To escape from cold, wet Tangiers, we spent last weekend in Moulay Yacoub, a thermal spa and pilgrimage site located 12 miles west of Fes, Morocco. In Moulay Yacoub, the climate is warmer and drier than in Tangiers and the sulphurous waters reach temperatures of 129 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot enough to take away anyone’s chill. We stayed in Fes and were able to eat at outdoor cafes in February.
Moulay Yacoub deserves to be better known outside of Morocco. Most English language guidebooks devote little space to it and foreigners bent on seeing the top sights have little time for it. Yet, in Morocco, the waters are renowned for their curative properties, particularly with skin diseases, respiratory ailments, rheumatism and arthritis. Even if you are in splendid health, you can always use a little respite from the rigors of a grand tour or, in our case, of building a house in Tangiers. If you are in ill health, a prayer to Moulay Yacoub, the Sufi saint who is buried there, may hasten your recovery. Certainly, that’s what the many pilgrims to the Marabouts (the tombs of holy men) are counting on.
Driving to Moulay Yacoub offers gorgeous vistas of the Sais plain and the arid hills surrounding it. As you leave Fes, you pass through experimental farms, then the road winds up to Moulay Yacoub. In early spring, the fruit trees are beginning to blossom and the hills show bands of green among the stark grey ones.
Moulay Yacoub consists of two thermal establishments, low budget pools (anciennes piscines) in the village dating back to the 1930’s and a modern upscale establishment built in 1989 and financed by a Saudi Prince. Be warned that you must go down (and up) 500 steps to the old pools and that women and men bathe in different pools. The 1939 Michelin guide to Morocco mentions that “the pool for the poor, where people splash around outdoors in very little clothing, is particularly animated.” In the old establishment, If you value your privacy, you can bathe by yourself (baignoire individuelle). Both facilities (the pools and the individual tubs) are cleaned once a week on Monday evening. They can get fairly grungy toward the end of the week because so much personal grooming takes place on the edge of the pools. Think hammam and not a western swimming pool.
The modern establishment allows co-ed bathing in its large indoor pool. It offers six day treatment packages for respiratory diseases at 1000 dirhams and for rheumatism at 1950 dirhams. (The exchange rate at presents fluctuates around 8 dirhams to the dollar.) If you want a medical treatment, you must also submit an order from your physician and pay 140 dirhams for a consultation with the spa’s physician. The best beauty value is the “skin-deep” package at 850 dirhams, which offers a cream scrub, a facial, manicure, pedicure and dip in the pool for 850 dirhams. The wellness package offers an individual Jacuzzi, jet shower, sauna, massage and dip in the pool for 550 dirhams. We opted for two wellness packages. Make sure that you read the list of treatments before you sign up. There are special prices for two or three day stays, which we discovered to our chagrin after signing up for one day. (www.moulayyacoub.com)
The modern establishment does not take reservations. You sign up when you arrive, pay cash or by credit card, change into a thick terry cloth robe over a mandatory bathing suit and await your turn. Then, attendants in white lab coats take you around to your services you have ordered. In between services, there is time to relax on comfortable lounge chairs. The establishment could use a paint job in places but is otherwise clean and well-run. Most of the patrons on a weekend were older people from Fes relaxing after a hard work week. Most of the women wore modest bathing suits or knee-length garments. If you are hoping for a Thousand and one Night setting with odalisques lounging languosly, you will be disappointed. The closest you’ll get is the sight of a few young Fassi women in the latest bikinis. YouTube has a short jaunty video on Moulay Yacoub, that will give you an idea of the place.
At present, the only place to stay onsite is the Moulay Yacoub Hotel, which claims four stars. It has seen has seen better days. The bungalows that can be rented through the hotel are a better option, if you are travelling with more than one person. According to spa personnel, a new upscale hotel is planned for 2015. There is also the Hotel Lamrani and rooms in private houses but those are best left to the most adventurous and cash-strapped travelers. We opted to stay at Dar Ziryab, a bed and breakfast in the new part of Fes (Fes Jdid). It was conveniently located to the road leading to Moulay Yacoub.
Another reason to stay in Fes and commute to Moulay Yacoub is a gastronomic one. Fes has some of the best traditional food in Morocco and Moulay Yacoub has few options. There is a clean café on the site of the upscale spa and a passable restaurant in the Hotel Lamrani, near the old pools. After consulting with the local constabulary, we had rotisserie chicken and yellow rice at the Hotel Lamrani. (The police told us not to trust the meat.) Our bill at Hotel Lamrani came to 70 dirhams for half a chicken, rice, drinks, and mint tea.