If there is a word I would use to describe my first impressions to Morocco, it would be …
This is a wonderful expression that I think every female traveler ought to have in their back pocket for moments, when one’s travel plans go awry. But I’ll explain that later…
After flying into the Mohammad V Airport in, we discovered that lost our backpacks. Shit. In a foreign land with no clothes or toiletries…
We spent an hour in the office filling out a claims forms. As much as I’ve traveled before for work, this was the first time my baggage didn’t arrive with me. Camera batteries, memory cards, extra clothes and underwear… these are things you don’t quite think about packing a separate carry-on bag for!
We purchased underwear, bed clothes and toiletries at a local convenience shop. The clothing options lacked style, but were alive with a cultural style of its own. Yes, I was armed with the undergarments of a hot granny.
8 Things to Know Before you Go to Fes
The journey leaving the airport, equipping ourselves with temporary clothes and finding our way to Old Fes was enlightening to a different culture.
1. One word to deal with life’s unexplained moments
Insha’Allah in Arabic, it means, “God willing” or “If it is God’s will” (and spoken as if to imply the future as “hopefully“). We then took a four hour train ride from Casablanca to Fez. Friendly train chat with a Moroccan man across of us, armed us with the perfect Arabic- catch-phrase to sum up events (& those to come…). Insha’Allah. Basically, Moroccans use it for everything which they can’t predict. They use it in hope and times of sarcasm.
The train is late.
(It will come eventually, but we can’t do anything about it)
Will he win the lottery?
(If it’s God’s will, he will win, but don’t hold your breath.)
It might rain tomorrow.
(It will rain if God wants it.)
Will my and Margaret’s bags arrive soon?
(It will come when it does or it won’t, but either way, God wills it.)
2. French and Arabic are the main languages spoken in Morocco.
Our train pulled into new Fez around 10PM. We hailed a taxi, one of those small red compact vehicles and asked to be taken to Old Fez. Coming from Barcelona, I was converting my survival Spanish to survival French. The polyglot conversion was scrambling my mind. I wanted to get my practice in on our driver. However, too many languages in a mind can cause bottleneck confusion in the brain. For instance:
Where?…Doko e (nope, Japanese), Donde (nope, Spanish)… (blank), (blank), (blank)…..uh, Ou!
Sometimes, it takes a while to get warmed up.
3. Old Fes is a walled medieval city
In ten minutes were were standing outside Old Fez. We were dropped at the RCIF, a large, dusty and deserted parking lot and entrance way into the walled city. Fes is a city built in the 14th under medieval times. It has a very old world feel to it and vehicles are not allowed inside. Inside, the city is a maze of narrow streets and footpaths.
The time was late by Moroccan standards. Medina shops were closed. No women were out, except for us. Our only companions in the night roam were men, shadows and cats!
4. A city of cats
Being two Asian female travelers ( I was traveling with my friend, Margaret) in a foreign country at night, in a parking lot, which seems to be the social scene for stray men and cats. Didn’t seem like a good scenario to start with.
I’m going to give you a sneak peek into one of my side observations here… In Morocco there seems to be an abundance of cats. You’d think it were a sacred animal. In fact, I’ve not seen a single dog yet, so maybe all the cats ate ’em. Pretty odd for a seemingly patriarchal country, where the feminine element is restrained.
5. Are women travelers safe in Morocco?
Morocco has a strict Muslim community, with traditional and conservative values. Women are protected by the community against sexual crimes and harassment. In fact, if a man were to touch or sexually harass me, I could scream, call attention to the situation and the whole community would jump on him to help me out. Men touching women? A big no-no.
This doesn’t mean as a foreign female traveler, Moroccan men can’t attempt sexual harassment or cat call me as I walk by though.
6. Finding your guesthouse might not be easy
The city of Old Fes is like a medieval labyrinth with over 9,000 winding streets with dark and dusty alleyways. Many of these streets lack bold signage. It was late night standing outside in the parking lot where our taxi dropped us. We were only at Fes’s entrance. In’shallah.
We were going to phone our guesthouse from the pay phone outside, when a young 13- year old boy appeared from the shadows, offering to take us to our riad guesthouse Dar Seffaraine. We were reluctant to accept his offer. We had read traveler cautionary tales about young boys posing illegally as guides. Who wants a kid to be thrown into jail?
But he didn’t ask for money, so he was safe. He simply led us to our riad and dropped us there, with the hope that we’d use him as a guide the next day. We were fortunate to have followed him. There were no signs or visible house numbers to ensure we’d find it and it was tucked away in an alley.
7. Unlicensed guides
There are many unlicensed guides, who will offer to take you around the medina.You might come across many young boys offering to be your guide. Many of them are still in high school or lesser. Illegal guides, if caught, are punished with 2 days imprisonment. 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 youth was sadly much better). You can hire legal guides from the tourism office or through your riad or guesthouse.
8. Prayer calls occur five times a day
Tucked in bed at our riad and fast asleep, I was awoke by a deep moaning sound. A ghost? Could it be a ghost? I got up and stuck my head near the window. It sounded more like.. chanting.
Prayer calls (aka Muslim adhan | Arabic: “prayer calls”) occurs five times throughout the day. The prayers are called out by a muezzin (a chosen person who leads the calls) and amplified over the mosque loudspeakers as the Islamic community reminder of its religion and Moroccan lifestyle. During daylight hours, able locals will rush to the mosque to observe this prayer ritual.
Watch Prayer Calls in Morocco
Where to Stay in Fes
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 Fes ( map of hotels)
Dar Seffarine is a gem of a riad, with a great location in Fes el Bali near the open air tannery and markets and a stunning rooftop view of Fes. Read my review . It’s an 5-8 minute walk from the taxi/bus center. Bring change to call the riad from a payphone, as they will likely need to show you the way.
Dar Roumana is surrounded by olive groves and situated on the hillside with gorgeous views of Fes. It offers a rich medina experience and a peaceful escape from the madness of the souks.