Morocco and Spain: Part 1; Morocco
When Joaquin and I started planning our 2018 trips, I told him I wanted him to pick our big fall trip that we would take together. He originally wanted to do Italy, Portugal, Spain and Morocco—he’s over half Spanish/Moroccan and southern European (thanks 23 and Me) and has always been interested in exploring where some of his family is from and still lives; so I was immediately on board with his suggestion! However, to get the most out of our two week trip, we ended up selecting Morocco and Spain as our main travel destinations.
After looking at a few different options for traveling around the two countries, we finally settled on:
-Fly into Fes from SFO
-Train to Tangier
-Ferry to Algeciras
-Train to Madrid
-Train to Barcelona
-Fly from Barcelona back to SFO
I was a little nervous about the trains within Morocco and the ferry, but Joaquin was adamant about trying them out, so we did! We had such a great time I’d even suggest the same route to others, with the one note to buy ferry tickets in advance and from a legitimate retailer online! Without knowing what the ferry lines were prior to the trip, I purchased some online with a company that doesn’t exist in Tangier—a slight hiccup when we got to the terminal, but we figured it out in the end and took our planned ferry.
Starting off our trip by landing in Fes, we immediately saw how different everything was from anywhere we had ever been—neither of us has been to Morocco before—so after hopping off our prop plane, we had to search around the desert area surrounding the airport to find our guide from the hotel who was going to drive us to the Medina, the downtown market area where we were staying.
No cars can go into the Medina, so the last part of our arrival was on foot. The Medina is a complete labyrinth, so we had to follow our guide through the walled-in streets and twists and turns until we happened upon our Riad. The maze is actually quite intense—the first few days we were in Fes, we were completely lost, but on the last few days we started being able to recognize signs and landmarks within the Medina and find our way around, which I was pretty impressed by!
Our first night, after dropping off our things in our beautiful hotel that had parts of it built in the 1300s, we found one of the only places that served wine (of course), and we ate on a rooftop overlooking the city. The dinner spread we received was an incredible introduction to Moroccan cuisine and one of our favorite meals of the trip!
On our way back to the hotel, we walked through a mini night market, which even had home-built rides for children. I definitely got a kick out of the kiddie-rides as it’s something you would never see in the US!
The top of our hotel, overseeing the Medina:
The next day in Fes, we decided to venture out and find our own way around the Medina; and it allowed us to see some of the most amazing parts of the city. We both prefer not to have a guide or participate in tourist-specific guides, and in this case it was actually quite hard to navigate the maze of a city without speaking Arabic or French, but it was incredibly fun and worth it! We definitely saw parts of the city we wouldn’t have seen if we had done a specialized tour, so we were thrilled with how it worked out.
The first place we wanted to visit after walking around was the tannery. Getting into the tannery itself is a bit difficult when you’re not with a tour group, but luckily the locals are always more than happy to help out the tourists (sometimes this is good and sometimes they will just tell you that you need to pay them, so worth figuring it out on your own when you can!).
The first thing we noticed about the tannery as we started walking up to the location was the smell, and then the hides on the side of the road being carried into the tannery. We should’ve thought ahead and realized we would encounter this, but it completely caught us by surprise! The local who ended up letting us into the tannery gave us sprigs of mint and told us to cover our noses with it, which helped to mask the smell a bit. Without the mint, it does begin to make you feel a bit sick.
In the pictures above, you can see the two distinct parts of the tannery—the white and blue vats of liquid, which are specifically for cleaning the hides; and then the darker vats, which are dyes of different colors to get any color leather you can imagine—black, brown, purple, red—and even yellow!
Luckily neither of us is vegan or vegetarian…so we didn’t mind getting a few leather jackets, belts, and shoes. The man who was helping us asked for a large tip (you will find this is common in Morocco), but even with the tip, the prices were incredible and the quality is better than anything either of us had bought before.
We dropped off our purchases at the hotel and then continued exploring the city. Despite the 104 degree weather, we managed to walk around all day! We found amazing spots to see the city, went through some spice markets and found some friends (chickens and cats), and then of course had an amazing lunch in one of the most beautiful restaurants we’ve ever visited.
City streets of the Medina:
Overlooking the Medina from a spot on our walk:
Spice markets, chickens, mosques and kittens!
Our amazing lunch!
To finalize our time in Fes, the next day, we took three tours by taxi: one to a ceramics factory, one to some tombs that sit on a hill above the city and were built in the 1400s, and one to the royal palace in Fes.
The ceramics factory was absolutely beautiful—we bought some souvenirs and got a tour of the space so we could see where the ceramics are made, where they are painted, and how they are painted. I was so envious of the artists; I daydreamed about coming back to Fes for a few months just to learn how to make and paint them myself. We are slowly decorating our home with pieces we pick up from around the world, and the ceramic tiles are a really beautiful touch and such a great memory!
For the old tombs we visited, we had read online that it may not be the best idea for tourists to walk up to the lookout above the city where they sit alone, so we asked a cab driver to take us up there and wait for us. The tombs are in various states of disarray, but the view is beautiful, and it’s always enjoyable for me to be able to touch something that old and “feel” a part of history!
When the same cab driver took us away from the Medina to the royal palace, we had high expectations of grandeur—but come to find out, the royal palace in Fes is heavily guarded and never opened to the public. Ever. So, we settled for a cute picture right outside of the golden gates!
On our final morning in Fes, we woke up to see the sunrise over the Medina and listen to one of the several prayers a day. The prayers each day were one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. During prayer time, men congregate in the mosques and pray over the loud speakers. You can hear the entire city praying at the same time, which is a beautiful and relaxing experience. I loved hearing it throughout the day, but especially in the morning and the evening!
After our last morning in Fes, we walked out of the Medina (by this time we had learned our way around!) and hailed another cab to the train station. We eventually were able to communicate which train station to go to- in broken English and French- and arrived with more than enough time to make it to Tangier.
A few hours of train ride later (pro tip: get the first-class tickets when traveling through Morocco), we arrived in the hot beach town of Tangier. We had talked about riding camels for months leading up to our trip, so after we checked into the Airbnb and dropped off our things, we headed to the beach to look for some camels.
Our arrival and Airbnb:
Once we walked down the beach and found the camels, I immediately changed my mind and no longer wanted to get on one. However, Joaquin refused to let me “miss out” on the experience and made sure I got on with him! Camels are NOT graceful creatures like horses are—I was pretty terrified the entire time, and honestly, I will probably not try to ride a camel again- but it was a hilarious experience and we got fun pictures!
After our camel ride, we ventured out in search of dinner (and I changed out of my shorts—most women in Morocco wear long pants, shirts and cover their hair).
We wanted to try something new, so we walked around the market of Tangier quite a bit before settling on a place that we saw serving clay bowls of boiling hot meat—it looked and smelled delicious!
We finished the night overlooking the city again in our Airbnb, listening to a prayer, and of course I snapped a few more cat pictures as there are a ton roaming around the streets of Morocco!
Our next day in Tangier was absolutely beautiful. It was clear, sunny, and hot- perfect for exploring! I highly recommend getting linen pants if you’re visiting during the summer or fall; I tried to walk around in jeans for about one block and couldn’t stand it. The humidity and the heat are no joke!
We ventured around several old spots in Tangier as part of our self-guided tour—many walkways along the water, and The Casbah! Apparently a spot where rock musicians used to come hang out a few decades ago “before it was cool”.
One picture off the coast of Tangier—if you squint, you can see Spain!
Our walk around the Casbah, including finding a rooftop to hang out at:
Before we headed out of Tangier, we spent one morning having a full French-Arabic brunch from our Airbnb balcony (the owner had moved there from Paris several years ago) and then we hopped in what was probably the scariest car ride of our life to get from downtown Tangier to the ferry port where the ferries go to Algeciras.
We were more than relieved to finally make it to the ferry terminal, and from there it was a fairly easy process to get through security and then get on the ferry! After about a week in a country where wine and beer and scarce, we jumped on the fact that we could buy some on the ferry. We had our wine, made some toasts, and then enjoyed our short trip passing by Gibraltar as we made our way into Spain!
Check out Part 2 for our adventure in Madrid and Barcelona!