A family adventure in Fes: Three girls (and dad) travel to Morocco's most magical city
Take three blonde girls, fly them to Morocco and lead them into the souks of Fes.
A smart idea from an adventure-loving father? Or a crazy plan likely to end in disaster?
It was time for a different sort of holiday. I'd first been to Fes on my gap year and returned on my honeymoon, bringing the new Mrs Milton to sample its treasures.
Now, it was the Big One: a family holiday in a city infamous for its hustlers, false guides, peddlers, crooks and carpet-selling uncles.
Three go mad in Morocco: Madeleine, Aurelia and Heloise settle in to their Fes surroundings
So why come? Because Fes is the most exhilarating city you'll ever visit. It's a teeming, pulsating metropolis that has changed very little in its 1,200-year history.
Inside its crenellated ramparts, a staggering 300,000 inhabitants live, work and eke out a living. Many are experts in crafts that died out centuries ago in Europe.
They include tanners, blacksmiths, potters and professional scribes. Each trade has its own quarter and the noises, sights and pungent smells assault your senses as you pass from one to the next.
'Are you sure it's safe?' asked my daughters as we embarked on our adventure. They knew all about last April's bomb in Marrakech, as well as the revolutions that have swept the Arab world.
'Safer than London,' I said, and I meant it.
The Arab Spring prompted largely peaceful protests in Morocco. The king is a widely respected figure of authority, while the mastermind behind the bombing has been sentenced to death and his gang is in jail.
But tourism was hit hard in the aftermath of the bombing. Hotels struggled and, while we were in Fes, few holidaymakers wandered the souks. We were almost the only visitors in the greatest medieval city in the Arab world.
This was somewhat unnerving, because we stuck out like sore thumbs. With our pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, we'd have made convincing locals in Sweden. In Morocco, we didn't cut the mustard.
We arrived on a sweltering June evening and plunged straight into the heart of the old city. Our girls didn't know what had hit them: they were wide-eyed with astonishment.
And with good reason. There are no cars, buses or taxis. The streets are so narrow and twisted that the only transport is by mule or donkey.
Forget looking for a Marks & Spencer or Gap. Instead, you find thousands of little stores scarcely larger than a cupboard, in which the owner is, as likely as not, chiselling away at a bowl he's hoping to sell you later.
We passed an aromatic spice stall with teetering piles of yellow turmeric and brick-red paprika. A merchant tried to sell us handbags and wallets. A stray cat got tangled under our feet. Someone was peddling tortoises. A child was stroking a chameleon.
'That's truly disgusting,' said Heloise, 13, as we passed a butcher's stand.
There was not a cellophane-wrapped lamb chop in sight. Here, the meat is newly butchered - sometimes in front of your eyes.
Three sheep heads were on display, a sign of the meat's freshness. Fifteen-year-old Madeleine was philosophical. 'At least we know it hasn't gone off,' she said.
Horseplay: Fes is a city where the medieval world still looms amid cluttered streets
There's shouting, arguing and the call to prayer from one of the city's 300 minarets. And everywhere there are people - a constant, jostling crowd that seems to be going nowhere.
In recent years, many of Fes's 19th century mansions have become hotels (known as riads), oases of luxury. We had chosen Le Riad Maison Bleue, which has the bonus of a little pool in the central courtyard.
This became our refuge when the blistering heat of the afternoon got too much to bear.
We'd relax until 5pm, then head back into the souks for a refreshing glass of sweet mint tea.
Fes is a labyrinth on a grand scale. Forget GPS. Don't even bother with a map. Nothing leads to where you think it will. Endless hustlers try to 'help'. Ignore them all. We found a polite request for directions from a store-holder almost always got us back to where we wanted to be.
You'll need to get some sense of orientation, because Fes has a number of must-see sights.
The medieval tanneries, still in daily use, are the No1 attraction. In scores of giant vats, men are immersed to their waists in brilliantly coloured liquids and they tread the leather pelts until the colour is impregnated. 'It stinks,' was the comment from our youngest daughter.
She was right: the tanneries do stink. The skins are cured in urine and pigeon dung so acrid that it burns your nostrils.
Among the city's most sumptuous sites is the nearby Glaoui Palace. In any other place in the world, this would be a major attraction - a rambling 19th century edifice that's dripping with oriental opulence. Yet here in Fes, it's not even (officially) open to the public.
But as so often in Morocco, a loud rap on the door summons the guardian who - for a few dirhams - will show you around.
As the heat grew ever more intense, we hired a car and drove into the Middle Atlas mountains. Their contours start to rise from the arid plain 35 miles to the south of Fes and they offer an enticingly different climate.
The air cooled and the breezes freshened: soon, the countryside began to change.
The hills surrounding the market town of Imouzer du Kandar were fringed with trees and the town was bursting at the seams with water. Two lakes, hundreds of springs and dozens of fast-flowing rivulets provide a natural freshness to the air.
We climbed higher, stopping at the bizarre ski-town of Ifrane. Locals call this Moroccan Switzerland with good reason. There may be no cuckoo clocks but there are gabled roofs aplenty. We pushed further south, climbing over a stack of barren mountains.
We had intended to return to Fes that afternoon, but the coolness of the air (and spectacular scenery) made us pause.
We stopped in the Berber village of Ain Leuh and stumbled across the Auberge Le Magot de L'Atlas.
'Do you have any free rooms?' we asked the genial manager.
'They're all free,' he said. 'There's no one here. Take your pick.'
We decided to sleep in the main salon, a room so decorative it looked set for a wedding.
Cutting a splash: Aurelia admires an unexpected waterfall in the Atlas Mountains
We headed further south the following morning - encountering spectacular Barbary apes, a fantastic waterfall cut out of a gorge, and a huge, shimmering lake on the 'Route des Cedres' that we had all to ourselves - before we arrived back in Fes later that evening.
'Ah, my friends,' shouted stallholders, hustlers and guides as we jostled our way through the souk. 'You're back.'
It was a curious feeling. Everyone knew who we were; everyone wanted to be our friend. We had become instant celebrities.
'I wonder how they remember us,' said my youngest daughter Aurelia, who is nine.
She looked at her sisters and me - all fair-haired and pink with sunburn - and let out a peal of laughter.
'I guess we don't really look Moroccan,' she said.
For information on Le Riad Maison Bleue visit www.maisonbleue.com.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283, www.kirkerholidays.com) offers four nights at the Riad Maison Bleue from £669pp including Ryanair flights from Stansted, private car transfers, accommodation with breakfast, and a three-hour walking tour with Englishspeaking guide.
Kirker clients staying more than three nights will have their room upgraded, subject to availability at time of booking.
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