On our first exploration of Fez’s medieval medina, my children were quiet and uncertain as they walked through this walled city with its tunnel-like, tangled lanes. The sky was powder blue, the African sun pounded like a drum. As we walked in the shadows, through the food souk, kittens darted around our feet, looking for scraps. Live chickens awaited their fate in cages. Eleven-year-old Jack’s hand found mine, holding it tight.
I’d long wanted to bring my children to Morocco, to see the chameleons, the donkeys, the snake charmers and twinkling souks. I had gone backpacking here as a student, and I had upped the ante by starting in Fez, which I remembered as confusing and frenetic, full of overladen donkeys powering through narrow lanes.
It’s not the natural choice for families with children travelling to Morocco: Marrakech or the beach towns would make a lot more sense. We wanted to see those too, but decided nevertheless to make Fez our starting point.
This is the moment to visit Fez: its medina is being restored to its former splendour, and Air Arabia – which has flights internally to and from Marrakech – has made the city more accessible than ever before (Fez-Marrakech by train takes more than seven hours).
I wanted to show Jack and his siblings Gabriel (13) and Valentina (five) a different world, one more old-fashioned than they would find in Marrakech. As we sat on the flight, I wondered: would they love it as much as I did?
I’d opted to travel independently so that we had the freedom to explore, but staff at our hotels were so helpful with booking guides, courses and tickets, everything was very easy. At Palais Amani, our Fez hotel, the huge front door opened on to a small chamber, hiding the tree-shaded courtyard beyond, so that it felt like a secret garden. All day, sparrows fluttered and dipped into the central fountain.
Children are detail-oriented: it was the mini white robes, the homemade lemonade (this Jack rated one of the highlights of Morocco) and the sumptuous breakfasts served in engraved copperware, that signalled to them that we were experiencing life in a new realm of homemade luxury.
The hotel organised a guide, Rachid Mritakh, who took us to Fez’s most famous sight, the tanneries, where animal skins are spread out like a giant box of watercolours. The skins are cleaned in quicklime and cow urine, then dipped in natural dyes: poppy, indigo, or henna. The tanners work leg-deep in the pits. Noses wrinkled at the stench of curing skins, the children relished their ‘Moroccan air freshener’, a lavish sprig of mint. ‘How much do they earn a day?’ asked Jack, nodding towards a shopkeeper who stood against a kaleidoscopic wall of leather slippers. Rachid answered, eyes sidelong, ‘They earn by the piece.’
After buying ingredients from the souks, with a visit to a Harry Potteresque shop filled with snake skins and spices, we learned to make chicken tagine and Moroccan salads on Palais Amani’s roof terrace. A cookery course seemed an ideal way to entertain our motley mix of ages, as we’re all partial to concoctions in the kitchen. Although you can take cookery courses in Marrakech and Essaouira, because Fez is less international it’s far easier to immerse your family in Moroccan culture.
The Fez Cookery School was appealingly relaxed and intimate. After shopping in the food market, we headed to the rooftop, where we found a fully equipped teaching kitchen with views out beyond Fez’s city walls. While Gabriel had started the morning asking ‘Do I have to cook?’, even he couldn’t help but be charmed by chef Zakia and her assistant, Mehdi, and was soon chopping an onion, wearing a fez. When he cut his finger, Mehdi was ready with first-aid and reassurance, saying encouragingly: ‘All the best chefs have accidents’.
Just as our teachers took the children seriously, so too did the children raise their own culinary game: vegetable-phobe Jack tasted our tomato and aubergine dish, and pronounced it ‘smashing’. His favourite recipe was the simplest (and, admittedly, vegetable-free): slices of orange, soaked in orange-blossom water and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. ‘Heavenly,’ he said. As we sprinkled spices, the call to prayer drifted over the city. Later, we feasted proudly on the fruits of our labour in the sun-dappled courtyard restaurant.
In the evening, we ate at Cafe Clock, a higgledy-piggledy courtyard-centred restaurant, ostensibly a short walk through the head-spinning medina (we opted for a taxi there, and some boys helped us find the way back for some loose change). Gabriel tucked into a camel burger, and music drifted up from a live band drumming and singing on the ground level. We were up on the highest terrace, with swallows swooping and stately storks gliding, as the sky deepened into apricot. To our surprise, Valentina began to dance, twirling and jumping, and Jack got up too, answering the call of a very different beat to their usual YouTube and Disney soundtracks.
As we left, a woman from the house next door called to us in French, ‘Wait!’ I glanced through her open window, in the fridge-pale light, where I saw more women reclining, in floor-length patterned robes, against patterned-tiled walls. It looked like a painting. I lifted Valentina up to wave. The woman called again, ‘Wait!’ and fumbled at the door. Opening it, she offered the children, my husband and myself trays of homemade biscuits. Travel with children can be a magic key to the full warmth of local hospitality: I felt an easy connection with local people that was missing when I travelled here before.
Only an hour’s flight away, Marrakech was a different beast to Fez, if from the same stable; more buzzy and less traditional, but with the same air of mystery and magic. Here, our base was the welcoming Riad Farnatchi, a stylish medina mansion, where our suite had stained glass, low tables, a sunken bath and a sun terrace. The riad’s courtyard swimming pool was perfect for refreshing overheated children, while the glorious spa, with steam hammam, was ideal for unknotting weary parents. We all adored the food: chicken pastilla (with almonds and wrapped in filo pastry), and fall-apart tender beef and lamb tagines.
We headed into Jemaa el-Fnaa in the evening, the palpitating heart of the city: a huge square crammed to the brim with mayhem, including musicians, henna tattooists, medicine men proffering ostrich eggs, snake charmers, forlorn monkeys in hats, and clouds of steam from the busy food stalls. Jack learned to tie a turban, Touareg-style, and we bought a midnight-blue scarf to turn him into a pint-size Lawrence of Arabia. We all welcomed the tranquillity of a visit to Yves Saint Laurent’s former garden, the Jardin Majorelle, with its hidden corners, ultramarine pots, and flame-orange goldfish flickering in the pond’s inky dark.
Next stop on our week-long trip was Essaouira, 210km south, and this Atlantic-facing city is a different world again. Its name means ‘little picture’ in Arabic, and its medina is painted a nautical blue and white, ringed by a great sandcastle-golden wall. Where Fez offers time travel, and Marrakech is a thrilling, head-spinning tumult, laid-back Essaouira is where the pace slows to an amble and starting prices when haggling are lower: we secured a cheerful bargain over a leather bag, and an item Valentina reverently referred to as ‘the Golden’, a cushion cover that looked suspiciously as if it had been made in India.
The children, too shy to join in the haggling, followed the to-and-fro like a game of tennis. Jack whispered, ‘Do you have to haggle even in McDonald’s here?’
We were staying outside the centre of town, around 15 minutes’ drive away in Jardin des Douars, an idyll in the parched countryside. In its gardens, bougainvillea poured over terracotta rooftops in femme-fatale pinks and reds, and succulents and cacti spiked patterns against fluffy ferns. Water lilies floated on ponds where turtles glided and frogs ribbited; nearby, tortoises scuttled around the paths. Then there were the iridescent bottle-green waters of the family pool (there’s a separate infinity pool for the child-free). It was a tough business to get the children to go anywhere else.
We finally managed to take the eldest two for a surf lesson at Ocean Vagabond on Essaouira’s long, windswept beach, which is prime surfing and kitesurfing terrain (not so much swimming, as it’s too windy). The silky sand, edged by rollicking white-topped sea, had parades of camels lumbering up and down, and ponies cooling down in the surf, ready for rides along the sands.
The enthusiastic teacher eventually managed to coach both boys to stand up on the board and glide in over the waves, to their obvious pride, and we celebrated at Ocean Vagabond’s sun-dappled beach cafe, a laid-back paradise, with skewers and salads served in the shade of argan trees.
Gabriel, the teenager, announced with what seemed to be a genuine whiff of enthusiasm: ‘I’d like to come back to Morocco.’ We’d covered so much ground in a week, but it had felt remarkably effortless, with the rich intensity tempered by the tranquillity of gardens and courtyards.
I would take the children back to Morocco: to Essaouira for the breeze, surf and tortoises, to Marrakech for the child-friendly craziness, and to Fez to be catapulted back in time.
✱ Fly Emirates from Dubai to Fez, about Dh9,680 return. AirArabia flies Fez-Marrakech.
The air-conditioned Supratours (supratours.ma) bus from Marrakech to Essaouira costs from £7 (about Dh33) and takes two hours 45 minutes with one stop, while a private minibus transfer costs £96.
Palais Amani (palaisamani.com) from pounds 160 per room per night including breakfast and a child’s Z-bed.
✱ Fez Cooking School (fezcooking school.com – two-hour courses from euros 47/pounds 77pp (pounds 42/pounds 69) for up to 10/six guests.
Riad Farnatchi (riadfarnatchi.com) has rooms from pounds 240 per night including breakfast, pounds 40 supplement for children between five and 12. The same group runs Wix Squared (wixsquared.com), a tour company that arranges trips around Morocco.
✱ Cafe Clock (cafe clock.com) – dishes £8-£0, free music.
✱ Jardin Majorelle (jardinmajorelle.com/ang) - £5.60; under 12s free.
✱ Jardin des Douars offers family rooms from £130 per night with breakfast.
✱ Ocean Vagabond (oceanvagabond.com) – surfing and kitesurfing lessons, and mountain biking; one hour from £15 with gear.