Fez Travel Guide

Fez Travel Guide

Introduction

Fez Travel Guide- Unlike bustling Marrakech, Fez still retains much of the traditional culture that has defined it, making a trip here a glimpse into the Morocco that was as well as insight to Morocco on the cusp of change.  While much has changed in Fez over the years as it has gone from imperial capital to simply being one of Morocco’s largest cities; much has also stayed the same. The city remains Morocco’s spiritual heart thanks to the strong ties to religious schools and Islamic scholars. Its car-free medina has also remained a crossroads for trade and a center for teaching the traditional trade crafts of Morocco such as intricate wood carving, zellige tilework, and hand wrought metalsmithing.  In its heyday, Fez attracted scholars and philosophers, mathematicians and lawyers, astronomers and theologians. Craftsmen built them houses and palaces, kings endowed mosques and medersas (religious schools), and merchants offered exotic wares from the silk roads and sub-Saharan trade routes. Although Fez lost its influence at the beginning of the 19th century, it remains a supremely self-confident city whose cultural and spiritual lineage beguiles visitors. Something of the medieval remains in the world’s largest car-free urban area: donkeys cart goods down the warren of alleyways, and while there are still ruinous pockets, government efforts to restore the city are showing results.

Fez, The Soul of Morocco

At twelve hundred years old, Fez is known by many names. The “oldest living medieval city of the world” and the “soul of Morocco” are but a couple of nom de plumes attached to this wonderful city. Join the traditionally dressed throngs of people and donkey carts as they thread their way down the Talaa Kebira, the main thoroughfare of Fez. You will be able to feast your eyes on all manner of beautiful relics, shrouded figures and mazelike streets. Spires of minarets rise above the centuries old buildings giving the city a mysterious feeling. Luckily, many of the structures have stood the test of time and are being restored to their former beauty. Unlike other cities in Morocco that have torn down to make way for new, Fez has embraced its past. Some travelers have called Fez mythical because of its connections to the past. Which are real, and which are fodder of myths?

Fez Travel Guide
Fez Travel Guide – The tanneries of Fez, holdovers from medieval times, produce much of the city’s renowned leather. Few who visit a tannery are left underwhelmed. The sight of dozens of men, many waist deep in dyes, working at a trade few outside this world could see, is a sight to behold.

It might be said that Fez is the medieval city that it once was. Comparing it to Marrakech, Fez is considered to be the cultural and and spiritual center. Fez has sunk deeper in its roots of Islamic past. While Marrakech and Casablanca have opened up to more western influences, Fez has nurtured its history. In fact, it is living its history.  French occupation brought a new city of Fez, but it is mostly ignored. Instead, forked paths of the medina hold most of the attention. High walls carved with symbols, mosques hidden away that call to the faithful, old ceramic workshops billowing black smoke into the ever-blue sky, all seem to transport ones senses to a long ago time. Every day, you can see the mourners carrying candles to the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, paying homage to the city’s founder.

Fez Travel Guide
Fez Travel Guide – Some people get lost in the labyrinth of more than 9000 streets. Over a million people live within. Yet to some, Fez seems to be a hidden city. High windowless walls painted with flowing Arabic script line the streets, making them appear to be closed to outsiders. Many men are still wearing hoods as women wear veils. Traditional dress is the norm. Berber peasant women can been seen with their tattooed faces. Roosters can be heard crowing along with the dogs barking but are not within sight. Talismans protect from the unseen world of djinns.

 

This old city plan is based on the rule of five from the Koran. There are five concentric rings to the medina. At the center is the holy or religious places. The next ring would be the souks and places where the residents make a living. Residential areas make up the next ring. Each neighborhood would have its five obligatory institutions such as a mosque, a school, shared fountain, a shared bread oven and hammam. Of course, most of this part is not open to visitors. Souks and the center of the rings would be the place for visitors.

 

Fez Travel Guide
Fez Travel Guide – It is said that even the guides sometimes get lost in Fez. The more one gets lost in Fez, the more one discovers.

When you stroll beneath the famous blue gate of Bab Boujeloud, you are seemingly transported 1,000 years back in time. The bustling cafés and outdoor markets quickly give way to quiet narrow streets where children are hard at play and donkeys are hard at work carrying supplies up and down the twisting, mud brick corridors of the medieval city. This is the oldest part of Fez,  Fez el-Bali, and it is the world’s largest car-free urban space as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is where most travelers spend their time in Fez.

Fez Travel Guide
Fez Travel Guide – Located just outside the medina, the Merenid Tombs date back to the 14th century and house many sultans and other members from the Merenid dynasty. No guide needed. To get to the tombs, it’s about a 10 dhs taxi ride from the medina and an easy, twelve or so minute walk downhill back into the medina. A nice place to pack a lunch if its not too hot out, though you won’t want to be caught out here at night

 

Besides the labyrinthine Fez el-Bali, there are two other parts to the city: Fez el-Jdid (the “new part of the city”, which is still a few hundred years old) and Ville Nouvelle (French for new city, constructed under the French Protectorate era in the first half of the 20th century). Though most of the activities and sites of interest to travelers is in the old city, many travelers do find themselves venturing into Fez el-Jdid to visit the Jewish QuarterBatha Museum and to take a stroll in the Jnane Sbil gardens while most avoid the Ville Nouvelle altogether, unless they are traveling to the airport, train station or getting a bite to eat somewhere a bit more modern than the offerings in Fez el-Bali.

Heri el Souani
Fez Travel Guide – Heri el Souani

Also known as Dar el-Ma (Water Palace) for the Agdal Basin reservoir beneath, the granaries were one of Moulay Ismail’s greatest achievements and are the first place any Meknessi will take you to give you an idea of the second Alaouite sultan’s grandiose vision. The Royal Granaries were designed to store grain as feed for the 10,000 horses in the royal stables—not just for a few days or weeks but over a 20-year siege if necessary. Ismail and his engineers counted on three things to keep the granaries cool enough that the grain would never rot: thick walls (12 feet), suspended gardens (a cedar forest was planted on the roof), and an underground reservoir with water ducts under the floors. The high-vaulted chamber on the far right as you enter has a 30-foot well in its center and a towpath around it—donkeys circulated constantly, activating the waterwheel in the well, which forced water through the ducts and maintained a stable temperature in the granaries. Out behind the granaries are the remains of the royal stables, roofless after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Some 1,200 purebreds, just one-tenth of Moulay Ismail’s cavalry, were kept here. Stand just to the left of the door out to the stables—you can see the stunning symmetry of the stable’s pillars from three different perspectives. The granaries have such elegance and grace that they were once called the Cathedral of Grain by a group of Franciscan priests, who were so moved that they requested permission to sing religious chants here. Acoustically perfect, the granaries and surrounding park are now often used for summer concerts and receptions. They’re 2 km (1 mile) south of Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum, so take a taxi in hot weather.

Terrasse des Tanneurs – The Tanneries
Fez Travel Guide
Fez Travel Guide – Terrasse des Tanneurs

The medieval tanneries are at once beautiful, for their ancient dyeing vats of reds, yellows, and blues, and unforgettable, for the malodorous smell of decaying animal flesh on sheep, goat, cow, and camel skins. The terrace overlooking the dyeing vats is high enough to escape the place’s full fetid power and get a spectacular view over the multicolor vats. Absorb both the process and the finished product on Chouara Lablida, just past Rue Mechatine (named for the combs made from animals’ horns): numerous stores are filled with loads of leather goods, including coats, bags, and babouches (traditional slippers). One of the shopkeepers will hand you a few sprigs of fresh mint to smother the smell and explain what’s going on in the tanneries below—how the skins are placed successively in saline solution, quicklime, pigeon droppings, and then any of several natural dyes: poppies for red, turmeric for yellow, saffron for orange, indigo for blue, and mint for green. Barefoot workers in shorts pick up skins from the bottoms of the dyeing vats with their feet, then work them manually. Though this may look like the world’s least desirable job, the work is relatively well paid and still in demand for a strong export market.

Bou Inania Medersa
Fez Travel Guide – Bou Inania Medersa

From outside Bab Boujeloud you will see this medersa’s green-tile tower, generally considered the most beautiful of the Kairaouine University’s 14th-century residential colleges. It was built by order of Abou Inan, the first ruler of the Merenid dynasty, which would become the most decisive ruling clan in Fez’s development. The main components of the medersa’s stunningly intricate decorative artwork are: the green-tile roofing; the cedar eaves and upper patio walls carved in floral and geometrical motifs; the carved-stucco midlevel walls; the ceramic-tile lower walls covered with calligraphy (Kufi script, essentially cursive Arabic) and geometric designs; and, finally, the marble floor. Showing its age, the carved cedar is still dazzling, with each square inch a masterpiece of handcrafted sculpture involving long hours of the kind of concentration required to memorize the Koran. The black belt of ceramic tile around the courtyard bears Arabic script reading “this is a place of learning” and other such exhortatory academic messages.

Bab Boujeloud
Fez Travel Guide – Bab Boujloud

Built in 1913 by General Hubert Lyautey, Moroccan commander under the French protectorate, this Moorish-style gate is 1,000 years younger than the rest of the medina. It’s considered the principal and most beautiful point of entry into Fez el-Bali. The side facing toward Fez el-Djedid is covered with blue ceramic tiles painted with flowers and calligraphy; the inside is green, the official color of Islam—or of peace, depending on interpretation.

Andalusian Mosque

This mosque was built in AD 859 by Mariam, sister of Fatima al-Fihri, who had erected the Kairaouine Mosque on the river’s other side two years earlier with inherited family wealth. The gate was built by the Almohads in the 12th century. The grand carved doors on the north entrance, domed Zenet minaret, and detailed cedarwood carvings in the eaves, which bear a striking resemblance to those in the Musée Nejjarine, are the main things to see here, as the mosque itself is set back on a small elevation, making it hard to examine from outside.

Medersa al-Attarine
Fez Travel Guide

Located next to the Qarawiyyin mosque in the middle of the medina, this is the other medersa opened to non-muslims. Like the Medersa Bou Inania, ornate tile, stucco and wood word decorate this wonderful, nearly 1,000 year old medersa. Ask if you can go upstairs to peak at the student quarters. (Opened all days except Friday, hours vary, 10 dhs).

 

Fondouk el-Nejjarine
Fez Travel Guide – Fondouk el-Nejjarine

 

The Fondouk el-Nejjarine (also known as the “Wood Museum” and the Musée de Bois) faces the old Place el-Nejjarine or the “Carpenter’s Square.” The fondouk was constructed in the 18th century and originally served as a “caravanaserai” or “roadside inn” for travelers and traders. A former minister spent 25 million dirhams (about 3 million USD) to restore this fondouk and transform it into the museum it is today. Visitors will want to spend an hour or so in this wonderfully restored building learning about the woodwork indigenous to Morocco, the tools used, as well as a collection of wood and cabinet work — both ancient, dating from the 14th century, as well as more modern pieces — from various regions in Morocco. Make sure you leave time to visit the rooftop terrace, one of the best views of Fez. A beverage will set you back 10dhs. (Open 10am – 5pm daily; 20 dhs).

Henna Souk
Fez Travel Guide – Henna Souk

There are many souks (usually a large square of shops) interwoven throughout the medina, often blending into each other with little evidence you’ve moved from one souk to the other. However, toward the bottom of the medina, just off Trek K’beer, you can find the Henna Souk, a nicely shaded souk cozied up beneath a couple of large plane trees. Leo Africanus once worked in the now-defunct psychiatric hospital here built in the 1,300s. Pottery and traditional cosmetic products can be found here, so if you wanted to grab argan oil or any other Moroccan goods, talk to Mohammed in the last cosmetic stall near the old hospital.

Batha Museum
Fez Travel Guide – Batha Museum

Located in a Moorish palace dating from the 19th century, the Dar Batha Museum museum houses many artifacts, sculpted wood, plaster, jewelry, carpets and pottery. 9am-5pm, closed Tuesdays and holidays, 10Dh.

Mellah
Fez Travel Guide – Tombs at Mellah

The Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, of Fez was established in 1438. It is the oldest of the mellahs in Morocco though very few Jewish people live here today, most of them having moved to Casablanca, France or Israel. The Mellah section today is well worth a stroll with it ornate balconies and wrought-iron windows. There is a great view from the terrace of the Danan Synogogue on rue Der el-Ferah Teati and the Jewish cemetery is worth a visit, though be wary of faux guides and people asking for money at the cemetery; it’s best to go with a knowledgeable guide if you want to avoid being hassled. You can read more about Jewish areas in Morocco if you’d like.

Other Information

Short History of Fez

Fez Travel Guide – Fez was founded in 789 A.D. by Moulay Idriss II, the son of the founder of modern Morocco, though the origin of the city’s name is unknown. Some scholars believe it comes from the old Berber name of the Middle Atlas mountains, Fazaz; while other stories trace the name back to a tale of a golden axe that divided the river of Fez into two halves (in Arabic, a fez is an axe).

It wasn’t until 817-18 A.D., when around 800 refugee families from Cordoba in Spain settled in Fez, followed a few years later by over 2,000 families from Tunisia, that Fez really began to grow. These settlements fought each other for over 300 years. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Almoravid empire in 1070 A.D. that the city had some measure of peace.

Under Almoravid rule, the city of Fez took form and the walls of Fez, walls which still form the outline of today’s Fez El-Bali, were erected. By 1170 A.D., Fez was the largest city in the world with over 200,000 people living in it. It was an important trading hub, serving Africa and Europe, the gold route from Timbuktu, the famous tanneries with their fine reputation for making leather shields.

When the Merenids took control of Morocco in 1250 A.D., they made Fez their capital. This is when Fez el-Jdid, the “new” city, was built with wider streets, gardens, and many administrative centers. This is also when Fez really became a cultural and intellectual hub and the “Fassi” style, a mis of Andalusian and Almohad traditions, was given birth. The Medersa Bou Inania and Medersa el-Attarine are excellent examples of the ornate architecture from this period.

Today, Fez is known as the “Athens of Africa” and the “Mecca of the West” for its history and role as the spiritual and learning capital of Morocco.

When to Go

Fez Travel Guide – Busloads of tourists and intense heat tend to suppress the romance of just about anything. Try to visit Fez and Meknès between September and April, before the high season or extreme heat makes it uncomfortable to sightsee. Spring and autumn are really the best time to visit any part of Morocco.

The Middle Atlas is relatively cool year-round, and often snowbound mid-winter with temperatures dropping below 0°C (32°F). For skiing or driving through the snow-filled Michlifen mountain region or Azrou Cedar Forest (occasionally snowed in from January to March, but normally well plowed), come between December and April. April through June is the best time to hike. The high tourist season in the mountains runs mid-March through summer. The most popular festival is the annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, currently held in June.

Planning Your Time

Fez Travel Guide – If you’re short of time, Fez should be your priority. The ancient monuments of the medina and the leather tanneries can be explored in one or two days, although you should devote longer to losing yourself in the medieval city’s labyrinthine alleyways. A third day could be spent visiting the smaller and more manageable imperial city of Meknès and the impressive Roman ruins of Volubilis. With more time and transport—a rental car or tour—Fez makes the ideal base for day trips to alpine-style Ifrane and the Middle Atlas towns of Sefrou and Azrou. If you really want to experience Berber culture, spend the night in the troglodyte village of Bhalil; or visit the Holy City of Moulay Idriss, just a stone’s throw from Volubilis.

Safety

Fez Travel Guide – In general, Fez and Meknès are safe cities. In Fez—less in Meknès—pickpocketing and unwanted hassle from hustlers and faux guides will be the biggest concern. Harassment from those offering to be tour guides or drivers is best avoided by smiling and firmly saying “no thank you,” preferably in French or Arabic. Try not to become visibly agitated, as it could exacerbate the situation.

You can safely explore Fez medina during the day, but ask at your hotel if there are any areas you should avoid after dark. If you get off track, turn around and head back to a more populated area. If you are followed, enter a store, hotel, restaurant, or café and ask for help. At night, poorly lit medina alleyways can be intimidating but are not necessarily unsafe. Often hotels and restaurants will dispatch someone to escort you to your destination.

From December through January, heavy snowfall may cover Middle Atlas roads; however, the snow-removal systems in places such as the Azrou Cedar Forest are relatively good, with cleared driving routes. More remote roads (marked in white on the Michelin map of Morocco) will be difficult to access or completely closed in snowy conditions. Driving off-road or to natural sites such as the Cascades d’Ouzoud in winter, when snowfall can be significant, is not advised.

How to Get to Fez

Air Travel

The new, state-of-the-art Fès-Saïss Airport terminal opened in May 2017 and flights operate regularly from international and domestic destinations, including direct flights from Marrakesh, new in 2017. But you can’t fly directly into Fez from the United States; you must connect in Europe or Casablanca. Upon arrival, petits taxis wait outside the airport terminal and train station and carry two to four people. Grands taxis carry six people. Avoid unofficial drivers who hang around the terminals and charge false rates. Taxis should have their meters running. Most drivers request cash payment.

Car Travel 

The easiest way to tour the well-paved regions in and around Fez and the Middle Atlas is by car. The best map to use is the Michelin Map of Morocco 959; if you can’t find this map at home, ask your car-rental company to provide one. A map is a necessity if you plan to venture far from the beaten path. Road signs at major intersections in larger cities are well marked to point you in the right direction. Little white pillars alongside routes indicate distance in kilometers to towns. Traveling farther afield into the Middle Atlas, many secondary roads are unpaved and require a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Through mountain passes, roads can be dangerously narrow, steep, and winding.

Bus Travel

The CTM is Morocco’s best bus company and has service from most major cities to Fez and Meknès. You can reach some destinations in the Middle Atlas by bus, but ultimately, you’re going to have to drive or take a taxi or tour.

Train Travel

Fez and Meknès are served by the ONCF train station that goes east to Oujda, south to Marrakesh, and west to Tangier, Rabat, and Casablanca. Fez and Meknès are also connected by regular local trains, a 45-minute trip.

Fez Travel Guide

Hotels

Fez Travel Guide – Hotels in Fez range from the luxurious and the contemporary to more personal, atmospheric riads that offer everything from an Arabian Nights fantasy to authentic traditional living, and more upscale but still boutique versions, such as Palais Amani. Hotels in or near the Fez el-Bali are best, as the medina is probably what you came to see. In Meknès, there is a more limited choice, with a few gems competing at the top end. In the Middle Atlas, the resort of Michlifen Ifrane Suites and Spa draws local elite for its Anglo-European styling. The Middle Atlas offers a selection of good hotels. Some of the inns and auberges off the beaten path should be thought of as shelter rather than full-service hotels, as lodging tends to be unmemorable.

 

Restaurants

Fez Travel Guide – Every Moroccan city has its own way of preparing the national dishes. Harira, the spicy bean-based soup filled with vegetables and meat, may be designated as Fassi (from Fez) or Meknessi (from Meknès) and varies slightly in texture and ingredients. Note that few of the basic medina restaurants in Fez and Meknès are licensed to serve alcohol. Proprietors generally allow oenophiles to bring their own wine, as long as they enjoy it discreetly. Larger hotels and luxury riads (renovated guesthouses and villas) have well-stocked bars that serve wine, beer, and cocktails, as do more upscale restaurants.

Most of the Middle Atlas hotels we recommend have fair to excellent restaurants, but venture to stop at small-town crossroads or souks for a homemade bowl of harira for 5 DH or less. Note: some locals may frown upon alcohol of any kind. Be discreet if you carry your own wine or beer.

Some of our favorite restaurants are listed below. 

Dar Roumana – Mediterranean cuisine with seasonal, local ingredients assembled by a French chef. Lunch and dinner are served in the courtyard. Fez Medina, near Bab Guissa and Ain Azlitan. +212 (0) 5 35 74 16 37 or +212 (0) 6 60 29 04 04. Open Tues – Sat. Reservations required (ideally one day prior).

Restaurant 7 – French cuisine in a minimalist atmosphere. Black and white decor, classical music. Surprisingly great for vegetarian and seafood option. Perfect for a light dinner to balance out all that couscous! 7 Zkak Rouah, Fez Medina. Open Tues – Sun. +212 6 94 27 78 49. Reservations Required. 

Chez Rachid at Bab Boujeloud – Get down with the locals at this ragamuffin café just inside the blue gate. Tagines and brochettes are whats on the menu but everyone really comes here to watch the passersby. Bab Boujeloud, Fez Medina. Open Daily. No Reservations.

Riad Rcif – Traditional home-made Fassi-Moroccan food in an upscale venue. Reserve ahead and get a table on the terrace to really take in the sunset. If you haven’t tried the pastilla yet, this is the place to do it. Avenue Ben Mohamed El Alaoui, N° 1 Takharbicht Laayoune Rcif. Open Daily +212 (0)5 35 74 00 37. Reservations Highly Recommended.

Café Clock – Cosmo-hippy atmosphere. Inside and terrace eating. Moroccan/Middle-Eastern cuisine. Famous for the Camel Burger. Many events are hosted here (movies, concerts and cooking classes). No alcohol. 7 Derb El Magana. +212 (0)5 35 63 78 55. Open Daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No Reservations Needed.

Riad Salama – Moroccan food in luxurious courtyard, weather permitting of course.  Reservations required. Derb Ahl Tadla No 4. 212 (0)5 35 63 57 30. Tues – Sun for Breakfast and Dinner. Reservation Required One Day Prior.

Mezzanine – A chic, hip little joint located just outside the medina. A complete bar, lounge and rooftop terrace are the main attractions here. A great stop for Spanish-style tapas, select Moroccan dishes and a latenight cocktail. Avenue Moulay El Hassan. +212 (0)5 35 63 86 68. Open Daily, Noon-1am. No Reservations Needed.

Kai Tai – Thai and Sushi… in Morocco! Located in the ville nouvelle, outside of the medina. A great stop for a lighter lunch or dinner for those craving something decidedly un-Moroccan. 12 Boulevard Ahmed Chaouki. +212 (0)5 35 65 17 00. Open Daily. No Reservations Needed.

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