After 12 hours of travelling, tears, sweat, and (finally) sleep, I wake up in a city I’ve never visited before, not knowing what to expect.
We are in Fez, a large city in Morocco. I’d heard many things about this city before arriving, including the fact that some tourists recoil in horror at the busyness of the streets and narrowness of the roads inside the medina. The medina is listed as a world heritage site and considered to be one of the largest urban pedestrian zones (meaning no cars are allowed inside).
We stay in a beautiful riad – much like a hostel but smaller and Moroccan in style. Originally, the word riad was used to describe an interior garden or courtyard surrounded by a large house or ‘palace’. Over time, it has become more commonly used to describe a kind of guest house – one where tourists can often stay. Decorated with mesmerising Moroccan tiles and art, these riads are made up of a central area (or courtyard), bedrooms, and usually a terrace. Formally, these were the homes of entire families – children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and the like all lived in one big space.
It takes a good night’s sleep for me to fully appreciate the richness of our accommodation. There are patterns everywhere. It is like a geometric heaven, where every pattern is symmetrical, and each piece means something. A common design begins with a circle or centrepiece, and has shapes extrapolating outwards – star-shaped pieces of tile reaching toward the edge. Similar patterns can be seen in places all around the world, and are said to represent the universe.
I head up to the terrace for the first time. Equally beautiful, I could have looked at the colours and patterns of the pillows, throws, and seats for days at a time.
Up on the terrace, I can’t help but notice one things that’s incredibly different from home. It’s hot. Like, 45 degrees hot. Okay, I’ve heard there’s a heatwave back in the UK, but I don’t think it’s quite the same.
I take a seat in the shade for a minute, do some gentle yoga, and begin my holiday. Tom and I share a breakfast spread with the other guests as well as mint tea (which is jokingly referred to as 'Moroccan whiskey'). After this, we head out to explore.
The smells on the streets are intense and ever-changing – spices, the smoke of wood-fire barbecues, fresh mint, and leather satchels mean each new turn comes with it a new scent. The visual experience is equally stimulating; the medina buzzes with people buying and selling, families walking with their children, and tourists trying to find their way through the maze. We eat local food, go on a guided tour to see the many hidden historical treasures of the city (without getting lost), and make friends with the people in our riad.
After visit Fez, we journey to Chefchaouen – also known as ‘the blue city’ or ‘the blue pearl’. Simply, it’s because everything is painted blue. There are a few different theories about why everything is blue, ranging from religious reasons to practical reasons. a commonly reported theory is that blue represents water, giving the town a calming and flowing feel. Walking the streets of the medina, this time, instead of chaotic, feels calm and peaceful. Every wall, pot, picture, and window has at least one blue element, from pure baby blues to the deep romantic blue of dark oceans.
The markets are still alive with people, fresh food, and craftwork. But there is a slower feel to it. This is great for me, as I hobble round with ruined joints and a still-not-recovered sprained ankle. Most people are attentive and notice my injury. In Arabic, I am told ‘shwaya shwaya’, which basically means ‘slowly slowly’. I keep this in mind as I gently stroll the streets, soaking it all up.
I take it super easy here. I write, I walk (shwaya shwaya), I listen to music, and I take time to relax. I eat good food, meet good people, and fall in love with yet another city. We take day trips to places with huge waterfalls where you can go freshwater swimming. The freezing cold feels indescribably good when you’ve been used to boiling hot stickiness. I do my daily yoga and meditation on the terrace before the sun has risen over the mountains. I feel at such peace. There are moments of sadness and challenge and difficulty, but that is normal for me and, in fact, normal for everyone. I share my contact details with the people I’ve met, and am genuinely grateful to have known them, if only for a short time.
I’ve found learning about these cities first-hand an incredible experience. But there’s something that feels different in comparison to when I usually go abroad. These places feel like entirely new experiences. I’ve travelled to many places that are very culturally different from the UK, but there’s something extra strange about this one.
All at once, it clicks into place – every country I’d visited previously all had something that Morocco didn’t…
Easy access to alcohol.
In Morocco, it is not illegal to sell/buy/drink alcohol. However, it’s pretty tricky to do. It’s expensive (very highly taxed), uncommon, and mostly frowned upon. Alcohol can be bought in touristy hotels and bars, in some supermarkets (although usually in a separate room), and discreet alcohol stores. To many Muslims, alcohol is considered haram (prohibited), although there are those who choose to drink.
The main difference between the places I’ve been and Morocco is that, in Morocco, you hardly see it. Okay, you might be offered hash on most street corners, but drinking alcohol in public is forbidden, and it’s noticeable.
There are no people having wine with their dinner in the outdoor seating of restaurants and cafes. There are no people falling about, throwing up, or crying on street corners late at night (perhaps this is reserved for the UK and party destinations, but I’m not sure). You also don’t see alcohol ads everywhere you look.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t any social atmosphere, in fact – the opposite is true. People socialise with each other over mint tea instead of beer, laughing and singing and dancing all the same. Of course, all countries have their drawbacks, but that doesn't mean having a social space that doesn't involve alcohol is a bad thing.
Everywhere we go in Morocco we meet people from all over the world and make deep connections in a matter of days. There is no alcohol involved, inany of these moments. I share parts of my life and have others share parts of their life with me, without being under the influence. That’s when it feels real. On other holidays I may have made friends, but part of me always knew it was fake because I was always drunk. This doesn't feel fake.
Each person has their own view on alcohol, their own stories to tell, and their own thoughts about drinking culture in their own country. There is more variety out there than we can possibly know about. Alcohol has an undeniable and important history for communities and cultures all over the world, but that doesn’t mean it is a good thing. If we can laugh and play and relax without it, why do it at all?
Have any of you visited countries where alcohol consumption is limited or drinking culture is very different from your home country? Does anyone come from somewhere where alcohol is illegal or frowned upon? Tell us about your experience below!