“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”
If you don’t know where that quote is from, you might know even less about Morocco than I did a few months ago.
How familiar was I with this country before I got on a flight from Barcelona to Fes?
I’d seen Casablanca 5+ years ago.
I’d done a bit of research on, ya know, Pinterest.
I’d skimmed through a couple books.
I was vaguely familiar with the culture.
I’d checked out a Morocco travel podcast.
That was pretty much it.
The North African country wasn’t super high on mine or my friend Rosie’s bucket list, but when we were researching Spain and realized we could hop onto a plane down to Morocco for almost no money at all, we knew it had to happen.
(or Fes. Both are okay, and there’s a solid chance I will switch back and forth between the two spellings.)
Fez is overwhelming.
The sites, the sounds, the maze of tight streets within the walled city. The spices, the people who stare and shout and rush by in waves and, before you know it, are giving you a tour you never asked for or have sold you something you definitely don’t want.
My friend Rosie and I arrived in Morocco late one Thursday night in October. Before we even got through customs my personal space bubble had expanded (by force, not by choice #strangerdanger). I was determined NOT to let the pushy family behind me swoop in front of us in the customs line, and I managed to block them off.
Rosie didn’t even notice the full scale attack they were mounting against us, nor did she see my impressive counter-attack. She lives in India and is used to people not respecting lines (or other people, for that matter, at least by my reckoning). But the middle eastern/African culture is still fairly foreign to me.
Or, maybe I should say “was still fairly foreign.” Because I got a crash course in a new culture over the course of that long weekend.
When we finally made it out of the Fès–Saïs Airport (which is beautiful and funky, btw), we looked around for a line of taxis that I’d read would be waiting for us.
Except… there were no taxis. Just a line of men.
“Should we have gone out the other entrance of the airport?” Rosie asked.
“No, no. It’s probably fine.” I said.
(It’s not fine, it’s not fine, it’s not fine.)
I was feeling a little uncomfortable as scenes from Taken rushed through my mind, and I thought of the warnings I’d heard many times not to get into an unmarked taxi.
One of the men came up to us. He was the only one who seemed fluent in English, and he used this skill to acquire customers for the line of taxi drivers. After fighting with him on a price for awhile, we decided to trust him, and went off with the cute little old man he told us would be our driver.
The little old man led us down some steps to a line of what did, in fact, appear to be taxis.
Ok. Sweet. Maybe we won’t get kidnapped tonight.
We began to drive toward the city (Probably. I mean there was no way for us to really know). We drove through some police check points and soon were in a city, at least. The interior of Fez is walled, and the very interior (the ancient city, the medina), is inside another wall.
After driving around for awhile we arrived at a spot that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There were some parks and athletic fields nearby, but it was just outside the interior city wall. Our driver pulled up to a group of men standing beside the wall and began to talk to one of them through his window.
Uh. Ok. It’s fine, right? It’s fine. He’s definitely not negotiating a sale of… us, right now. Right?
The man he was talking to ended up getting into the car with us. He was a young guy, probably 18 or 19, who spoke some English. It became evident that he was giving the man directions.
To our hostel, I hoped.
The cute little old taxi driver dropped us off jut outside the interior wall of the medina, (where cars can’t go). We thanked him, paid him, and began our first experience with an unwanted and unneeded guide.
I knew the way to the hostel from the place the man had dropped us off, but the kid he’d picked up happily grabbed both our large backpacks and began to lead the way. After about a minute he gave up and said he could only carry one bag.
I OFFERED TO CARRY MINE IN THE FIRST PLACE, KID.
Finally, we arrived at Riad Verus, our hostel!
I boldly gave our guide/unneeded helpful friend a tip, because whether we needed him or not, we had allowed him to help us.
Keep in mind this was my first experience with Moroccan Dirham. I think I literally gave him about 2 MAD which would be about 20 cents in USD. I knew it probably wasn’t enough, but I promise I wasn’t sure about the exchange rate and was just hoping for the best.
He was, understandably disgusted, after all the unwanted help he’d just given us. “This is nothing to me!” He said.
I gave him a little more. He left. I felt good about the amount I gave him. We had a good laugh over the “This is nothing to me!” comment and chewed it for the rest of our trip.
Ah, the Riad Verus. So much I could say about this place! We had the best experience, although we spent a lot of time wondering what was going on, and laughed A LOT, both with the guys who ran the place and at our interactions with them. They were super helpful to us, but weren’t as kind to all their customers. We were even involved in an awkward fight between the hostel manager and two enterprising German customers on our last night there.
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace built around an interior garden or courtyard. It was one of the prettiest and most unique “hostels” I’ve stayed in. Not sure if it can even be classified as a hostel.
The first night, they welcomed us with this incredible meal of couscous (FAVE), chick peas, vegetables, cabbage, and fresh Moroccan mint tea. Then, before long, Nor, the guy who ran the hostel, came and sat with us and asked us if we were planning on going to the desert.
We told Nor we wanted to, but it was so far and we only had about 3 full days in Morocco and we wanted to see Fez too. We were considering going to the blue city, Chefchaouen instead of the desert. Nor was the first person to inform us that while the blue city is great for potheads (it’s surrounded by hashish fields) and people who are only traveling for the gram, the desert experience would be one we would remember for the rest of our days.
Well, let’s just say Nor was quite the salesman, because by the next morning at 7:30, we were in a car bound for the Sahara Desert.
(More on that coming in my next post.)
When we came back from the desert a night early, we actually ended up sleeping on the roof of the hostel, because they were fully booked. 10/10 did not mind at all, even though it seems pretty shady in hindsight.
Exploring the Medina
We spent our last day in Morocco aimlessly exploring. We knew Fez was a maze of a city, and we allowed ourselves to just get lost in it.
Fez is home to the world’s oldest leather tannery.
We both knew we wanted to get a leather bag, so a big destination of the day was the leather “souk.” Souks are markets, and they run together in the center of the city. Leather souk, metal souk, spice souk, etc.
The first thing that tipped us off to the fact that we were nearing the leather souk was the smell. The smell of animal hides and strong dyes and so much more.
Soon we had a man trying to force us to allow him to be our guide. (These “guides” are paid by leather shops to bring in tourists.) We told him no, of course, but I’m pretty sure he did end up leading us to one of the main leather stores even though we ignored him. We walked up steep stairs, past several floors worth of premium leather goods.
Somewhere along the way, we were handed sprigs of mint. When we reached the top of the building and stepped out onto the veranda we saw (or should I say smelled) why. The smell was pungent, and the tannery spread out below us.
Animal skins were spread out to dry. Workers hopped back and forth precariously over vats of dye, pigeon poop, and other gross things that the animal skins would be repeatedly dipped into.
We spent some time looking down in awe, and took some photos.
Then came the truly difficult part of the day: trying to find the perfect leather bag. One of the leather shop employees brought us mint tea, which we sipped as we looked at the many different bags, jackets, and everything in between.
We walked down the many stairs, and then back up. On the top floor, I asked to see many different bags, and eventually, we both found our ideal bag. When you know, you know. You know?
Then came the bartering. The attendant started out at over $100 for just my bag. Rosie, using her Indian skills, bartered him down to less than $100 for both bags. It was entertaining to watch. And it felt good to leave having spent so much less money than we would’ve had we purchased similar bags in the states.
Fez was exciting, but I think we were both ready to leave. I could tell you a million other stories about this place, especially about our hostel and the people we met there.
A couple things that stood out to me: there were so few women out and about. Working in shops, restaurants, cafes, even our hostel? Men. Sitting outside cafes? Men. It definitely gave the whole city a creepier vibe than if there had been women out and about or children playing.
Second, you will get attention. People will try to take advantage of you. People will say creepy things to you, or leer at you, especially if you’re a woman in this environment. Especially if you’re a foreign woman in this environment. I think it would’ve been worse if we had dressed immodestly (I bought two longer dresses specifically to wear there, and wore leggings even though it was hot). It also might’ve been worse if we hadn’t been brunettes. Some people even mistook me for Moroccan! (This is a common theme in most places I travel, except, ironically, Germany/Austria/Switzerland, where I actually have roots!)
But, if you make smart decisions and keep your wits about you, you should be fine. You just need to learn to be rude and say solid NO’s to people.
Over all, Morocco is beautiful and exotic. If you get the chance, GO. If you don’t get the chance, go out of your way to go! And if you have questions, please ask.