In lieu of the New Year, I’m reflecting on the “travel steps” that led me to be the traveler I am today.
Looking back at photos, I was reminiscing about a past trip to Morocco. It was my first “developing country”. Reading Paul Bowles‘ autobiography, this trip incited my thirst and curiosity for adventures, which lay beyond western borders. The thirst kept growing, because…
There’s a secret to Morocco and I’m convinced it speaks through its spices! From scented oils, city-wide prayer calls and intricate Arabic/Berber craft work designs to maze-like streets bustling with the traffic of crowded souks and taxi-ing donkeys, it’s easy to get seduced into Morocco’s enclave of mystery. Fez Medina (aka Old Fez) is alluring as both, a spiritual and medieval city. It is reminiscent of the days of Ali Baba, with over a 100 narrow streets, spotted with craft workers, metal smiths and tanneries.
What is there to do and see in Fez? A lot. Here’s 10 Reasons You Must See Fez.
See, experience and buy
#1. The spice markets
Spice markets are plentiful in Fez. Taste the food and you’ll know why. But spices aren’t used only for flavoring. For Moroccans, many herbs also have medicinal benefits.
I caught a cold in Barcelona, days before arriving in Morocco. I bought a herb from the spice pharmacy, which helped alleviate my congestion. The herbal dealer told me to rub it between my fingers and sniff it like snuff. I was reluctant to try his recommendation. But when my congestion flared up from the surrounding dust, I snorted it down. Results? It worked. It alleviated my sniffles and I was good to go!
#2. Visit the Tanneries and leather shops
Want to know how leather goods in Morocco are made? Visit the tanneries and check out the process in which hides go through: de-furring, drying, dying, etc… The smell may make you gasp, but most places offer mint to hold to your nose.
Note: Guides offering to take you to the tanneries are plentiful because they get a kickback from it. Most likely, the rooftop overlooking the tannery belongs to a leather shop, so expect to shop afterwards. Leather prices in Morocco run cheaper than the U.S., depending on your bargaining skills.
#3. Shop for Moroccan fabrics & carpets
A fabric factory and carpet shop are usual shopping points for tourists. Performed by hand or loom, the tapestry is richly crafted with intricate Arabic or Berber designs. However, if you enter a shop, be prepared for the hard sell. Show the slightest interest in a fabric or carpet and the salesman will unroll everything imaginable for your viewing. We visited a carpet shop and the owner unrolled ten carpets for us to see! He would’ve unrolled more if we didn’t stop him.
#4. Moroccan food
The popular Moroccan dish is Tagine, a vegetable stew cooked slowly in a special earthenware pot. It’s often served with couscous (like a Moroccan rice). It’s absolutely delicious!
#5. The markets and alleyways
A brisk walk through the medina (aka marketplace) in the morning and you’ll see craftsmen crouching in small shops the size of a closet, making their wares by hand. A metal smith pedals a bike to sharpen a blade and rounds out a metal bowl with a hammer. These techniques seem antiquated. Also, no vehicles (i.e. car or trucks) are allowed inside the walls of Fez; with the exception of the occasional donkey. Time seems to have stopped in this medieval city. This is the charm of old Fez.
#6. The culture and lifestyle
For an Islamic state, ornate Arabic designs, mosques and prayer calls waking you from your slumber at 3 AM, are all a part of the Muslim faith.
Moroccan women dress ultra-conservatively and as a female traveler in an Islamic country, you might want to follow the code. Clothing shouldn’t show much skin, unless you wish to invite unwanted attention and catcalls. Male-female relationships are very prim and interaction between the sexes is spare and strongly conservative. Know the simple act of a smile at a man can be misinterpreted as loose relations. On a positive note, the community doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment; this doesn’t mean men won’t attempt things on a naive foreigner. But as a woman, if you make a transgression or violation publicly known or enlist the help of the police, you will receive aid.
Experience Moroccan Beauty, Bath & Spa
#7. Visit a Hammam bathhouse
The hammam is a traditional bathhouse for both, men and women and once you try it, you may find yourself a fan for life! Naked, but separated by sex, you first sit in a sauna. Then when you’re ready for a bath, go to the washing station and lay on the large marble slab, where your washer will proceed to lift limbs and scrub intensely, getting in your nooks and crannies. You’ll need to get over fears about public nudity and of being washed by someone else, if you’re to enjoy this. But if you do, you’ll literally see yourself shedding chunks of dead skin, as if it were molting season! You’ll be enthralled…
What do you take with you? A scrubbing mit (aka “kessa“) and some olive soap. I went to a hammam at a spa in New Fez. Cost was around $20, but local hammams promise to be cheaper. Here’s some additional tips on spotting and going to one from World Hum.
#8. Getting Mendhi
Want to try your hand at mendhi? (pun intended) Mendhi is a temporary tattoo design that Moroccan brides get when they’re about to get married. But Moroccans know that tourists like to get them too. In fact, in Marrakesh you’ll see happy tourists lining up at the Djema El Fna square to get it done.
At the recommendation of our guide, my friend, Margaret and I, went to a local Berber house to get mendhi.
#9. Moroccan Makeup: Coal
Moroccan woman line their eyes with powdered coal. Before you freakout at the thought of putting char on your tender eyes, Moroccans claim coal as being an eye antiseptic. It’s actually good for eyes! Interestingly, it comes in a wooden jar or glass bottle with a wooden pen. Dip the wood tip into the coal and then line your eye, as you would with a brush.
Where to stay?
#10. A Moroccan riad
The riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace, where all rooms revolve around a central courtyard or garden. You’ll find them mostly in the Old town of Fez (see map of hotels) vs. the newer side. The architectural designs in these places are fit for a king or for a tourist, who wants a meditative experience. These days, due to their popularity, there’s an increasing amount of restored riads cropping up for tourist accommodations.
Read my post here about the riad I stayed at . It was a 5-8 minute walk from the taxi/bus center. Bring some change to call the riad from a payphone, as they will likely need to show you the way.
Getting to Fes Medina (Old Fes)
From the train station, it’s a 25 minute drive to Fes Medina. There is either, the small red taxi or the grand taxi (old and more spacious black Mercedes). An alternate option is to take local Bus No. 16 to the medina square or CIF square.
Inside the medina, no vehicles are allowed to enter, except donkeys. You will need to walk.
There are many unlicensed guides, who will offer to take you around the medina. Many are children. If any of these guides get caught, they wlll be arrested and put into jail. We were naive and actually tried both. The official guide was more thorough and trained to tell you about the culture and significance of things (however the English on our illegal was much better). You can hire legal guides from the tourism office or through your riad or guesthouse.
What are some of the wonders you’ve experienced there?