I surveyed the rolling hills. They were steeper than they looked. And in the heat of the day, afternoon call to prayer echoing over the browning grass beneath the rich blue sky. We’d already walked up a series of hills in search of Moulay Yacoub thermal spa-scoffing at the 50 MAD price the taxi drivers were invoking for the 2-5 km drive. Up in the bright sun soothed by the persistent cool breeze, only to find the hotel at the top couldn’t – or wouldn’t – help us; back down again. The road was winding-and that much longer for the winding- and so i scanned the horizon looking for a shortcut down to what I hoped…hoped…was the spa.

Success! After descending the endless trail of stairs…stairs steep enough to put a butt on anyone…I was too thrilled to find myself inhaling the faint scent of sulfer, evidence of the healing thermal waters within.

English – the bane of my existence here – was of no use inside. But using limited vocabulary and pantomime I figured out the package I wanted and paid by credit card (realizing too late I’d been overcharged).

Inside, I found myself wandering about with little help from the staff. Finally, a woman behind a counter exchanged my bag for a robe and slippers and, after changing, I shuffled into yet another room to await my first treatment.

This was meant to be a pampering day. A chi chi hybrid version of the traditional hammams (Turkish style baths that are ubiquitos here) and a spa. Chi chi and pampering  might have been an overestimation.

The first stop was a Jacuzzi. The water started off pleasantly warm but cold water was constantly flowing in. after about five or 10 minutes it was leaning towards cold. I called out for Hen (the woman who ushered me in) and she finally emerged and adjusted the water. Cold turned to warm turned to hot. I curled my legs up close to my body on the far end in an attempt to escape the intensifying heat. When that failed, I stood. And eventually I got out all together.

I called out again, this time sheepishly. Hen looked les pleased this time and turned off the water completely. A few minutes later it began to drain and shortly after the drain gulped the last drops Hen emerged to lead me to the second treatment.

Treatment two was a powerful saltwater shower – in fact, all of the treatments were salt infused – meant to massage the neck and shoulders. It would have been lovely to wash my hair if that had been the point, but instead I stood in a deluge of saline contemplating how much water I was wasting in the middle of a desert.

I was summoned again, this room was empty except for a metal bar along the far wall and two hoses placed on top of a counter. It looked like the delousing station from prison movies. I hesitated at the door for a moment but the attendant gestured me toward the bar and then motioned for me to turn so that my back faced her.

The stream of water that hit me was so forceful that I braced against it. Water stung my back and legs, and as she moved the stream ever upwards it stung my neck and began to soak my hair. More than anything, vision of the civil rights protesters being hosed – police dogs straining on their leashes – came to mind. It wasn’t relaxing. On its own it was like being beaten repeatedly by wet fists, combined with the association of police brutality I was ecstatic to be finished.

Next up was the actual thermal pool. At traditional hammams there are separate baths for men and women, this place holds the distinction of allowing men and women to bathe (in their bating suits) together. I walked through glass doors into the domed room holding the reputedly healing waters. There were a smattering of people – men and women – resting in lounge chairs along the rim of the pool and idling in the hot water.

In America I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But here, here where most women cover their heads and neck the idea of being in my bathing suit before male eyes made me uneasy. A smiling young man steadily trying to get my attention, “I’ve seen you in the medina in Fes”, added to my dis-ease. Still I disrobed and sunk into the waters – hoping for relief from my allergies and sinus pains. In and out a few times – the heat too much to bear- I finally found myself lolling off to sleep.

The final treatment was a massage. At this point my expectations had been reduced to new depths. Being leered at and hosed will do that. But I was wrong.

Zenab entered and instructed me to lay face up. She pulled out a spray bottle of argon oil and began to spray her hands and then trailing them, and the oil, over my body. At first her touch was light – too light – I resigned myself to a subpar massage. But as the massage went on her hands became more forceful, more targeted at sore muscles. By the time I’d turned over she was deftly working over my body. I carry my stress in large knots along my spine and in my shoulders. Discovering this on her own, she began to knead the stress with deliberate hands.

They’re still there, she only had 30 minutes. The woman was good but not a miracle worker. But as she finished, she brushed her hands lightly over my back and shoulders and then turned off the light, leaving me to relax for a few minutes.  It was a redeeming moment to an otherwise overpriced experience.

After ascending the 90 degree inclined steps back to the taxi rank and riding back to Fes, I prepared for dinner. This was my anticipated joy. I had such high expectations for Moroccan food; and yet thus far it had been pleasant hit and abysmal miss.

The restaurant, also a riad (fancy chmancy home converted into a hotel), was beautiful. Delicate colorful tiles and carved stone in every direction. The ceilings high the lighting low. After munching on olives and nuts and sipping fresh lemonade I moved to the dining area. There I was presented with the first true course. Moroccan salads (cooked): eggplant, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, fava and white beans, and a few other dishes. None of the flavors were overtly bold but the overall impression was delightful.

Course two was what I’d been anticipating – authentic bastilla/pastilla, made with pigeon and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. It was good, not as dramatic as I had envisioned, not even the best I’ve had…but a solid second course. Next…the tangine. I had low expectations for the tangine. My previous experiences with it were bland and uneventful, and this one came with the added demerit of being served with liver.

Even so, I smiled, asked for white meat, and put my fork to work. It was delightful. The meet was tender and flavorful. The liver added a richness of flavor, without the strange texture I associate with it. The lemon and olives made for more complex and subtly bold experience. I was pleasantly surprised.

The final course was desert. Layers of flakey dough with what I think was milk, rosewater, and almonds, served with orange slices. The flakiness was fun, and the flavor not too overwhelming or sweet. Combined with mint tea, it was a delicate way to end the meal.

Four hundred and fifty MAD later, I wasn’t displeased. I had the best tangine I’ve ever put into my mouth and enjoyed a meal away from crowds of people looking to sell me something- anything.

I still have dreams of delightful Moroccan morsels…I look forward to Meknes and Marrakech to bring those dreams to fruition.

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