Fez was our first introduction to Morocco. We’d flown in to Casablanca from Johannesburg and decided that, due to a lack of time, we would catch a train and head straight for the city that was being touted as “an underrated” must-see city in Morocco.
Fez is really a full-blown introduction to Morocco. The sights, smells, sounds and ancient Medina make Fez feel really exotic. Although the city of Fez has grown far bigger than the ancient medina at its center, we only stayed in the old-town due to lack of time.
As we were led to our home stay we ran right into a Moroccan wedding parade full of horns, drums and cheers. It was at once totally overwhelming, but also a really cool way to be welcomed to the country. There we were: walking slowly through the tiny alleyways of the Medina behind a rumble of activity. I didn’t know what to do with myself! We were covered in our backpacks and travel sweat and practically had “tourist” tatooed on our foreheads, yet we were participating in someone’s wedding day!
That night we opted to eat the home cooking of the Matron of “Omar House“, a small lady who seemed to live in flip flops, an apron, and her hands constantly on her hips. We were seated in the tiled living room while piles of food were brought out to consume. I mean PILES of food. I was hungry, but this was pounds of couscous, steamed veggies and about a million pieces of Moroccan pita. The food was delicious and hearty and I felt like I only ate about 3 bites before feeling ready to explode.
I’ve noticed this a lot on our travels: when people want to feed us, they’ll spare no plates! Literally bringing out everything they own in food so that we can eat until we feel sick.
I was introduced to the Moroccan mint tea for the first time and was instantly hooked. I couldn’t get enough of this stuff! Like a cat with catnip, the minute I saw this sweet, minty, fresh tea I would begin to salivate: bouncing on the balls of my feet in anticipation. I don’t know how they make it exactly, but it’s basically fresh mint stuffed into boiling water and then heavily sugared.
This tea is deliriously good and at only $1-2USD for a glass, I couldn’t say no. I did learn to ask for no sugar in the tea, instead adding the amount I was comfortable with later so that I wouldn’t go into anaphylactic shock. (Moroccans like their sugar with some tea).
I am not the only person to love this tea, the Moroccans love it too. Especially the men! As we would wander we’d see cafes lining the streets with hundreds of chairs positioned so they would face out as groups of men sat and sipped on a tea and, I don’t know: gossip? ‘Cause it sure looked like they were doing that a lot.
I was shocked by the lack of women doing this past-time. No matter the time of day, the cafes would be hosting dozens of men talking in low voices and watching the passerby’s, occasionally waving and greeting a friend who would then join them.
Men in Morocco seem like they have the world at their feet. I saw very few men doing anything but sitting around and chatting while every woman I saw was in a hurry: washing, buying, taking care of a baby, or shopping. Boys are allowed even more freedom it seems.
My biggest gripe with this town is the seemingly impossible task of being allowed to wander. Being that we look like tourists no matter what we do, it became every boy between the ages of 12-18’s mission to try to “help us get to our destination” even though we didn’t have one. Normally, I would chalk up the enthusiasm to help tourists as just friendly behavior… until the boys demand a tip.
Demanding a tip is incredibly rude where I come from. In Morocco it is a totally given thing. In fact, it’s so bad that when we got snared in a scheme (being led by the nose for 15 min and then getting even more lost than before) and tried to pay the boy a few dirham to make him go away, he got indignant.
“This is for boys!” He yelled, gesturing to the money. “You give me more!”
Rather than get robbed I threw the equivalent of a dollar at them and quickly departed with a mumbled “Fuck you.” Jackson was pissed.
“I could have reasoned with them!” He said, stomping off next to me as the boy, then joined by another, cheered behind us.
I glanced at the DSLR camera clamped firmly in Jackson’s hand and wondered how long it could have taken the urchins to yank that out of his hands and run. “I’d rather lose the dollar than get robbed.” I stated.
Fez felt dirty. It seemed as if the Moroccan’s idea of cleanliness is to just throw a bucket of water at something. We saw this everywhere we went. As a result, the streets were filled with dirty puddles that I had to constantly jump over. Never mind the random drip of water from above… ew.
In vain, we tried to find places that the locals went. It seemed that no matter what we tried, we would be accosted by a guy trying to make a buck and tell us where to go for a small fee. It was infuriating! Whenever we travel, we try to purposefully get lost, allowing our steps to lead us to uncharted places. In the morning, after leaving our accommodation, we’ll set out to find a spot with no particular time frame or schedule; stopping at whatever catches our eye. Fez, it seems, didn’t like this method of wander.
I had to put my “fuck off” face on after a few attempts and felt really nasty snapping at people who kept trying to get our attention.
I did love the old architecture. The moorish tiles, the arches, the symmetry. The beauty of islamic art is so unique and so completely different from the Van Goghs and Gogins I grew up looking at at the Met in New York. I was stunned by the ancientness of what I was participating in.
Here was a civilization that has really stood up to the test of time, globalization, occupation, and the internet, yet still working and operating no differently than it probably would have hundreds of years ago, except: I’ll pay by card, thanks.
One of my favorite parts of the old town was the market. We came across it on our first day in town and went back every day we were there. I couldn’t believe the way they sold their food! I loved the rawness of what I saw, the unforgiving in-your-face presentation of the food. When we wandered through, I’d stop and stare as a butcher would hack away at a piece of meat, feeling like the life I know in New York City was as far away as the moon.
As we boarded the bus on the third morning on our way to Chefchaouen, I felt ready to leave. Fez is nothing if not wholly and totally overwhelming. I was equal parts horrified, fascinated, annoyed, and bewitched by this town. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city quite like that before. It feels as if it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years and may take hundreds of years to change still. Despite the cellphone stalls, TVs playing in the background, and swaths of tourists, this city felt so Moroccan.
Fez was part of our 5-day Moroccan itinerary that we made based on the five days we spent in Morocco. We also visited Chefchaouen and Tangier.
Have you been to Morocco? What did you think?
Cynthia saysJune 16, 2018 at 8:23 pm
This sounds so intriguing, but I would be absolutely overwhelmed as well! I don’t like being approached on the streets (as I’m often a solo female traveler) and even if they meant well / were just looking for a tip, I wouldn’t like it, especially so constantly. A shame though, but cause your pictures are beautiful and I would imagine it’s an amazing place to see! I’d also love to try that mint tea!
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:06 pm
I admire solo female travelers here. I would be a bit nervous going around this country on my own. I have met solo female travelers who did it, though, so I guess it works out!
Eva saysJune 18, 2018 at 1:18 am
“Helpers”, touts, street vendors is a serious problem all over the developing world. In Cartagena, Colombia, for example, things are so bad that the local police almost begs locals in their daily radio appeals to let the tourists be…. to no avail. Such a shame. (Hope your next destination will be more tourist-friendly ;))
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:07 pm
Oh my god, I didn’t know they pleaded over the radio! I know the “helpers” are a problem in a lot of places. It makes being a traveler frustrating, that’s for sure.
Brianna saysJune 20, 2018 at 6:02 pm
Fez sounds like such an interesting, yet challenging city. It would be really stressful for me to constantly have to fend people off.
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:07 pm
Yeah, I felt really on edge being there.
melody pittman saysJune 20, 2018 at 6:50 pm
I had to forego a trip to Morocco several years ago and Fez was on the itinerary. I loved hearing your surprise and shock to some of the situations. Well done. 😉 The trash service is definitely one that raises an eyebrow, as well as the puddles you described so well. LOL Have you been to Istanbul? If so, is it the same kind of tea, or maybe that was mostly apple. I’m curious.
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:08 pm
I haven’t been to Istanbul! I want to visit Turkey. I hear the call to prayer is beautiful and I would love to eat some good turkish food.
The Travel Bunny saysJune 21, 2018 at 11:47 am
I’m a Gilmore Girls fan, so Fez has been on my list for some time and I get excited every time I come across something about it, just luring me even more to it. 🙂
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:08 pm
I hope you get a chance to check it out!
Rohini saysJune 21, 2018 at 5:37 pm
Loved the narration ..Ever since I watched movie Casablanca I have been wanting to go to Morocco 🙂 ..Loved the comment – Men love sugar with a bit of tea ! 😀 … The coffee shops where locals sat and drank tea for long hours used to be a thing in the place where I grew up in India too …
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:09 pm
Yes! I think so many men like to go to the coffee shop and gossip, I think they’ll gossip more than the women!
Chris Behrsin saysJune 21, 2018 at 6:16 pm
Hah, this sounds a lot like my experience in Marrakesh, with the faux-guides and the hassle on every street corner. Though it sounds like you had it a lot worse in Fez.
The photos are fantastic in this and you captured some great moments. It all contributes to stories to tell I guess.
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:10 pm
I would like to go to Marrakesh at some point, I’ve heard such great things about it. And you’re right: it all contributes to the stories 🙂
Carmen Edelson saysJune 22, 2018 at 10:35 am
Morocco has been on my bucket list for SO long. I never considered going to Fez but I certainly will now, although I can understand how its overwhelming. Your photos are beautiful and I love all the warm, rich tones.
Natalie saysJune 25, 2018 at 6:10 pm
Thank you. If you go, I hope you enjoy yourself.
Ritesh saysMay 19, 2021 at 12:15 pm
Morocco is a dream place for me as it has everything which I personally admire like tea, old buildings, delicious food. I very enjoy reading your article , it gave me a feeling that I am wandering in the streets of Morocco.