It’s FEZinating! Ten Things We Liked About Fez, Morocco

Even though the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue, we were cold as we stood on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the ancient city of Fez.  To our backs were some crumbling ruins with sections of an original wall and a free standing gate and on either side of us, climbing up and down the hills were whitewashed grave markers dating from eons ago. old cemetery overlooking Fes

We watched some men below us carefully spreading out animal hides to dry in the sun before taking them to the tanneries, just like their ancestors had done for centuries.  Our surroundings felt timeless but, in a jarring contrast when we looked below us at the thirteen-hundred year-old, walled city of Fez, we noticed the satellite dishes, all faced in one direction awaiting the magic signals that would bring them to life.

satellite dishes

The feeling of stepping back in time and watching things done just as they’d been for centuries past juxtaposed against the bustle of daily commerce followed us during the days we spent in Fez.  As the oldest imperial city of Morocco it was a major market located along the Trans-Saharan trade route connecting the empires of Western Sahara to the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes.  Goods like salt, cloth, beads and metal were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves and caravanned by the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, first in two-wheeled chariots pulled by oxen, donkeys and horses.  But, as anyone who’s watched an epic desert movie knows, it was the introduction of the camel, probably from the Levant, which revolutionized the industry of desert transport.  Even some of the various names by which Fez is known reflect the mix of civilizations passing through:  the French spelling of Fès, the Berber name Fas and the lacy script of the Arabic culture.

The days spent in Fez flew by quickly as we tried to pack in as many sights and sounds and tastes (and smells!) as we could. However, even self-professed history buffs and aspiring culture vultures have limits and we soon realized that one visit could not cover everything.  The following is our list of recommended favorites:Ryad Ayla

1)  Stay in a Moroccan Riad. These traditional houses of two or more storeys are built around a courtyard with a garden and fountain and are decorated with carved stucco and colorful tiles in geometric patterns.  Once the homes of the wealthy and powerful many of these have been renovated into fine hotels like the Ryad Ayla where we stayed and wrote about it and our next listed place herestreet market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

2) Wander about The Medina of Fes.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this was one the highpoints of our stay and later we had to laugh when we recalled various guidebooks and posts we’d read that suggested “Get lost in the Medina” as a chosen activity.  Once you enter this maze of narrow streets and alleys twisting in various directions there are no other alternatives.  With its shops and bustling souks (an Arab market or bazaar) bakeries and restaurants, crumbling architecture, many historically recognized buildings, mosques, museums, schools and homes, visiting the Medina is an unforgettable experience and a great example of full sensory overload. La Belle Vue de La Tannerie-refurbished tannery

3) Visit the Chouara Tannery in the Moulay Abdellah Quarter of the Medina.  Unfortunately for us, a major renovation was just being completely at the time of our February stay including the restoration of the earthen vats.  In fact, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, was scheduled the very next week for a dedication of this site that dates back to the 11th century.  A later visit to another tannery convinced us that we may have been lucky to see the Chouara Tannery at its cleanest as the stench from the centuries-old tanning process which includes vats filled with pigeon feces, lye baths, various natural dyes and piles of animal skins is not for the faint-hearted.  But the proximity of the tanneries leads to our next suggestion …La Belle Vue de La Tannerie

4)  Shop in a Leather Souk.  Here’s a much better way to appreciate the smell of leather and the luxury quality of handbags, coats and jackets, vests, shoes, wallets, hats, furniture and poufs.  The leather goods are all beautifully handcrafted in their original colors or rich with the brilliant hues from the dye baths.  And, despite the hard sell tactics, we managed to escape with just a reasonably priced pair of slippers.pottery shop

5)  Watch a master potter and artists at Art D’ Argile.  Visiting this ceramics shop gave us a true appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making the beautiful quality Moroccan pottery found in reputable shops.  We watched a potter making the conical shaped tagine dishes using a foot-driven wheel and women hand-painting ceramic bowls, cups and dishes with beautiful designs.Ceramic factory

However, far and away the most impressive sight was watching the three men seated on the floor chiseling away with small hammers at the colorful, glossy, enamel-painted zellige tiles and patiently chipping them into precise forms. The tile shapes are put together like puzzle pieces using a template to form a geometric pattern that becomes a larger tile, tabletops and other mosaic works of art.  There was a bit of a soft sell here but really, the pieces sold themselves.mosaic

 

Jardin Jnane Sbil-Royal Gardens-Royal Gardens

6)  Stroll through Jardin Jnan Sbil. Sitting just outside the Medina walls, the gardens were once a part of the Royal Palace and were donated to the city of Fez in the 19th Century.  Although it was a cold day we still saw people walking about admiring the grounds and enjoying the open, green space with its towering palms, fountains and other plantings.  However, it took us a while to figure out what was missing but in this traditional Islamic country there were no young lovers strolling about hand-in-hand or seated on the benches, canoodling.King's Palace (one of them)

7)  Admire the exterior of Dar el Makhzen, Fez’s Royal Palace with its seven massive, bronze doors.  Built in the 17th century the mansion covers 80 hectares, about 200 acres and is the (humble) abode of the Moroccan royals who stay here when they’re in Fez. One important note is that, while we had no problem with taking photos of the palace at the elaborate entrance of the seven doors the guards in another area several block away indicated that no photos were allowed.building details in Medina

8) Find your way to the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter of Fez dating back to the 15th Century and follow the winding lanes past homes with intricately carved balconies.  For centuries Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims in this once vibrant community, now with only about fifty families remaining.  Once there were several synagogues within the quarter and we recommend a …carved doors Jewish synagogue

9) Stop at the 17th Century Aben (Ibn) Danan Synagogue.  This 17th century synagogue is reached by climbing a short flight of stairs and appears almost plain when contrasted to other much more extravagantly decorated Moroccan buildings.  However, this only highlights the beautifully decorated Torah Ark, a huge cupboard of carved wood also dating back to the 17th century which houses a centuries old Torah Scroll.  The building was placed on the 1996 World Monuments Watch which provides funds to help preserve cultural heritage sites at risk.  And we can’t forget to mention the Jewish Cemetery nearby which can be seen through slits in the Medina’s walls or from the rooftop of the synagogue.weaving a traditional rug

10) Practice saying “No.”  A-L-O-T.  Perhaps we should have written this advice first …   No matter where we went in the marvelous city of Fez, there were shopping experiences galore whether we wanted them or not.  At one point we found ourselves in an enormous two-story carpet emporium where it seemed hundreds of rich wool and shimmering silk carpets in deep hues and intricately woven patterns hung from every surface – ceiling, walls and floors.  Any comments we made of appreciation resulted in them being rolled out in front of us with a flourish while the vendor began a steady barrage of offers and counter offers. Saying “no” seemed to amp up the hard sell even more and we finally escaped (or rather skulked away) feeling a bit cheap and ungrateful for not supporting the artisans’ cooperative but with our hands empty and wallets intact.  Shopping in Fez requires enormous willpower and is not for the faint-hearted!handwoven traditional carpets

Our list is, of necessity, limited to the amount of time we had to invest in this marvelous jewel. We’ve only mentioned some of the many things to do and places to go to when visiting Fez. The hardest part of any traveler’s stay might be selecting among the myriad of choices.  The three days we had allocated were totally insufficient to the task. We resolved to make another visit and immerse ourselves, again, in this fascinating cultural milieu.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

68 comments

  • I was just stopping by to check out your new posts when I got side tracked by this one. Morocco is on our shortlist for next travel spots. Your recommendations for Fez are great. I love the tiles, carpets, pottery….and I definitely need to practice saying NO. I failed miserably in Cairo and succumbed to many cups of sweet tea while unintentionally shopping for leather ottoman covers.

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  • I love Fez, it such a beautiful destination because of their rich culture and tradition. Amazing post, Anita and Richard!

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    • Thanks Agness for stopping by and taking the time to comment! We totally agree that Fez is a fascinating and beautiful place with a rich history and lovely people. It sounds like you enjoyed your visit as well and, like us, would jump at the chance to go back. There’s so much to see and do and we left feeling like we’d only scratched the surface.

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  • What a wonderful account of your time in Fes. It makes me itch to go back. One of my strongest memories of Morocco when I was there back in ’79 is of the Fes medina. Can’t wait to see it again.
    Alison

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    • Thanks Alison. We loved Fez and wish we’d spent more time there as there is so much to see, do and learn in the city and the surrounding area. Luckily, we’re not all that far away for a redo! I have no doubt that you’ll love it as much or more than we did and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think. Let us know when you’re in the area and we’ll make some plans to meet you somewhere. 🙂

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      • That would be wonderful. We’re hoping to be in Portugal sometime next summer.

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      • I just started reading your blog. I hate to admit it, but I’m new to reading anyone’s blog (this is my first time posting a comment). Your information has already been very helpful and fun to read! My hubby and I are in our mid 50’s and leaving in March for 6-8 months in Africa,starting in Morocco. We plan to hit about 10 countries on the east and south side of Africa, moving from one to another when it suits us (keeping visa requirements in mind, of course). Many of the countries entry info. says we need “onward travel docs”. Since we don’t know how long we will be in a particular place, I’m not sure how to fulfill this requirement. What do you recommend? Before I enter a country should I buy a cheap bus ticket out of that particular country near the expected visa expiration date just to fulfill the rule? (Ex: I’m in Uganda ready to go to Rwanda. I would buy a cheap form of travel out of Rwanda to present to Rwandan officials upon arrival to receive my visa.) I hope my question makes sense, any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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        • We’re so glad that you dropped by Carey and we’re really happy that you made your first blog comment on our post as well! And we have to apologize for our late reply to your questions as we’ve been logging in the miles over the last several weeks with a lot of travel in the US.
          And wow, what an adventure you have planned. It almost makes us want to pack our bags again even though we haven’t quite finished unpacking from our last jaunt! I especially love the way you plan to travel (a very rough itinerary and moving SLOW to get the most out of your experience) as it worked very well for us for more than three years. Unfortunately, we don’t have any firsthand experience with the visa requirements in the areas you’re planning to visit. Before we obtained the Portuguese residency visas most of our travel experience was in Central and South America and the Caribbean and we’ve only had 2 countries where we were asked to produce proof of onward travel, Panama and Curacao. We’d done some previous planning in those instances and had airline tickets but we’ve also heard of travelers who have presented bus tickets as well. We’re sorry that we can’t give you any more definitive answers but we’d sure hate to steer you wrong. One idea that you might pursue is posing your question to the online expat communities in the countries you’re planning to visit and see if you can get an answer. We’ll be interested in hearing what you find out as well as reading about your experiences in countries that remain largely unknown to us but no less fascinating. Good luck!

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  • Makes me wish I could jump on a plane this morning and head over. Some day we too will get lost in the Medina of Fes!

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  • Practice saying NO a lot. I love that. I was in FEZ and did get a chance to see the tannery. I bought my husband an awesome leather jacket and a leather suit for myself. It wasn’t my favorite color and I ended up giving it away after never wearing it….We were there right after the Iraq war began, and I didn’t feel all that safe being an American. The whole carpet buying thing is tumultuous too…..”No buy, just look”

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    • When we tried to get away politely with saying “Just looking” that seemed to motivate the salesmen even more! 🙂 And maybe times have changed since you were there as we felt quite safe wherever we wandered while we were in Fez and people were quick to smile. Several Moroccans that we talked to mentioned proudly that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as an independent country after the Revolutionary War and spoke with great admiration for President Obama. Kind of made us feel like ambassadors!

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  • Great tips, I would love to visit Fez one day, so will keep this post saved. Would love to stay in a riad and explore the medina and will no doubt get totally lost and confused there. Did you enjoy the food there?

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    • Great question about the food, Gilda! I can’t believe we haven’t rhapsodized about the fabulous Moroccan food, especially the tagines with their tantalizing mix of so many unexpected flavors. Breakfasts started with a carbohydrate overload of many different kinds of pastries (another tip, stretch jeans!) and our dinners were an adventure in themselves. We mentioned a cooking class to our hosts at the riad and, if we return, they will arrange one for us. Mmmm!

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  • We visited Fez about eight years ago This brought back good memories. The tannery back then was very different ….all the vats were irregular shapes, sizes and heights. Quite a sight!

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    • Evidently the major renovation of the tannery was long overdue (maybe centuries?) but it was very interesting to get a look at the outline of the whole tannery and imagine it in action – without the smell! We were able to see another tannery in Marrakesh a few days later and that gave a whole new meaning to the TV series “Dirty Jobs!”

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  • I love the Morrocan culture and hope to get to Fez some day. Your picture of the satellite dishes made me laugh though – what a contrast to the ancient buildings!

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    • The satellite dishes on top of the buildings were a real anomaly and had us laughing too! We weren’t quite sure what direction they were facing and (didn’t want to offend anyone by suggesting they might be facing towards Mecca) but it looked for all the world like they were awaiting some extraterrestrial visitors!

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  • Everything looks so colourful. I’d like to stay in a Riad and wander the Medina, even if I did get lost.

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  • I loved Morocco and Fez when I was there 5 1/2 years ago, but not so much the smell of the tannery. You’re so right about having will power when it comes to shopping, and I would add: good negotiation skills! I DID buy a rug and can’t believe the bargaining I had to do. But it was worth it!

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    • There are so many things for sale in the shops that it is just OVERWHELMING plus the sheer aggressiveness of the vendors kept us from lingering too long is any one place. We bargained hard at the end of our trip in Morocco while we were in Marrakesh. Our trophy is a small silk rug that’s draped over our couch now and could also be used as a wall hanging. It’s terrific to have a home base where we can display just a few treasures here and there!

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  • Fascinating! Love every nook and niche and colors.

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  • Couldn’t help but think of the Steely Dan song “Never Gonna do it Without the Fez on,” also, wow, that is a crazy amount of satellite dishes! Anyway, looks like a great visit and we certainly hope to make it to Morocco soon.

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    • HaHa – Now that song was a blast from the past and your comment had us laughing! And you’re right about the satellite dishes – our scenic view of the old city from the hilltop was a strange juxtaposition of the centuries old medina and new age technology. But despite (or because) of the contrasts, Morocco is a fascinating country!

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  • Morocco wasn’t on our bucket list upto now. But after reading your post we must reconsider. It looks so different and certainly it’s most interesting to step back in time that way as you did. How did you feel as a woman? I guess as you were traveling as a couple you didn’t have any problems. #morocco #fez #greyworldnomads

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    • This is the first Islamic country that we’ve traveled in and we noticed some cultural segregation immediately although tourism plays a huge role in mixing various cultures. One of the things we noticed was that almost all of the patrons at the outside cafes were male and the tour business seemed predominately male. Also, the local men and women did not seem to mix for activities like strolling about in the park – men sat with men and women with women, The dress among the local women varied from a few fully veiled women to those with headscarves only and others wearing western style clothing. People, however, were very polite and surprisingly many knew a few English words. While we stuck out as tourists we never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.

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  • It’s very other worldly – and the architecture, especially the tiles, is very reminiscent of the architecture found in Portugal…but there is a Moorish influence in Portugal.
    Lovely post. How safe is this for a solo female traveller do you think?

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    • Your right Rebecca, about the similarity of the architecture found in Portugal and Spain and the Moors from North Africa had a far reaching influence with their distinctive art and architecture across the Iberian Peninsula. I especially love the geometric tile mosaics. We followed the usual safety precautions while we traveled in Morocco and actually felt quite safe (except for the vendors!) while we were there. Since we traveled as a couple I can’t really accurately answer your question as to female solo travel but a blogging friend of mine, Dyanne Kruger, who writes a very entertaining blog at TravelnLass recently traveled solo in Morocco and has some great stories. If you need more information I’d be happy to put you in touch with her. Anita

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  • I’d love to visit Fez, and probably will, but that hard sell, which I experienced in Egypt and Israel, gets so old. It can easily spoil a place for me; I tend to avoid marketplaces because of it. There’s a tone of voice you can develop, though, which gets across the idea that no means no. The problem is: as soon as you so much as look at something, vendors think you want it.

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    • We’ve gotten out of the habit of saying “No” assertively and you’re right, Rachel, it does get old. In fact, towards the end of our visit (when we were in Marrakech) we found ourselves actively avoiding some of the places we would have loved to have browsed through just because of the aggressive vendors. Usually there’s some charm and regret when we say no but a few times we were happy just to escape with our money still in our pockets!

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  • We are heading there in a couple weeks. Sure appreciate your tips and insights. Thank you!

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  • I think I almost did everything but check out a potter and I’m a ceramicist so go figure! Loved the visit back to beautiful Fez!

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    • Visiting the Art D’ Argile shop was really interesting as we learned about what goes into hand making the tagine bowls and other ceramics, hand assembling the mosaics and hand painting the pottery. Coming from an industrialized country where very little is made by hand it was fascinating to think that these skills have been passed down for centuries and to also realize the time involved in each piece as well.

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  • Oh those aggressive vendors. The most aggressive women vendors we met were in Guatemala and the most aggressive men vendors were in Morocco. There is a sucker born every minute, and unfortunately I am one of them. haha. Did you know Darrell and Amy from Granada? They are on their way to Portugal this week. It sounds like they will be in your area. I hope you get to see them. Your post was FEZinating. 🙂

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    • Wow – I can’t believe we forgot the women sellers at the plaza in Antigua, Guatemala. I got “guilted” into buying a few scarves from them (just about every time we sat down to people watch!) But, I have to agree the men of Morocco could teach a timeshare or used car salesman a thing or two. And yes, we know Darrell and Amy and are really looking forward to their visit to Portugal! We have quite a few people we met in Nicaragua making their way to the Algarve over the next couple of months. Makes the world seem small, doesn’t it? 🙂

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  • Great entry and wonderful photos, as always. Love following your journeys.
    Suzi

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  • Some great tips. What a shame about the tannery being closed, we enjoyed it there even though we had to endure a heavy 30 minute sales pitch to get the view!

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    • We were really disappointed not to see the tannery in operation but we took a tour of another one in Marrakesh a few days later so that we could see this centuries old practice. And you’re so right about the sales pitch! The vendors of Morocco have the ability to browbeat and cow their customers so that they’ll buy just to escape! 🙂

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  • As I said earlier, we’ve loved your reports. This one – perfect! Loved the photos, particularly of the dishes on the roofscape. That’s the type of thing that always jars me when I am in some historic place — like a small remote Greek village where the street is but a path and you round a corner and find three people reading their mobile phones! Time and technology marches on. Look forward to your return trip and future tales from you. Hugs, Jackie

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    • We’re so glad you’re enjoying our posts Jackie and Joel. Sometimes it can be really surreal to be admiring ancient ruins and contemplating the history and then see signs of technology and modernity mixed in – kind of like, “What’s wrong with this picture?!” . And cell phones, satellite dishes and telephone wires are ubiquitous. However, having all this technology at our fingertips makes travel a lot easier!

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  • This looks like an incredible trip! Particularly love the look of those mosaics and tiles, so beautiful. I visited Tangier a couple of years back on a day trip from Spain, and that barely touched the surface – Fez sounds like a really interesting place to visit!

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    • We kind of blew through Tangier both going to Fez and then returning from Marrakesh to Spain and I think we missed some great sights there as well. And, even though we spent several days in Morocco we felt, like you, that we had barely scratched the surface. What an incredibly rich country and we’re glad that we live nearby so that we can make a return visit!

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  • You made me feel the experience, sights and even smells. Thank you for sharing.

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  • The best compliment you can give a place is to want to return for more. Congratulations for your buying restraint. Nowadays, since we live in such a tiny home, I really have to consider every item I buy. Especially those gorgeous rugs – no spot on your floor for even one? (I must be sounding like the salespeople!)

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  • Wonderful photos! Glad that you had such a fruitful trip!

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  • ME BE in Panama

    It all sounds totally charming, and completely overwhelming. You two are gaining some very interesting passport stamps! Keep it coming, and thanks for all the info.

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    • It is fun to see the stamps spread across the pages of our passports (we want more!) and even more interesting to collect the experiences, stories and photos. It was also fun to plunge into a completely foreign culture but whenever it threatened to be completely overwhelming we’d take a break, have some tea and take a deep breath. Going slow helps keep the charm!

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  • It looks fabulous! I’d love to stay in the Riad. The tiles and rugs are so gorgeous, it would be very difficult to say no, even without all the “encouragement.” Beautiful!

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    • Both the wool and silk carpets were absolutely glorious Betsy, and if we’d had our old home I know we would have walked out with one … or two … or three! I think the thrill of a good bargain as well as the habit of acquisition lies deep inside of us so we definitely had to keep each other firm in saying and repeating, No, thanks!

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