Saturday, January 07, 2006

Seeking warmth in Fes

Yesterday, Friday, it was cold and pouring with rain at Moulay Bousselham, where we've been staying at a guesthouse. We eagerly pack our cases, knowing we are off to the warmth of a hotel room in Fes... we hope.

Gentiane's Berber butler drives us through pouring rain to Souk el Arba, about an hour away. We find the small unheated train station and wait for the ticket man to arrive. We manage to buy tickets: a good sign. At exactly 12.52, the time of the train to Fes, everyone goes out onto the platform where we stand shivering for another half hour. Then someone makes an announcement and everyone drags their cases across the tracks to wait on the unsheltered platform. It is still raining steadily. We are cold and damp. At last the train arrives: an ancient unheated creature that is due to be replaced by a modern new double-decker in the near future. Cold consolation.

We find a compartment with a nice Moroccan couple who are returning to Fes to spend the festival with their family. At one point another Moroccan breezes into our compartment long enough to establish - in excellent English - who we are and where we are from. He recommends a restaurant in Fes and a guide named Ali who speaks excellent English. I ring Ali straightaway and arrange for him to give us a half day tour of the medina the following day.

The windows are wet and steamy, so we can't see any of the countryside passing by. Richard and I pass our time shivering and reading and sharing food with the Moroccan couple; I offer them salted peanuts, which they accept, and we get juicy tangerines in return. Finally we arrive at Fes. It's 4.30pm and will soon be dark. I have been cold and damp since I got up at 7.30 and am yearning for warmth. But it's not easy to get a taxi an a rainy afternoon in Fes. At last we succeed and climb into a red petit taxi. He drives us past medieval walls of golden mud and stone. The rain pours down.

The desk clerk at the Hotel Batha (pronounced Bat-ha) jokes that he doesn't have a reservation for us. Ha ha. When I ask if the room is heated he says no but it has air conditioning. Ha ha. And when is breakfast? Between 4.00 am and 6.00 am. Ha. But he does usefully inform us that we can have dinner in the hotel restaurant for only a slight increase to our room rate. A porter takes our luggage and shows us to the lift and at last we find what we have been seeking all day long: WARMTH! There is also a bathtub - oh bliss - and a toilet without the ominous wastebasket beside it (meaning used paper goes there and must not be flushed).

The Rough Guide says there is a hamam near here and as I haven't done anything researchy that day, I decide to be brave and go. I consult the guide book and pack a towel (thanks Hotel Batha), shampoo, soap, face cream, a hairbrush and a spare pair of panties. Out the hotel - still raining, and dark now, too - up to the cinema. I can't find the cinema but a peanut seller kindly takes me to the unmarked door of the hamam and beams a toothless smile. I tip him two dirhams. In the entryway I buy a ticket from an old man. Entry to the hamam costs 18 dirhams, about one pound fifty. Through ancient double wooden doors to find a steamy room with a tile centre and drain. Around this courtyard on three sides is a low stone balcony with women changing. I go timidly across and up a few stairs, find the lady who takes you ticket. With a bit of questioning in French I rent a locker (wooden box above the bench) and agree to a massage for 50 dirhams, about four pounds. I undress down to my panties, like everyone else, and an old lady (also in just panties) grasps my left arm above the elbow with a calloused hand and pulls me across the slippery floor to a room aroud a corner.

This room looks just like the ruins of Roman baths: tile floor, tile walls, high ceiling and two stone basins, one for very hot water, one for cold water. There are naked women everywhere, sitting on the stone floor surrounded by colourful plastic buckets. They are all ages, from little girls to old women. They are washing themselves, their hair, even their clothes.

My old guide takes me into a second steam room, almost identical to the first but less crowded. She gets me to sit on the floor and starts tipping buckets of deliciously warm water over me. Then she asks for my shampoo and when I produce the Head and Shoulders she washes my hair, brushes it through rinses it with a bucket. Bliss.

Now another lady with a red bandana type headscarf takes a scrubbing glove and rubs me hard all over. It is almost painful, probably because I'm not used to it. I am lying on my back. The floor is heated underneath in Roman style and is so hot it almost burns. I close my eyes and try to relax into it. Before she gets me to turn onto my front she shows me the worms of grey skin she has rubbed off me. Eww.

After she does my back they sluice me off. Then a third headscarfed lady gives me my massage, rubbing me painfully hard with my bar of soap. Finally I know it's over when they sluice me down with gaspingly cold water.

I go back to my locker and start to dry myself. Suddenly feel a bit sick. I have to put my head between my knees for a few minutes. I should have rested after the bath. The hammam must not be rushed. But Richard is waiting back at the hotel room. After a few minutes I feel better. I get dressed and go back to the hotel feeling cleaner than I have in my whole life. And very warm.

Dinner in the hotel restaurant is uninspired but good and especially nice because they've seated us by the fire. We have harira - the noodle, vegetable and bean soup - then I have chicken kebab and Richard has a beef tajine. We treat ourselves to a bottle of rose from Meknes and finish off with oranges sprinkled with cinnamon. That night we sleep in a warm room on clean sheets and a firm mattress. Yay! Hotel Batha and warmth.

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