Morocco has been one of my dream destinations for quite a while. Its hot temperature, easy accessibility and scenic diversity were only a few reasons why my two girl friends from university and me decided to fly there this September. I know what you´re probably thinking right now. Three young women on a round trip through Morocco without a tour group or male companionship, how´s that a smart idea? Well, it´s not like I wasn´t concerned about that myself. However, I´ve travelled enough to assess situations, use my common sense and act accordingly. So have my friends. Over the duration of our trip, I don´t recall meeting any other girls who were travelling without guys. In fact, we were surprised by firstly, the lack of tourists in Fez, and secondly, the amount of travelling couples in all other cities. In hindsight, I´m happy we chose to go on this ten-day adventure, because it was truly eye-opening. Sometimes slightly challenging, but very enriching.
Fez is where we started our journey. We flew there from Memmingen, Germany and stayed at the “Dar el Makina Aprt” for three nights. One or two days would´ve been absolutely enough to visit Fez, that´s why we took a train to Meknes on our second day to kill some time. More on that in my second Morocco post.
Good to know:
- Hotels/ Riads often advertise a shuttle from the airport. This can be very helpful, because the medina in Fez is huge and allegedly consists of 10.000 intertwined streets. If you want to save that money, download an offline map or screenshot the path from where the taxi/bus will take you to your accommodation. Usually, the taxi can only take you to a city gate and then you have to walk from there. Oh, and don´t even bother looking for street names.
- Strangers who offer to help you with pretty much anything will ask for money in the end. Also when they say it´s free. At first, we were slightly “frustrated” by this behaviour. Eventually, we accepted that that´s just a part of their culture and how they earn their living. Be aware of it and decide whether or not the service is worth a few dirham to you. If it isn´t, gently refuse and walk away.
- As appealing as it might seem to save some money and stay at a cheap hotel, spending a bit more to stay with a friendly host is really worth it. Especially as female travellers. All of our hosts had been highly praised in the reviews on booking.com, and we weren´t let down. They told us where (not) to go, offered to walk us to dinner if we wanted to go out after sunset, treated us with respect or, as one of them put is, like sisters. Now, that might sound peculiar to you, it did to me as well. After being called a “good wife” and “lovely” by guys on the streets for the thousandth time- it didn´t. I guess our host wanted to let us know that we belong to their “family” and aren´t outlawed. That is, in fact, really how we felt sometimes in the narrow lanes of Fez. Groups of young men tried to get our attention by following us for a bit or commenting on our appearance and relationship status. They never approached us physically or got aggressive. It was always enough to look down and walk away or reply something witty. That´s where commen sense is very useful. Obviously, some of them were curious because tourists are still rather uncommon in Fez. Others were just being disrespectful. The closer we got to Marrakech, the more tourists there were and the less attention we got. Fez was by far the most traditional and authentic city.
- Take pictures of the road you´re staying in. Our first host gave us this piece of advice so that we had something to show if we got lost. Luckily, we always found back home, but it seems like a good idea with no street signs around. Instead of asking a stranger on the street for help, you can try asking a shop owner. Now and then, they´re willing to help and you don´t have to worry about them offering to walk you somewhere.
- Moroccan tap water is undrinkable and shouldn´t even be used to wash fruits or vegetables. We were very careful and fortunately didn´t have any major stomach problems.
- There are rarely fixed prices. You won´t get around bargaining if you don´t want to be charged crazy prices. Don´t be scared to offer a really low price or (pretend to) walk away. Either the seller compromises and offers a lower price or you go to another stall.
- Riads are beautiful and very authentic but nothing for light sleepers. Privacy is also rather limited, because windows usually face the inner courtyard where food is served.
- The most common languages in Fez are Arabic, French and Spanish, but English does the job as well. Everyone dealing with tourists will find a way to communicate with you, no matter what language(s) you speak.
Now that we´ve got the basics out of the way, here´s what we did in Fez!
“Our” street. We were surprised by how clean most of Fez was.
There are no supermarkets in the medina, everything is bought on markets or in corner shops. Our go-to snacks were bananas (don´t have to be washed) and some kind of round bread (usually 1 dirham per piece) that can be found everywhere.
There are countless mosques, however, you can´t enter if you´re not a Moslem. Still, even looking through the entrance reveals beautiful architecture.
There´s no shortage of shopping and eating opportunities. When it came to eating, we went wherever there were locals. Bread filled with minced meat and veggies (10-20dh) is very popular and so are tajines (20+ dh). We really enjoyed the Kefta tajine made with meatballs and eggs.
The best way to find tourist attractions is by strolling through the medina without a destination and just keeping your eyes open.
Around Bab Bou Jeloud, the Western entrance gate to the city, there´s no shortage of rooftop restaurants with great views. By the way, “Bab” means “gate”.
Donkeys still play an important part in the everyday life of Moroccans. We were told that donkeys are used for work and horses are a symbol of prestige.
(Petits taxis outside of Bab Bou Jeloud and a cemetery in the background)
Taxis are affordable and a good way to get places, but only if you agree on a price before getting into the car.
(View from our riad)
Moroccan min tea is served at every time of the day and is usually very sweet.
The train station is about ten to fifteen minutes from the medina by car. From Bab Rcif, we paid 20 dirham (for us three) to go to the train station and 30 dirham to go back. It´s very modern and train tickets can be bought at ticket machines with card or cash. There´s also staff to help you, but it´s really very simple.
The Attarin Medersa is a madrasa (an educational institution) in the medina. We only found it when we weren´t looking for it, because of its plainness on the outside. It´s 20 dirham for an adult, Moroccans pay reduced fees. We got an unofficial student price and paid 40 dirham together. Maybe because of my incredibly charming French… A guy on the rooftop demanded tips from the visitors, but we were told not to give him anything. As it is one of the most popular sights in Fez, there were a lot of tourists (in comparison to Marrakech there were very few tourists but whatever). We sat on a bench and waited for tour group-free time slots to take our pictures. That´s the advantage when you´ve got “too much time” in a city.
The Chouara Tannery is the largest tannery in Fez and can best be observed from a terrace. You can find them by following signs saying “vue panoramique” or similar. Of course, all the shops and restaurants with a good view will try to sell you something. In my opinion it´s worth it, especially if there´s someone explaining what´s going on in the tannery. After all, it´s no different from paying to visit a museum. We learned that the smell is the worst in the morning and gets getter as time passes. The leather is washed, then cleaned with pigeon excretions containing ammonia, dyed with natural colours (yellow = saffron, green = mint, red = poppy…), dried in the sun and then loaded onto donkeys. 150 families work in this tannery and each one has a specific job which is passed on to the next generation. The youngest family members actually earn some money by collecting the pigeon excretion.
Jardin Jnan Sbil is a tidy park right outside the medina. It´s free of charge and there are many security guards to keep people out of the flowers. A good spot to relax after hectic hours in the city.
Place Seffarine is known for its copper beaters.
As I already pointed out, Fez is not welcoming in every aspect. We felt overwhelmed, annoyed, stressed, bored, tired.. But we were glad to experience this culture shock, and I´m kind of proud we managed so well. Laying by a pool in an isolated spa resort is surely relaxing, but this was so exciting and a way to grow as a person by standing up for yourself and leaving your comfort zone.