This was our first trip to Morocco and my first time touching African soil.
It was unlike anywhere I had been before, we learned so much about a culture we had little exposure to to date. At times, it felt like sensory overload with so much to absorb at once.
Here are our lessons learned, the foods we enjoyed, and a very unique Moroccan Hammam experience.
In five days, we explored three cities: Fes, Meknes, and Chefchaouen.
Fes is one of four imperial cities of Morocco as at one time it served as the country’s capital. It was established in the 8th century and quickly became Morocco’s spiritual, intellectual, and cultural capital. It remains this way today and is home to the world’s oldest university.
Where to Stay
Choosing a Riad over a hotel is an absolute must. We stayed at the Riad Mazar. The hospitality in Morocco is second to none and Riad Mazar was no exception. We were welcomed with Moroccan Mint Tea and felt at home ever since. The interior décor is spectacular and a peaceful haven from the chaos of the Medina. There are six rooms on 3 upper floors surrounding the courtyard. Siham, a concierge of sorts, was outstanding. She was always willing to help; printed our boarding passes, arranged drivers, booked a tour, provided directions, etc. I hope we will have the pleasure of meeting her again. Insha’Allah, “God willing.” Each day we returned to a warm welcome at the door and a spotless room.
Tips for traveling in Morocco:
Most of of the following tips were wise advice from locals and some our own lessons learned.
- Make sure your taxi driver starts the meter or, better yet, agree on a price before getting in the car. (Carry small bills/coins, they will not have change) Use the small red petit taxis as all the locals do and it is cheap.
- If you’re traveling in the medinas without a guide, only take 2-3 turns before retracing your steps back. Take pictures to act as “breadcrumbs” and follow your route back.
- Feel comfortable walking away from a negotiation. There will be 10+ more stalls with the same product, now that you have a price in mind, you can try again.
- Be wary of young adults who offer to help you with directions. They will casually lead you to certain stalls they want you to shop or end up asking for a hefty tip when you reach your destination.
- Alcohol is difficult to find in the Old Medina (Fes), but a 70 DH ($0.70) taxi ride will get you to a large Carrefour grocery store in the New part of town.
- Wine: I liked the Domaine de Sahara wines we tried.
- Beer: Casablanca, of course, or Flag Special which is brewed in Fes.
- Clothing for women: In the old medina, you’ll want to wear minimally revealing clothing. Otherwise you should expect a lot of glares from older men and women and probably some unwanted catcalling from young men. The narrow streets of the medina provide a lot of shade so it stayed surprisingly cool. That was a relief!
- You do not need to cover your head even though you will see most women with some sort of scarf.
- Light linen pants will be the most comfortable for the hot day.
- In the new town, we saw fashion of all sorts, so you can really wear what you want. Just be prepared to walk down sidewalks where men line the street at cafés sipping their coffees and teas and you can just feel them staring. This
- Drink bottled water. While the locals drink from the tap, this would take awhile for your body to get used to without getting sick, so don’t waste your trip in the bathroom.
- Similarly, you may want to avoid street food. Often they do not have facilities for hot water to properly clean dishes. It was the swam of flies that dissuaded me.
- In the moment, I was a bit irked that men would only address my husband. After my visit I learned this was actually out of respect for me and a norm in the Islamic culture.
As a bargain shopper anywhere I go, I always left feeling as if I should’ve gotten a better deal. I think the secret to enjoying the Medina shopping experience though, is to set a price you’ll be happy with and if you get the product you love for that price, don’t look back and wonder.
Architecture / Life in the Medina
The Medina is made up of many small neighborhoods where 40-50 households share 6 public areas:
- Bakery (Families make dough at home and bring it to a central oven to be cooked)
- Hammam (Bathhouse)
- Fountain / Well – there are dozens of community fountains in the Medina, many are still in use today even though homes now have plumbing.
Take note of windows with curved wood coverings. These were from years ago when the women would rarely leave the house much less show their faces to men other than their husband. They’d peer our these covered windows to see and talk to whomever was at the door.
Souks are grouped shops of a similar type. For example a woodworking souk or a tailoring souk. I found it interesting that the men were the tailors and watched in awe as they embroidered elaborate women’s dresses.
You’ll see scaffolding everywhere, the government is pouring money into restoring the old city, which takes a lot of time.
Tours through the Medina
There are 6,000 narrow streets in the Old Medina alone, winding every which way often with covered walkways. It’s easy to lose your bearings.
We were glad that we booked a guide for our introduction to the Medina. It was sensory overload the first time we walked through the Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate), and if we had been trying to find certain handicrafts, the tannery, historic sites, it would have taken us all day.
Another benefit of a guide is that they have established relationships with certain locations. We saw some really amazing places like a terrace overlooking the tannery, an old funduq converted to a carpet shop, a silk co-op, embroidery shop, and watched Morrocan Argan oils being produced by hand. These interesting experiences though come at a price. You will get a hard sell from every single stop. (Your guide gets a cut of the profit.) As polite midwesterners, we struggled to wave them off and leave so felt quite uncomfortable when we were not going to buy anything after we witness the incredible talent, patience, and care that goes into their work.
Our guide had left us for 30-60 minutes at a time with vendors/a restaurant. We even tried to turn down lunch, but he was insistent we stay. This turned the half day tour we requested into a full day tour at a full day price. Make sure to set very clear expectations with your guide of what you do and do not want to do and how much time you want to spend.
Watch (and smell) the leather making process as it was executed 1,000 years ago. Health and safety precautions are virtually non existent. Men stand in vats of chemicals all day long wearing short rubber gloves and waders. Some have lost hands, others arms to the dangerous acid used in the process. You’ll see men skinning cow, camel, goat, and sheep hides, dropping the skin into a potent quicklime mixture, and finally into the dye vats. The smell is indescribable. We were handed mint leaves to hold to our noses as makeshift “gas masks,” but we got used to the odors pretty quickly. Our guide explained that in attempt to lesson the stench, pigeon poop and cow urine are apparently added to the vats.
Meknes, another Imperial City, is an easy 40 minute train ride from Fes. The tickets cost 2.20 DH. For just 10 DH more ($1) you can have an assigned first class seat with Air Conditioning so why not splurge for this luxury?
We met an aspiring college student on our train ride to Meknes. It turned out, Meknes was his hometown and he graciously offered to show us around. You can’t beat having a local with you as you’ll get around faster and you feel more confident you are not being ripped off in the shops, restaurants, or sites. Now we will always have a friend in Morocco. “Thanks Mohamed, if you’re reading this! Next time we will certainly take you up on your invitation to visit your home.”
Note: Coincidentally, it is a common tout for tourists on trains to be approached by men claiming to be students only to be coaxed all day into visiting their cousins carpet shops/other businesses. Lucky for us, Mohamed was a genuinely welcoming Moroccan with no ulterior motive.
Meknes does not have as many tourists as Fes so we found the prices in the Medina to be lower, with less hassle in negotiating. Everyone in the Medina seemed to “know a guy.” Where I bought a scarf, we asked where we could find earrings. He abandoned his post to take us through many winding streets and souks of different specialties (spices, wood work, iron work, textiles) to arrive at a silver shop where we watched an artist add silver accents to metal works. I bought earrings and a ring from his shop.
Sites in Meknes
- Bab el-Mansour – Famous Gate to enter the Medina, an UNESCO Heritage Site
- Prison de Kara – Underground prison – Only 10 DH to tour, but just OK. Someone near the entrance will quickly ask to guide you through and expect a tip at the end. If you’re interested, make sure to set a price at the beginning
- Heri es-Souani – King Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum, immense granaries and horse stables. We took a 150 DH horse carriage ride around these sites. This was probably unnecessary, but we were filling time on a rainy day.
Chefchaouen “The Blue City”
A 3.5 hour car ride from Fes, Chefchaouen was well worth the journey. It is a sight to be seen, blue homes built into the cliffs of the Rif mountains, in front of two peaks. The city’s name translates to “Look at the Peaks.” Arriving from Fes, you will find much more Spanish influence here as it is where many Jews and Muslims fled when they were exiled from Spain in the 15th century. When first addressed in Fes, the locals used French to greet us, but here it was Spanish.
Until the 1920’s, Christians were not allowed to enter this city, by penalty of death. The tradition of painting homes blue first began in the 1930’s as the color was thought to be like the heavens, bringing people closer to God.
The center point of the old medina is the kasbah (Fort). For 20 DH ($2 per person) you can get a great view of the city from its tower.
We enjoyed wandering the quiet streets of the medina and relaxing on the terrace of Café Aladin for a drink while we enjoyed the view.
Food in Morocco
- Tagine (Chicken, Lamb, or Vegetable casserole-like dish)
- Pastilla (Chicken in a flaky crust topped with cinnamon and powered sugar. Sweet and savory, this was my favorite)
- Moroccan salads which are more like hot vegetable sides
- Harsha, Rghaif, Khobz, and Mllawee breads
- Brochettes (Kababs of all sorts)
- Mint tea – as much as you can drink! It’s amazing.
My first Moroccan Hamman Bath
You have the choice between a public or a private hammam. In the public hamman, bathers help each other, as in “Scrub my back and I’ll scrub yours.” Because I did not know the norms and as to not embarrass myself, I choose to do a private hammam for my first time. Basically you’re paying someone to fully bathe you. I went to Riad Tahra where they charged 250 DH for a hammam bath (no massage). You can find a little cheaper, but I paid about 50 extra ($5) for a clean facility.
For public hammams you’d also need to bring your own towel, soap, scrub glove, and shampoo/conditioner. You could easily find these items in stalls within the medina. These will all be provided at the private hammam, which was another draw for me since I didn’t know what price to negotiate or what amount of sabon beldi to buy. (Just a handful would suffice, by the way.)
What to Expect during a Hammam Bath in Morocco
1. Strip down completely (in a public hammam you’d keep your swimsuit bottom or underwear on at a minimum).
2. Full body rinse with a hand held shower head while feeling awkwardly exposed and uncomfortable.
3. Then I was told to sit down on a bench. She covered me in a paste called sabon beldi (black olive oil soap). Then I stood and she covered my back with the same. By now, you’ll get over the discomfort. She’s done this hundreds of times.
4. Next she had me lay face down. With a rough exfoliant glove she scrubbed down my entire body, turning over in the middle. I have to admit, it felt more like sandpaper than exfoliation. I honestly thought I’d open my eyes to see small cuts and blood.
5. Next was a standing rinse of all the dead skin cells.
6. Now for round two, she covered me in what seemed to be more of a mud bath type mixture, called Rhassoul.
7. This time the scrubbing glove was less coarse. After another scrub down she even took the bottom of her ring to my nose and chin to peel away any dead skin left behind.
8. Standing rinse.
9. Sit facing away from her for a shampoo, scalp scrub, and condition treatment.
10. Once final rinse and you’re done!
11. Optional massage would be added to the end of this process. Don’t forget to tip your intimate new friend.
Overall Thoughts after Hammam Bath in Morocco
I left with softer skin than ever before. There was not a dead skin cell left behind, from my toes to my scalp. I’d probably only do it once more in my life, at a public hammam next time, just to have the 100% Moroccan experience.