Byrnes finds lots to love about this North African gem.
In a cool riad courtyard in Fes at midnight, I'm being serenaded by an employee, Jamal, with Blowin' in the Wind in Arabic. Waving a cigarette lighter, we giggle like teenagers while my parents sleep upstairs. But we're not teens; Jamal has a beard and I'm mid-30s, undertaking what many Gen Xers would consider sheer lunacy — a 10-day Moroccan odyssey with my sixtysomething parents.
To clarify, I really like my parents, as uncool and as unfashionable as that may be. Their good-natured appeal is wide.
In recent years they have turned the tables on their adult children and have been having a whale of a time, sending postcards from ruin clambering in Syria, hot air ballooning in Cappadocia and even going MIA (en route to Mauritius, mum wound up in Mumbai).
So to join their adventures is a hot ticket, a chance to experience Grandparents Gone Wild firsthand, a new twist on intergenerational travel usually involving travelling with babies, not parents. The question is, can I keep up?
The destination is easy: Morocco. We're all intrigued. It's off the beaten track enough to be alluring, yet safe to wander. There's rich cultural fabric to unweave, ruins that need fixing, ancient alleyways hiding crockery for a new house and delicious cuisine. Add the promise of unexpected adventure and we have a unanimous winner.
We have a buffer against the unknown, Michele, an Australian expat married to Fes local Youssef. These owners of Yomikha Morocco agency have developed an itinerary with room to mosey. They'll take us from Fes to Marrakesh, Chefchaouen and Essaouira, arranging accommodation and guides. In short we have space, but with local, expert back-up.
Back-up is required before even arriving to meet the parentals in Fes.
The budget airline cancels my flight from Paris. Magical Michele springs into action and a car awaits the new, 2am flight. Driving to a solid wall with narrow opening (the 13th-century wall that encircles Fes el Bali, old Fes, a UNESCO World Heritage site), we wake a sleeping figure with our headlights. It's Jamal, of Dar El Menia riad. There are no cars in Fes and few lamps. Without this personal nocturnal rendezvous, even Hansel and Gretel couldn't find the riad with a breadcrumb trail, located as it is in the labyrinthine heart of one of the world's oldest mediaeval cities.
I find mum and dad breakfasting on the rooftop terrace overlooking the medina and arid, rolling surrounds. Dad announces that the previous day he "cased the joint". "It's amazing!" he says enthusiastically. "You're going to love it."
To gain my bearings, I take a two-hour tour. The medina covers 350 hectares, with 9400 alleyways, 220 mosques, 67 hammans, 65 bakeries and 84 fountains. Founded in AD789, the medina is divided into communities, each with a furnace (most kitchens don't have fires) where women take bread and tagines to be immersed in embers; a fountain, school, hamman and, Fes being the spiritual capital of Morocco, a mosque.
The alleyways are pedestrian-only and goods are transported on donkeys, the Vespas of the medina. They gallop around corners, with different jobs. There are food-carrying donkeys, material-carrying donkeys and the garbage donkey, who clearly drew the short straw.
It's a moving, visual feast. Stolen glimpses through doorways (with high door knockers for those on horseback, lower for those on feet) reveal intricate mosaics and limpid atrium pools. Figures float by in djellaba, kaftans with hoods and leather slippers with curling toes.
The scent of the mediaeval honeycomb-shaped tanneries is the undiluted, pungent smell of 500 years of history, while the call to prayer resonates from stone walls.
"Whatever is beautiful, cannot be expensive at any price. What is enthralling is never costly," stated Abou Inan, who built the Bou Inania Medersa (a theological college) in 1350. The result? Unparalleled beauty, with zellij (puzzlework mosaics) and panels of plaster and egg white stucco featuring finely carved Koranic verses decorating every surface of the marble paved courtyard.
Among Fes's treasures is also the world's oldest university
(Al-Karaouine), constructed in AD859, 500 years before Cambridge and the Sorbonne. Al-Karaouine continues as a leading Muslim spiritual and educational centre, having created Islamic/European cultural and academic relations in the Middle Ages. (The cartography here aided European Renaissance exploration).
For our trio, Fes is spell binding. And during a cooking adventure we discover it's the 250,000 inhabitants who make Fes special. Mum has one cooking rule — no bulls' testicles. We leave pa to make a tagine (Michele organises chef and translator), while we join Gail, a British expat and Fes resident who organised Heston Blumenthal's Moroccan feast episode. Today we'll learn that the tanjia (an elongated pot slow cooking "anything you like") had Heston quivering.
Setting up on a butcher's alleyway, Gail sends us to purchase ingredients, enforcing cultural immersion. It's a cooking lesson unlike any other, surrounded by skinned horse hooves and lambs' brains. The butcher checks our progress, adding saffron, ground mince and onions to our preserved lemon and herbs. Delivering the tanjia to the furnace causes a scene. Strangers stop to inspect our ingredients, nodding approval or offering suggestions: "Garlic! You need more garlic!" All smile to see foreigners attempting their traditional dish.
Returning, we sniff troughs of orange blossom like truffle pigs and stop by the honey souk.
Reluctantly we leave for Marrakesh.
Immediately, Marrakesh differs from Fes in one crucial way. The donkeys were hazardous yet charming, unlike the scooters tearing through Marrakesh's alleyways belching black smoke. If the sound of clopping hooves is the lullaby of Fes, the yammer of two-stroke motors are the unwelcome whine of Marrakesh.
But for shoppers, thesouk is an Aladdin's cave of exotic loot, including Arabian lights, wooden doors and gleaming gold. Modern maalems (master craftsmen) reinvigorate trades, such as blacksmithing, saddle-making and lute-carving. And pottery.
We visit must-see sights; the Bahia Palace, Saadia tombs and Koutoubia Minaret. But visiting the seedy Jamaa el Fna square night markets, the sinister ambience makes us instinctively cluster together. While the souk harassment (so unlike laid-back Fes) has been tolerable, now we're beleaguered and badgered.
At one point I run, horrified, to intercept men chasing my parents with wooden (lifelike) cobras. Not funny, then or in hindsight.
Having a male is a distinct blessing. "Where's your husband?" hisses a passerby. Don't have one. The next question is inevitable. "Your father?" Right there! Seeing I'm chaperoned, they slink away. Go dad!
We leave Marrakesh on a good note. We're keen to wander Yves Saint Laurent's Majorelle Jardin, in particular the cactus gardens. There are 44 types of cacti in the garden and they're flowering, transfixing us with tiny, rare buds. It's an unexpected Marrakesh gem and with my parents' botanical knowledge, mesmerising.
Finally, at seaside Essaouira, it's time to part. The parentals are accustomed to my regular intrepid travel writing departures, but leaving a daughter on the roadside in the Moroccan wilderness (slight exaggeration) must be disconcerting.
Pa holds me close, and pats me on the shoulder. "Stay safe," he whispers out of mum's earshot, and I know he means it.
Etihad flies from Sydney to Casablanca five times weekly, from $1800. 1300 532 215, etihad.com.
Fes-based Yomikha Morocco, formed by an Australian-Moroccan couple, creates bespoke, economical itineraries. email@example.com, +212 642 0704 601.
Take a food tour with UK expat Gail Leonard. fez-food.com.
For distinctive blue and white pottery, visit a ceramics factory such as Art Naji, 20 QI, Ain Nokbi. +212 535 669 166.
In Marrakesh, visit Yves Saint Laurent's cactus garden. jardinmajorelle.com.