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Why a trip to Morocco’s oldest city was my family’s best holiday yet

by Staff

Age-old wisdom has it that city breaks and toddlers do not mix. But the ancient city of Fez in Morocco somehow contradicts this. Despite the bustle and clamour of this astonishing, antiquated, sensory-overloading cultural epicentre, there is a mystery quality too.

My apprehensions subsided as I watched our three-year-old delight in the unfamiliar: the narrow sloping streets, the colourful, water-filled gardens, the parrots that visited our table at breakfast. Friends I tell about it might be sceptical, but I recall our stay in Fes el Bali (“Old Fez”) as our favourite family excursion so far.

Having set aside just over a month to drive the length of Spain last year with my wife, toddler and baby, it seemed a shame not to extend the journey to Morocco, shimmering within easy reach across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The ancient Chouara Tannery has a pungent smell

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We were unsure which of the big cities to opt for. Agadir has lively beaches; Marrakesh great riads and proximity to the desert; Casablanca — the largest — is romantic and arguably the most “lived in”. But a swift debate, while travelling, had us settle on Fez, the country’s oldest and reputedly most authentic city, a four-hour train ride from the northern coast.

We wanted immersion, excitement and somewhere generally free of tourist trappings, yet large enough to keep us entertained. Fez ticked all these boxes.

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Concerns over safety might deter people from booking a family holiday in Morocco. A seasoned traveller myself, I will admit to scrolling through a few travel blogs for advice ahead of visiting with a three-year-old and a baby still in arms. But I was hard-pressed to find anything resembling a negative review.

Matt’s young family

Matt’s young family

MATT COLLINS

I realised that what was rattling my confidence was really the everyday precariousness of a toddler: the wanderings off, food fussiness and unholy public meltdowns; the inclination to lick things an adult wouldn’t prod with a stick. In reality, most obstructions to placid family travel exist wherever you take them, be it Europe, India or on a day trip to Margate.

I can attest to as few actual dramas in Fez as in Spain. And, much like the latter, Morocco adores your children.

Whether at a souk, restaurant or riad, our little ones were greeted with warm smiles, hair ruffles and playful games, with teenagers often taking as much affectionate interest as older generations.

What we did learn, however, was that although Fez is a city to be explored predominantly on foot, it is not pushchair-friendly. This, you should prepare for. Gonna push that buggy through the narrow labyrinth of the medina? Best of luck …

Fez’s old town medina is considered the largest car-free urban area in the world

Fez’s old town medina is considered the largest car-free urban area in the world

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The Tangiers-Fez railway was a straightforward delight, and gave a sense of the city’s appealing geography. After fields of olive and agave and hills of ever-shifting ochres, we reached the basin-like Saiss plain that surrounds the sprawling former capital — two 9th-century settlements, united by a great citadel, set handsomely between the Rif and Middle Atlas mountains.

The city’s scale is a surprise. Fez’s Unesco-protected old town medina is not only north Africa’s biggest, but it is also considered the largest car-free urban area in the world, a colossal network of time-weathered passageways in which even locals can lose their way (for peace of mind we had our son wear a wristband containing our contact details).

Living in Fez during the 1950s, the expatriate American author Paul Bowles noted that “everything that moves inside the walls moves on legs … not even bicycles can be used”; to our delight we found not much has changed. While modernisation continues in the adjacent, French-built Ville Nouvelle district (the “New City”), the medieval quarter remains an enchanting, utterly beguiling, nonmotorised maze.

As any parent will appreciate, to walk a city devoid of cars is a rare and reassuring experience. We learnt quickly to ditch the stroller in favour of a baby carrier and allowed the toddler free rein, keeping watch for surprise corners, oncoming cartwheels and the lure of stray cats (snoozing on every doorstep, cats are a Fez fixture).

As we stumbled upon cobbled squares, ornate water fountains, quiet mosques and thronging, richly aromatic food markets, donkeys clipped past delivering shop supplies. And the hammering of coppersmiths, hand-crafting decorative and culinary metalware, resounded from doorways.

We planned to spend a few days in the city, and soon got to grips with souk haggling — the secret being, it seemed, to approach it with good humour — and contrary to what we’d expected, experienced little in the way of hard selling. We discovered the importance of a midday nap for all, avoiding the glare of high noon. We learnt, too, that despite apprehensions about religious conservatism, it was never an issue for my wifeto breastfeed the baby in public.

Our Fez highlights included all the popular features: the souks and the Great Mosque; the tiled city arches and bougainvillea-draped garden of Jnan Sbil; the calls to prayer that enter your dreams as they reverberate across the city at dawn; the ancient Chouara Tannery, which you view from a high veranda while sniffing mint leaves to mask the pungent smell.

But our accommodation also greatly contributed to the positive experience. Staying at Riad al Bartal, a traditional Moroccan guesthouse/hotel with a gorgeously tiled central courtyard festooned with pot plants, we not only had a restful, distractingly beautiful base within the medina (with a giant cauldron of a bathtub), but truly outstanding meals. There is a simplicity to Moroccan cuisine that serves the family well. This has been perfected at Riad al Bartal, where pastries and crêpes for breakfast and sweet tagines at dinner cater for varying levels of children’s fussiness.

Chicken tagine

Chicken tagine

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The riad’s rooftop terrace was a bonus. Traditionally early mornings are the scourge of parenting — in Fez they were close to divine. At sunrise each morning I took our eldest up there to frolic freely while the other guests slept undisturbed. In the gathering light we drank our coffee and warmed milk serenaded by peacocks, cockerels and swirling swifts, looking out over the brightening rooftops.

At our lunchtime hangout, Fondouk Bazaar, the aubergine fritters and baba ghanoush were a resounding hit, as was the leafy subtropical greenery we dined beneath at the Fez Café restaurant on our final evening. But the overriding joy for us was in getting to disappear for a while inside a city whose space and atmosphere are wholly unique unto itself. “The Westerner does not so much feel in a distant place here,” wrote Paul Bowles. “The removal is rather in time.” As a routine-bound parent, I concur; the sense of escape in Fez was almost transcendental.
Matt Collins was a guest of Riad al Bartal, which has B&B family suites from £107 (riadalbartal.com). Fly to Fez

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Three more family-friendly Moroccan city stays

The port city of Tangier

The port city of Tangier

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1. Tangier
A gateway to Africa for Europe, the port city of Tangier has a confluence of cultures that makes it a lively, buzzy place. The comparatively modest-sized medina is a treasure trove of souks, cafés and little homespun, family-friendly restaurants, such as Kebdani for baked fish, squid and tagines (fb.com/Restaurant.Kebdani), while the seafront and marina become a relaxed social hub in the early evenings, fun for kids to run around. A short walk from Tangier’s old town, the beautifully revamped Barceló Tanger combines comfort and youngster-pleasing pools and sea views.
Details B&B family rooms from £182 for four (barcelo.com). Fly to Tangier

The sea wall in Essaouira

The sea wall in Essaouira

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2. Essaouira
On the Atlantic coast, Essaouira is an excellent low-key destination for young families, not least because it has a very accessible beach. Walking along the fortified Skala de la Kasbah — the old, cannon-dotted sea wall — spotting blue fishing boats, and along the promenade, is great fun. You can even get a buggy through the medina, which is easier to negotiate than most. Stay at the pretty Moorish-style Riad Maison du Sud in its heart, also close to the sea.
Details B&B family rooms from £77 for four (riadmaisondusud.com). Fly to Essaouira

The ruins of El Badi Palace in Marrakesh

The ruins of El Badi Palace in Marrakesh

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3. Marrakesh
Beyond the thrilling souks, which will be wildly stimulating for children of any age, are fountain and palm-filled riad gardens for chilling out in after the madness. With extra time, families can be based here but head out to the fun-filled Oasiria waterpark, with outdoor wave pool, slides and climbing wall (oasiria.com); to the nearby Agafay desert; and to the Atlas mountains. Children are made very welcome at Riad Africa, whose dipping pool is among the largest in the medina.
Details B&B family rooms from £130 for four (riadafrica.com). Fly to Marrakesh

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