Borj Nord, the castle on the hill - Morocco
The riad’s receptionist spread out a printed map of the city in front of our eyes, not long after we had settled in our richly decorated room. We were alone in the blue and white courtyard of the Riad Lune and Soleil, which seemed deserted by any other tourist in the afternoon. Upon closer look at the map, we noticed that most sightseeing spots were at walking distance and got instantly reassured as riding a cab in the narrow streets of Fez was obviously no easy task, let alone ride it within the medina, which was close to impossible.
“You will probably have to get a cab if you want to get up there though”, he suddenly said, pointing out to what looked like a fortress in ruins in the outskirts of the city. We shared a conniving gaze, knowing both fairly well there was no way we would spend hours negotiating a price with a taxi driver when our legs could work just fine. Sure, what we learned was a place called the Borj Nord was up a hill, and it was far away, and most tourists wouldn’t even consider walking up there for a second, but we weren’t going to say no to some exercise, right? Truth be told, it was the end of our trip and we were pretty damn broke too, something this beautiful and fancy riad wasn’t about to make any better.
The streets were nearly empty at this hour but a few locals were taking a walk, while two men in their fifties seemed entrenched in a deep conversation, sitting on the edge of the cliff just like a kid who looked absorbed in a piece of paper, alone and quiet. As we went on, the massive silhouette of the sand-coloured Borj emerged more clearly and it was finally there, sitting in front of us. We followed a dozen swallows’ trail up to the entrance of the fortress, which was now a museum dedicated to the evolution of weapons across time. A group of local pupils that couldn’t be older than ten was our only company for most of the visit.
Reaching the Borj’s roof, we enjoyed another view on Fez, still under the threat of a pile of deep grey clouds that had fortunately spared the city from rain so far. Looking to our left, we noticed a commanding compound in ruins in the distance and knew instantly what our next stop would be. The road to the ruins led us next to a patch of grass bordering several houses, which looked out of place enough already before we noticed a group of shepherds guarding a flock of gaunt sheep and goats, quietly grazing under the watchful eye of a nearby minaret. One of the goats came to say hello before disappearing behind a low stone wall, and we got back to the main road all the way until our destination.
Getting to the edge of a cliff, we found ourselves caught between yet another graveyard layered below our feet and the outline of a much older necropolis, the ruins of the 14th-century Merinid tombs. As we stood there in awe, muffled by the beauty and solemnity of the place, a familiar voice rang in our ears. Turning around, we saw the riad’s receptionist walk in our direction, to our surprise as much as his. He looked slightly amused when asking us whether we had hiked all the way up here, which he could guess easily by the looks of our sneakers covered in dirt and the sweat on our foreheads, and then began to gently introduce us to his family before leaving us to our tourist business.
It was time for an exploration and we circumvented the tombs to get a better look before entering the site, walking straight to a majestic old gate where we crossed paths with a man in a long orange burnous carrying a heavy bag we later learned was full of hand-sewn blankets and woollen caps. Helping himself with a wooden cane, he stared for a while as we were taking pictures of the city, and decided to move towards us when he saw the opportunity. Of the many caps in his bag, he chose two for us to try on and we started a conversation in French and broken Arabic, learning all about his life, from his wife leaving across the valley and sewing these caps for a living to his Dad who had served the French army at the time Morocco was a French protectorate. His monologue eventually dried up, for we were well aware its purpose was never really to share his life story. Minutes later, his pockets were filled with a couple more dirhams as he waved at us with a smile.
We took one last glance at the view, our eyes lingering on the magnificent green roof of the Kairaouine Mosque inside the medina, enjoying the city from above before allowing ourselves to discover it from within. On our way down, a flock of sheep was grazing at the feet of the ruins on the side of the hill, cute little lambs playfully teasing their older companions, their shepherd sitting on a mound. Protected by high walls, the medina looked close but it seemed like it belonged to another dimension and there we were, feeling a unique vibe up on this gravel path, relishing in this one-of-a-kind perspective on Fez in all its identities.
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