Oh Morocco… There is no other way to describe this one of the most beautiful and exotic countries in the world. Morocco has got to be one of my favorite destinations. The colors, the architecture, the atmosphere, the music, I could go on and on.
Back in 2011, I was itching to spend my summer vacation with my friends on somewhere super exotic we have never been before. The ancient city of Fez was at the top of my list.
The Saiss airport is located approximately 10km outside Fez city center. There is a local bus or taxi, which will take you from the airport to the city. We chosed to stay at Dar Bouanania guesthouse, a lovely little pension is located right in the heart of the Fez medina. It’s not a luxury stay, but a good, clean, and well-priced option with prices ranging between $50 -$75 per night. If you appreciate a little bohemian charm and want to see what traditional Fassis (the people of Fez)living was like without paying riad prices this is well worth looking into.
The houses in the medina are built around courtyards with Arab style archways and detailed mosaics. In Arabic the word “dar” means house. This traditional Moroccan house has a simple patio in the middle, decorated with a kind of glass roof covering it on the highest floor, a few plants or a fountain, without a garden. Meanwhile in Arabic the word “ryad” means garden. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with large open-air patio or courtyard in the middle enough to have a garden or at least be planted with a tree.
The city of Fez
Fez is the oldest of the country’s imperial cities and it has the best-preserved old city in Muslim world and home to the world’s largest car-free urban zone. This city is separated into three distinct parts; The old town of Fez called Fez El Bali, meaning the old medina and the walled part, behind its high walls is a magical, medieval city just teeming with life in every of its 9000 narrow streets where donkeys are the only from of transport.
The second part is Fez Jdid, meaning the new medina of Fez. It’s a 13th century ‘new’ town, home to the Dar el-Makhzen (Royal Palace) and Mellah, the former Jewsih quarter.
The new part of Fez called Ville Nouvelle, was built by French and is totally different from the medina. It’s the city’s modern business and commercial center with wide cobblestone streets fringed with palm trees and trendy restaurants with little appeal to travellers, especially backpackers.
The labyrinthine medina of Fez
Every city in Morocco has a medina, a walled city, which can date back as far as 1000 years and it is usually smack dab in the middle of the Villa Nouvelle which has sprouted up around its crumbling walls for the past couple centuries.
Fez is mesmerizing city with something for just about everyone. As we walked through the labyrinth of narrow street and allies, we instantly stepped back in history. Located within the medina is an open market called souk. There were a staggering variety of goods for sale, each tiny shop spilled out onto the narrow maze of streets, each one crammed to capacity with a dazzling display of items on sale. Moroccan goods from fresh fish and meats, dates, fresh vegetables and fruits from local farmers, sacks of exotic herbs and spices, to traditional brightly colored carpets and scarves, leather goods, and copper pots and pans were all intermingled within this city of goods. The sounds of bargaining rippled through the medina, and the merchants of Fez are master salesmen.
Initial navigation of the medina felt overwhelming. It was a sensory overload. Its narrow maze-like streets were jammed with local people, tourists and donkeys. We often saw Biblical-looking men leading donkeys that carry on their broad backs anything from garbage to the wares that are sold in the thousand and one stalls of the souk. We had to be attentive to the shout of “balak!” (“out of the way!”) from the donkey drivers. It was a warning that a heavily laden donkey was about to approach. It felt so surreal and mystical. It was literally like stepping into an Aladdin’s world.
On the streets of the old city, there’s a mixture of traditional and modern dress. Men still wear fezes in Fez, but you’re more likely to see them wearing a cloth or embroidered skullcap. Women are often veiled and wearing long kaftans.
The colorful tannery of Fez
The ancient tannery of Fez is one of the most fascinating parts of the medina, where the hides of animals are processed into leathers. They date back from the medieval time. It is the oldest leather tannery in the world. Their sights and smells were the city’s most iconic elements.
We continued our journey to the famous leather tannery in the world. The smell was the first sign that something different was about to appear. As we stopped inside, the owner welcomed us with large of mint leaves to crush against our noses to ward off the nauseating odors of curing sheep, goat and camel skins.
The process of the tannery remains the same as it has been done since 9th centuries. The animal skins are soaked in the ancient vats, first to clean and to dye them. All the dye colors are natural from plants and flowers – saffron for yellow, poppy for red, mint for green, henna for orange, indigo for blue, cedar wood for brown, etc. Once the leather is ready, it is sold directly to merchants and shoemakers, who use this and other raw materials to craft babouches, bags, garments, and other goods for sale.
The imagery was very colorful as we looked down on the tannery from the rooftop of a leather shop. It was quite an amazing sight to behold. On the way down we saw the finished leather products and the leather shops where they sell the goods.
The ancient medersa of Fez
Following the flow of people, the next landmark we discovered was Medersa Bou Inania. It is an institute, which serves as a blend of cultural, religious, and educational upliftment. The medersa was built in 1350 by Sultan Abou el Hassan and was completed by his son, Sultan Bou Inan by 1357.
Medersa Bou Inania is an architectural masterpiece. A marble floored courtyard with a central fountain, intricately decorated walls, and archway carvings: beautifully carved cedar, ceramic tiling (zellij) flowing, black Kufi script in a Moorish architectural (the articulated Berber-Islamic architecture of North Africa, Al-Andalus, and Al-Garb Al-Andalus) setting blend together forming the uniqueness and richness that is typical of Moroccan style and craftsmanship. It is a wonderfully preserved historical site and example of Islamic architecture. This is one of the few Islamic religious buildings open to non-Muslims and is well worth the visit. The cost of entry per adult is 10 dirhams/$1.25.
The blue gate of Fez
After exploring Medersa Bou Inania, we made our way to the Blue Gate, Bab Bou Jeloud, the main entrance into the Medina and the main part of the walled city. The Bab Bou Jeloud is one of the most famed gates of Morocco. It was built as late as in 1913.
Note that the color of the mosaics change. The blue on the outside represents the colour of Fez. Fes pottery is famous for a blue made by firing a cobalt mixture painted on as a design. The fine zellij tile work on the side facing into the medina is green – the colour of Islam.
Every tourist came through this main gate as it leads to a clutch of restaurants and the main shopping streets. Just inside the Bab Bou Jeloud are the entrances to the two main alleyways into the medina – the Tala’a Kbira and Tala’a Sghira.
The culinary of Fez
There are many eateries serving traditional Moroccan cuisine in the medina, from palace restaurants to street food, cafes and stall. At once familiar and exotic, the subtle twists that made certain dishes completely different really blew us away.
Moroccan food is served in copious amounts; just when you think the meal is over another dish arrives, from traditional Harira soup, Tagine, Couscous, Moroccan pancakes, sandwich, yoghurt, fruit and shish kebabs to famous mint tea and great coffees.
After several hours of exploring the souk, we were in dire need of a nice cup of Moroccan mint tea. The local people make it using brewed green tea as the base. They put mint leaves in at the last moment.
Later, our local guide invited us to have dinner at his family’s home. The family served homemade Couscous, known also in Morocco as seksu, is a traditional Berber dish, a dish made of fine semolina and topped with meat and vegetables. Tagine, a stew made of meats, dates and vegetables, and traditionally cooked in a conical clay pot to allow the steam to rise, condense, and drip back down to the stew, in which everyone would gather around a large bowl of delicious steaming food and eat out of this one bowl. The local people always serve Tagine with thin breads.
Discovering the ancient city of Fez was a breathtaking experience that will have you appreciate many little things in life. It is a place of contrast and beauty, a world of wonder and surprise. Mystical, magical, and timeless, it is the home of dreams, enchantment, and stories of the Arabian nights. It is a mesmerizing blend of the old and the new, an unusual place where the past exits within the present.
*to be continued…
Moroccan Dirham (MAD)
Entry requirements vary. Visit www.morocco.embassyhomepage.com for details
Best time to visit
Fez gets very cold in winter, and stiflingly hot and humid in summer. The temperature reaches a 45 degree Celsius during the peak summer months. The best time of year to visit is during the spring or autumn, from September to November and April to June. The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is usually held in June and is certainly worth planning your trip around.