Alternative winter travel

26 January 2018

The concept of a winter holiday tends to conjure up a snow-laden image of Swiss mountain ranges and Varsity skiing, but Morocco is one ‘winter destination’ which fails to conform to this tradition; and rightly so. Morocco is a magnificent country. Its labyrinthine medinas and rich culture make it a legitimate travel destination all year round, but it’s also an amazing place to visit in the winter months. The undeniably sweltering heat of the summer disappears, making the souks much less of a sweaty rush for the nearest water bottle and more of a leisurely stroll. Even better, due to the low demand this time of year, flights are irresistibly cheap (flights to Fes are currently going for as low as £47), and if you’re eyeing up places like Marrakech, the hordes of tourists will have disappeared by September.

During my most stressful essay crises at 2am, I long for a sip of hot mint tea – a slow, burning moment contained within the everyday chaos of a Moroccan city. So, I recommend that you return to your room, pack a bag, grab some friends, and spend the weekend doing exactly that (for potentially half the price of a Varsity ticket). Leave the essays in Cambridge.

 

Where to go – Fes

After Having visited Marrakech, I left Morocco with an intensely bittersweet impression: Remembering that distinct scent of dried fruits, spices and leather, lifted by swathes of orange blossom and mint tea made me want to return, but this was tinged by its sometimes unwelcoming or hostile atmosphere. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go, but be aware that scammers were ubiquitous and harassment was very common, presumably because mass tourism acted as a flytrap to anyone looking to make money and the crowds have probably caused tension with the locals. Jemaa el-Fnaa square is a breath-taking bubble of activity at night, but not very enjoyable when you’re being chased by somebody holding a monkey.

However, when I left Fes, I fell back in love with Morocco. Not because scammers and harassment didn’t exist (unfortunately this is to an extent inevitable if you’re a woman travelling alone), but because it existed like in any other city, the people are friendlier, and the summer heat had been and gone.   

I recommend booking a Riad, a traditional house enclosing a courtyard, in the old district. There are plenty for every price range, and staying in the medina (the walled, old town) feels like stepping back in time. Most also serve home-style, traditional Moroccan food – think fragrant tagines and fresh pastries scented with saffron and cinnamon.

 

What to do:

Get lost in the souks

Fes’ souk, like most, is an endless maze and a real shock to the senses. Underneath its sun-speckled roof one is instantly embraced by a multitude of colours, smells and sounds… Vibrant leather slippers and bags stand beside rows of ground spices piled high into impeccable pyramids, and the familiar scent of fresh mint tea escapes from every doorway.

Visit the Chaouwara Tanneries

Be warned – it’s definitely not the most pleasant aroma. With a sprig of mint in hand (these are often given out to visitors to mask the smell), observe the ancient process of leather-making.  

Take a trip to Chefchouan

It’s easy to organise a short trip to Chefchouan, a beautiful city not too far from Fes painted entirely in blue.

 

What to eat (and drink):

Msemen or Harcha

Msmen is a flaky pancake made with semolina. Harcha is also made with semolina, but its texture is more like cornbread. Both are delicious for breakfast with jam, honey, or soft cheese. You can also get Msemen stuffed with meat and spices, a cheap lunch whilst exploring the medina.  

Tagine

A tagine is actually a traditional earthenware pot, however it’s also the name of the dish cooked inside. You’ll find them everywhere, the most common tending to vary between lamb – cooked with prunes and almonds – and chicken with preserved lemons and olives. The lamb has always been my favourite: the prunes combine with the juices of the meat to form a sweet, sticky gravy perfect for dipping bread into. If you’re wondering why the tagine you’ve attempted at home tastes nothing like the real thing, it’s probably the addition of ‘smen’, a pungent (but essential) fermented butter used in many Moroccan dishes.

Khlea

Khlea is meat that is dried before being preserved in lots of fat, often piled up in the same way as spices to be sold. It sounds suspicious, but it tastes amazing.

Moroccan pastries

Moroccan pastries are very sweet, often fried and dipped in honey. There are too many to name, but a particularly indulgent encounter involved Chebakia, a deep-fried cookie covered in honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Mint tea

It is impossible to create a guide to anywhere in Morocco without mentioning mint tea – a simple concoction of gunpowder green tea and fresh mint leaves. It’s offered absolutely anywhere you go, sweetened (without fail) with a generous spoonful of sugar.

Café Clock

If you’re craving something a little less traditional, Café Clock is a wonderful, quirky place serving Moroccan food with a modern twist – the camel burger is very popular. It’s also an instagrammer’s haven: the tables are constructed from old wooden doors and trumpets hang from the ceiling.