72hrs in Fez
Fez (Fes), Morocco is famous for its ancient walled city, which many compare to the old walled city of Jerusalem. It is the first of the imperial cities of Morocco, as it dates back to the eighth century. The city is also a pioneer within the Muslim cult and has one of the oldest universities in the world. All these firsts make Fez particularly attractive with a lively and influential culture.
Fez has the best-preserved medina in the Arab world, the vast and labyrinthine medina of Fez el-Bali, said to also be the world's largest urban area with no traffic cars. The transportation is provided by donkeys, carriages and motorcycles. This ancient city is one of the most interesting and attractive destinations in the North African country. Perhaps somewhat overshadowed by the more popular cities, Casablanca, Marrakech and Rabat; local Moroccans will tell you how unspoilt and original Fez still is.
The entire medina has been designated Unesco World Heritage of Humanity Site, so expect an array of wonderful sights, smells and sounds. Wander through Fez's souks and alleys which are unchanged since the Middle Ages. The people have advanced with the modern era but the ancient traditions are still every day practices in the medina.
Your exploration of the medina should begin at the Bab Boujlloud Gate. The initial monument to sojourn is the vast Bou Inania medersa, with its cedar woodwork, its sculptured stucco and its marble and onyx decoration. If you love craftsmanship you will be in awe as the locals have the knacker and tenderness to create things from scratch. As you advance along Talaa Kebira Street (watch for the clumsy steps), you will particularly admire the Tijani zaouïa (zaouïa, sanctuary of a religious brotherhood) and the instrument makers' souk before arriving at the Mzara (shrine) of the ancient sovereign Moulay Idriss located at the place where he took the decision to build the town. Once you have passed the babouche vendors, you arrive in Nejjarine Square and the cabinetmakers' souk, in addition to the magnificent carved foundouk (caravanserai) on the square houses of the Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. The kissaria (covered market), is the blooming ecstasy where jewellery and fine fabrics are on sale (closed when the sun sets). Next to it, you can admire the most visited and revered attraction in Fez: the Zaouïa (shrine) of Moulay Idriss, founder of the town.
For a superb service and great options, we recommend visiting Chez Anass at his shop called Wonders of African Art on Chrablién nº58 Talâa Kebira for authentic jewelries, crafts and items from all over Africa. For potteries and berber rugs we recommend heading to Lajaj Ali's shop called Fabrication de Poterie et de Tapis berbère et Percussions on Derb El Horra Talaa Sghira nº23. He even holds the celebratory rugs for weddings and family parties.
Handicraft and cooking are two activities most appreciated by tourists in the Fez tradition. It is a pleasurable experience to learn about the origins of every labor practices, for this you may want to hire a tour guide. The medina is as well much appreciated when you get lost in its maze and figure things out for yourself, but after a while it can get frustrating if you don't want to miss the main attractions. A very important factor that we learned with our guide was the difference between the old and new tanneries, the famous cobalt blue that symbolises the ceramics of this imperial city and the natural processes that go with tanning.
The process of tanning goes something like this: 1. Piles of hides are ready for dyeing 2. Soaked in diluted acidic pigeon excrement to soften hide 3. Soaked in vegetable dye nº1 henna, saffron and mint 4. Soaked in vegetable dye nº2 henna, saffron and mint again 5. Hides are left to dry 6. Hides are cut to pattern 7. Hides are stitched to produce a final product. The views from above the shops where you can see the tannery is amazing. The workers stand in the stone vessels arranged like honeycombs, filled with different dyes.
We also walked through the streets of Fez-Jdid, which houses the Royal Palace, the Mellah (Jewish ghetto) and the oldest mosque in Fez. From the roof top terrace of Le Souk Artisanale Fès (Labtatha 43 Bis Fès al Jadid) near the Restaurant Café La Noria you have panoramic views of the city.
Not wanting to risk getting lost in the dark alleys and find our way back we opted to stay in the first night with dinner reservations having already been made in advance at Dar Roumana. The food at the riad is impressive, blending French cuisine with Moroccan flavours. On the last night's stay, we booked a dinner at The Ruined Garden, which is in the terraces of Riad Idrissy. We had an elderly man pick us up from the riad and after dinner he took us back. He was very polite, and of course we had to tip him for helping us.
Fez has so much to offer, we recommend at least 3 days to explore the medina. It is highly recommendable to visit the city in spring or autumn seasons, for the shaded narrow alleys will keep you from catching too much heat and the surrounding landscape is at its greenest. Travel to Fez and you will learn about the amazing people and their culture!