Fumblin’ through Fez: American Lady-Girls Spice Up Morocco

My friend Megan and I decided to visit Morocco for a girls’ weekend. Neither of us had ever been to the country, which is located in Northern Africa, and I wanted to check another continent off of the list. I had heard mixed reviews about visiting Morocco, and was curious to see if I could adjust to the huge differences in culture and lifestyle. We finally decided on the city of Fez because it is considered the most traditional and conservative of all of the Moroccan cities (and the flights were cheapest). Also, we only had two days and it was the perfect size for exploring and not feeling rushed.

Once we had booked the plane tickets and the hostel, I then did a little more research about Fez, wrote out an itinerary because I am an OCD psycho, and honestly was a little worried. Morocco is a very conservative, Muslim county, which from my research meant that it was a place that would be a complete and total change from any type of place I had ever experienced. For example, traditionally, women should be fully covered from head to toe (except for their faces). The weather forecast was 84 degrees Fahrenheit, so wearing long sleeves and pants really did not appeal to me. I was also told/warned that in Fez, we would feel like Beyoncé, but not in a good way. I was warned that it was more than likely that we would be harassed, yelled at, and approached constantly. Unfortunately, this warning was extremely accurate.

Fez was the first place that I have been where I experienced true culture shock. I thought that I had experienced culture shock in the last 5 months while traveling Europe, but in reality, living in Europe just required a bit of adaptation and life adjustment. Europe is much more similar to the United States than Morocco.

Some fun facts about Fez before I begin and to our journey through the labyrinth of the medina:

  1. Fez is home to the world’s largest car-free urban zone in the world The Medina of Fez is also the largest living walled Islamic Ancient City. UNESCO named Fez a World Heritage Site back in 1981.
  2. The Medina of Fez was built in the 9th century AD and is a true maze of over 10,000 alleys that are way too narrow for cars to pass through, so the only way to transport goods into the Medina is by donkey or cart.
  3. Fez is the 2nd largest city in Morocco and used to be the capital of the country until 1912.
  4. The city is home to the oldest degree-giving university in the world, called Al Karaouin University.
  5. There are over 300 mosques in the Medina, and there are “calls to prayer” frequently over the loud speakers during the day. During the call to prayer, people stop what they are doing, go to their mosque, and pray at different points during the day.
  6. Arabic is the first language in Fez, and French is the second. So, basically, I was SOL because I know zero words in either of those languages. Thankfully, Megan speaks some French which was a huge help.

 Day 1

 Day 1 was not actually a whole day. We arrived at the airport in Fez at 9:15 pm and took a cab to the Bab Boujloud, or “The Blue Gate” which is one of the main entrances to the “Old City”/Medina of Fez. We shared a cab with another girl from Barcelona who was staying at a different hostel and had to be dropped off at a different gate. As soon as our taxi slowed down, it was surrounded by men and boys of all ages who were screaming into the car that they could assist us in getting to our hotel. Even though we had no clue where we were going, we didn’t want their help and decided that we were going to chance getting there alone.

The Medina was overwhelming to say the least. It is a place full of color, noise, and smells unlike anything I have ever experienced before. We got there at night, so the medina was not in full swing at this time. However, because it was the end of the day, the narrow streets of the medina were full of trash, there were stray cats everywhere, and it smelled terrible. I’m used to the pristine cleanness of Barcelona, where the streets are scrubbed down every night and the trash is collected daily. I was hoping that the medina would be different during the day.  We navigated through the Medina getting stopped and yelled at by men every few steps until we finally found our hostel, Dar Jannat, which was such a relief. On our walk, one of the million catcalling men kept calling us the Spice Girls, which had us hysterically laughing and was one of the many running jokes of the trip. Surprisingly, he was not the only one to call us that. Another guy called us lady girls and then his friend started making fun of him, so we loved that too.

We went out to eat late at a restaurant called Nagham Café, which was recommended to us by the hostel. We tried some authentic Moroccan food and sat on the terrace which overlooked the medina. It was a really nice place, the food was good, and I’m glad we got to experience it, but we were so exhausted the time dinner was over at 1am, that we were happy to get back to the hostel to sleep.

Day 2

We woke up early the next day and ate the breakfast provided by Dar Jannat, which was awesome. Moroccan bread, different kinds of jam, croissants, and really good coffee really hit the spot before our day of adventures. It is hard for me to remember the order in which we did things, so I’m just going to list them because the day was full of attempting to find things based on my research with a paper map and backtracking.

  1. Al Attarine Madrasa (The Old Madrasa)/Kairaouine

A madrasa is the Arabic word for any type of educational institution. This particular madrasa was designed as the entryway for the nearby Kairaouine (the oldest university in the world). Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Kairaouine, so we made do just taking pictures of the Madrasa. It has beautiful, colorful tile work and carved wood. I had never seen anything like this before. We happened to run into an English tour here so we obviously decided to just follow them so that we wouldn’t get more lost.

     2. Bougueddach Collective

There are a bunch of shops where weavers make colorful scarves, blankets, and bags made of signature Moroccan fabric as part of a Co-Op. We were able to watch one of the weavers make a scarf on a loom. It was extremely tedious and complicated work. This was a place that we hadn’t planned on going to, but because we followed the tour, we were introduced to.

     3. The Chouwara Tanneries

The world’s oldest leather tanneries were on every Must-See List of things in Fez. Unfortunately, the largest tannery was closed because it is being renovated, but we were able to see the smaller tannery which was in use, and take pictures of the large one even though it was closed. It did stink really badly (as expected) and we were given a fresh mint leaf to put under our noses to block the smell. Afterwards, we bought leather products, WAY cheaper than what we would have paid anywhere else.

       4. Spice/Oil Shop

After our tannery expedition, we popped into a spice and oil shop close to the tannery and bought some Moroccan beauty products. We bought Moroccan tea, argan oil, Sartan essential oil, argan cream, stress relief cream, natural lip balm, soap, and cooking spices from the shop for super cheap.

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      5. Clock Café

I found a recommendation for this café on one of the many tourist sites that I visited prior to the trip, and it is a really nice little restaurant that was very English-friendly. There are 3 floors in the restaurant. It was adorably decorated, and we were able to sit on the roof top terrace. For lunch, we split 2 smaller meals with gazpacho, hummus, falafel and other treats, and got cheesecake and lemon tarts for dessert. They also had this unbelievable mint lemonade, which as definitely one of the gastronomic highlights of the trip.

      6. Medersa Bou Inania

This is one of the only mosques in the city where non-Muslims can enter. It was very large, with beautiful, colorful tile work, marble floors, intricately carved stucco on the walls, metalwork featuring Arabic words, carved cedar beams, and huge brass doors. We took some touristy pictures here because it was basically empty at the time that we visited in the afternoon. It is known as the most beautiful of all of the medersas in Fez.

     7. Markets of the Medina

The beauty of exploring a city like Fez is that being completely lost in the medina (which we were frequently), allowed us to see and experience authentic Morocco. There was no sugarcoating, and we saw some things that I wish that I could unsee (like the heads of sheep chilling on a plate), but we came here to experience an unfamiliar city, lifestyle, and culture and I think we accomplished this. Thousands of stalls selling everything you can think of from cosmetics and shoes to leather purses and jewelry designed by Moroccan artisans were in this never ending maze. There were even fresh eggs to buy where the hens were actually laying the eggs at the stall.

     8. Borj Nord and the Merenid Tombs

Our last tourist stop of the first day was to Borj Nord which is located outside of the city walls to the north of the Blue Gate. Borj Nord is a fortress built during the 1500’s by a sultan to monitor the population of Fez during a period of unrest in the city’s history. It is now an arms museum. Because we do not like museums, we decided not to go in, but we stood on the edge of the huge cliffs outside of the walls of the city to get some awesome panoramic pictures.

A 15-minute hike uphill from Borj Nord are the Merenid Tombs, which are huge, decaying stone structures that mark the tombs of Moroccan royalty. There are also a lot of smaller, white tombs that are on the hillside. Even though the large tombs are crumbling to the ground, the view is what makes the trek worthwhile. On one side is the view of the 1,200-year-old medina of Fez, which is surrounded by the old city walls. On the other side is a large mountainside, lush and green. We were going to stay up here for sunset, but we were a little nervous about walking down a mountain and finding our way back to the medina in the dark, so we left while it was still light out.

     9. Clock Café Part 2

I am not the most adventurous eater, and due to the fact that I had been ill for almost a week already and had already had a horrific case of food poisoning from the street food in Budapest, we decided to go back to the Clock Café. Instead of being boring like I had planned, Megan convinced me to try the camel burger with her. It was definitely not my favorite meal ever, and I could only eat a few bites, but it was something that I definitely would not be able to get in the states or in Spain, so I think it was worth the risk. In case you were wondering, it was tougher than beef and the flavor reminded me a little bit of venison (also not one of my favorites).

Day 3: 

On our final day, we decided to venture outside the Blue Gate and explore a different part of the city.

  1. Jardin Jnan Sbil

This garden is a 10-minute walk from the gate and is so beautiful. We definitely saw it at the right time of year while all the flowers and trees were in bloom. It was nice to get away from the crowded, hectic craziness of the medina. The fountains and the lake was pretty, but my favorite part of the huge garden was definitely the flowers. The whole place smelled like fresh flowers (a stark contrast to the nasty smells we encountered within the medina), and we went in the morning before it got too hot which made it extra pleasant.

2. Mellah (Jewish Quarter)

We received a tour through the Jewish Quarter of Fez with a local guide who thankfully knew his way around, as this part of the city seemed to be even more confusing than the Old Medina. He showed us some beautiful architecture, buildings that are being restored, and brought us to the Jewish Cemetery, which is still being utilized today.

3. Dar El- Mahkzen (Royal Palace of Fez)

While the inside of the massive palace walls is closed to the public and heavily patrolled by scary security men, we were able to snap some silly pics in from of the huge bronze doors that lead into the palace grounds.

4. The Ruined Garden

We decided to try a new restaurant today which was recommended to us by the owner of our hostel called The Ruined Garden. This restaurant was an outdoor oasis with a beautiful garden inside the walls. The food was AMAZING and I had the most incredible strawberry/peach frozen juice. It was the perfect last meal in this crazy city.

5. Hammam

Our last stop of the trip was an authentic, local Moroccan hammam. I had never heard of a hammam before, so if you are not up to date on Moroccan culture, I’ll attempt to give you all the relevant details from my experience. A hammam is a steam bath/bath house where Moroccan people traditionally go once a week to cleanse and exfoliate their bodies. The hammams are segregated, and it is a place not just of cleansing but a center of Moroccan social life.

Based on what we read, we brought bathing suits, the traditional olive oil soap that is sold in the spice shops, exfoliation gloves, shampoo, and towels to the bath house. Because women in particular in Morocco dress so conservatively, it was suggested that we should only get as undressed as the people around us. Surprisingly, the second we walked in to the entry room which was similar to a locker room, everyone was topless with only underwear on the lower half and the attendants insisted that we immediately strip down. WELP, both of us said YOLO, stripped down, and walked into the bath like the bad asses that we are.

We decided to hire the attendants to scrub and massage us. Let me just tell you, these ladies are NOT shy. We were guided into this super hot steam room to open our pores, and we were brought 2 huge buckets of hot water. We rinsed ourselves off and the ladies got started. The rubbed the olive oil soap all over our bodies and began the scrub with the exfoliation gloves. We laid on our stomachs for a while and they scrubbed our backs and our skin literally fell off in sheets. I think that I exfoliate and moisturize as much as a normal gal does, but this was pretty horrifying. They did the front of the body, which included arms, legs, stomach, chest, neck, and feet. It was seriously difficult to try to keep a straight face (and I definitely didn’t succeed) because the lady kept moving my arm so she could exfoliate underneath it and placing it directly onto her chest like it was no big thang that I was going to second base with a complete stranger who kept yelling at me in Arabic. It was a little shocking at first how hard they rubbed with those gloves that felt like sandpaper, but after a while I adapted and afterwards my skin looked awesome. We felt amazing, clean, and our skin was glowing. I got a massage and my hair washed and braided.  I’m so glad I decided to do this. And, guess the price? The equivalent of 10 EUROS. Best buy ever…

Final Thoughts…

While parts of Fez I absolutely loved, the men in Morocco shocked me with their constant catcalls, excessive attention, and vulgar use of English words when we didn’t respond in the way they wanted us to. I didn’t really ever feel unsafe, but by end of two full days of constant, unrelenting harassment I was ready to return to Barcelona.

HOWEVER, the city itself was amazing. The art, colors, smells, tastes, and culture barraged my senses. I am so thankful that I was able to experience a place that took me completely out of my comfort zone.  It was so unique and different and completely worth visiting.

The trip to Morocco was one where I realized how much I have changed in the during the past five months. I still am the same sassy, take-no-crap, independent, blunt person. But, I realized during this particular trip that I am much more spontaneous, organized, adventurous, and, most importantly, open-minded than I was when I left Philly and embarked on this journey.

Thanks to my favorite lady-girl Megan for being a fantastic travel partner J

I also went to Grand Canary last weekend, so I will be posting my rambling about that adventure in the next week. I have a bunch of trips coming up, which I am super pumped about. I leave for London on Friday, and I go to Venice the next Friday, which are 2 places to check off my bucket list! Until next time… adios amigos!

 

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