We recently travelled around Morocco with our family. We started in Casablanca and Fez, then drove to Marrakesh across the Atlas Mountains, stopping to camp in the Sahara Desert along the way. Our stay in Fez was interesting, however there are things I have to share so you can decide if this city is for you.
Fez is Morocco’s oldest Imperial City and is ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and houses the oldest university in the world. Nestled in the maze of medieval streets, the vibrant colors, smells, and sounds of this sprawling pedestrian city are a feast for all senses.
The city lies in between two mountain ranges, the Rif Mountains and the Middle Atlas Mountains, which keep the city a pleasant temperature year-round.
Morocco’s reputation as a difficult destination for women precedes itself for a reason. Wandering around the Medina we could feel the stares and we attracted tons of attention from faux guides and children wanting money. Each time we turned down a side street, pulled out a map, or took a scenic photograph, a nearby vendor would pounce and try to sell us a product or their service.
We felt on ‘high alert’ at all times, so it wasn’t particularly relaxing, and that heightened when we saw two youths attack an older Moroccan man to steal his messenger bag. Fez, requires a thick skin and a watchful eye. That said here are some tips.
Fez is famous for its leather, and traditional tanneries, and the way the leather is produced has barely changed since medieval times. There are two types of vats. The ‘primer’ is a mix of pigeon poop and cow urine in one vat. This substance breaks down the skin, softens the skin, and removes any hair left behind. The skins are laid out to dry in the hot sun and massive pots are filled with dyes made from turmeric, poppy, mint and indigo amongst other things.
The skin is soaked until the right color is achieved and is hung to dry. The colored leather is sold to leather smiths to make everything from purses to shoes and belts.
The smell of the tanneries is overwhelming and we were given a mint sprig when we entered the tanneries, otherwise known as the “Moroccan gas mask….” and boy did we need it!
The Fez Medina is a fantastic place to get lost. There are endless opportunities to taste the local foods, search for local goods, and see things you wish you could unsee (hello camel head on a pole)!
However, be sure to stay safe. If you get a bad feeling from a vendor or feel you are being treated unfairly, politely decline and walk away. Shops in the Medina start to close around 9:30pm so you want to be sure you are close to the gates before then, as they turn out the lights.
Once the lights go out, the narrow winding streets become even more of a nightmare to navigate, and can be quite intimidating. Definitely not a comfortable feeling.
Haggling is a way of life in Morocco, and the store owners expect it. They happily haggle in different languages, with a calculator, or a piece of paper to write down the negotiations.
We were told by our guide to typically start at a quarter of the price offered and work from there. Haggling is a sport for the boys, they love it and have contests with each other to see who can get the best deal on a certain item. Great life skill!
The old Medina is a winding maze.
Even with our reputable guide we found ourselves sometimes lost. Having a native, reputable guide is essential as Fez is not someplace I’d recommend “getting lost”, especially with children.
This was my least favorite part of the Moroccan culture in Fez. We experienced women being treated secondary to men, and I personally felt uncomfortable with the constant whistles and cat-calling. People obviously speaking about me in their native language, leering, and men standing too close and encroaching in my personal space. As a woman, I would prefer to move freely in public space without such blatant disrespect, and I was tense and ‘on guard’ the whole time we were there.
I didn’t feel I was in any real physical danger in Fez…. partly due to the fact I was with three boys and a paid guide, and partly because I’m a black belt and know that I could kick someones ass who tried any funny business. 🙂 But the petty crime and harassment required us to stay on guard more so than other countries.
Here are some tips to feel comfortable in Fez:
While this is good advice for any country, we felt Morocco was more intense than other destinations we have visited. We received a staggering amount of unwanted attention, to the point where we were unable to relax and enjoy our surroundings. It takes a ton of energy to always be on your guard.
So to conclude, we all left Fez with a bad taste in our mouths and stressed out. Definitely not what we look for in a vacation, and will probably not go back any time soon.
I’m a travel and health writer, digital and brand consultant, breast cancer survivor, and supermom to two active boys! I keep it real and share stories of raising teenage boys, family life after a cancer diagnosis, and family travels around the world! Each story is shared with my dry, and sometimes naughty sense of humor.