Morocco – FezBack to Story

Morocco's ancient city & cultural centre


Fez is an amazing airport to land it and the complete diversity from our departure city Paris is invigorating.  We’re lucky to be sitting next to a young girl who is based in Fez on our flight in.  So we’re able to get some insight into what we might see and also how it will be for two ladies traveling on our own.  We’ve already had warnings that we may experience some hassle and some recommend wearing wedding rings.

Our new friend has been living in Fez for a number of years and while enjoying it did speak of the restrictive lifestyle. Women as a generalisation are not encouraged to go out at night and the local tea houses while popular are packed with men.  So while there is no overt restriction on westerners it just seems to curb your enthusiasm.  As a result our experience was that you tend to hang out in the tourist spots with the exception of some of the more westernized citied like Marrakech.

Fez we are told is a very traditional city.  A prestigious center, where the old Morocco can be seen.  A university town that is the cultural city of the country and home to the old aristocracy.  Certainly the residents seem to be holding this mantra very well making Fez one of the most exciting places to visit.  No visit to this diverse and amazing country should miss this city.

Fez is a very compact city and the old medina is what you’re most interested in.  All the hotels are in or near the medina and while it may be a lot to take in that’s the spot to be in.  The town is a maze through and a local guide will prove invaluable and you weave through the alleys, which seem to have secret doors hiding the heart of Fez behind them.  A guide will help you navigate your way through and also knows which sights are open to the public.

Local hotels are a great way to see the old architecture as many of the old Riad’s have been converted into boutique hotels. Most serve delicious food and have very welcoming hosts that will assist in getting the most out of your trip.  All the action happens in the middle of these buildings with the door often being a very simple affair off one of the many alleys.  Many of the Riads will meet you at the edge of the medina and lead you to your castle. Very sensible as you have no hope otherwise.  This will be another valuable lesson in packing light because the ancient paths will be a test for your wheelie bag.

So you will enter most likely through some reception area, which will lead you to a courtyard, which is the centre of living.  All the rooms will face onto the courtyard.  Many are elaborately tiled with lush gardens offering a lovely cool spot after the hustle and bustle of the medina.  Hospitality is so strong in Morocco and you’ll be offered a sugary mint tea within moments of arrival.  This won’t just be your hotels but also carpet shops and if you’re lucky the local people.

Fez has a wonderful feel for the traveler and as a recall why is a combination of things.  Probably the most obvious is that the modern business district and housing has been built away from the medina.  This was because as progress was made the new centre was more attractive leaving the poor in the medina.  As tourism has grown many foreigners have invested in the medina and old run down Riad’s converted into hotels. Being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site has also aided in the restoration.

The personal highlight is the Souks.  Like most Arabic Souks the products and services are grouped together. So you can walk through the spice, butchers, carpets, clothes and leather streets.  You can watch craftsmen working on their trade seemingly as they have for centuries.  Its crazy busy as donkeys carry all the materials around the otherwise pedestrian streets.

On the edge of the souk you can climb up on the rooftops and overlook the tanning pots.  The smell is very strong even without the accelerator of summer.  The enthusiastic vendors will sell you anything made out of these skins from bags and jackets to ottomans, or poufs’ as they are also called.

Beautiful historic buildings are tucked around unexpected corners. One of the most famous is Fondouk.   This building showcases the amazing craftsmanship that both built and then restored this masterpiece.  Traditionally this house was used as our equivalent of a boutique hotel for traders.  The standout feature is the amazing woodcarving.

The area is renowned for its ceramic product including mosaics. One of the best places to see some of the historical mosaics is in the Musee Dar el-Batha for which you will need a guide.  This is an excellent look at some of the same crafts you will find in the souk today such as ceramics, leather goods, embroidery and woodwork.  Visit the pottery factory out of town to see the modern craftsmen at work and purchase some to take home.  Beware though may the additional amount to have it shipped from the factory or risk it arriving in a your own version of crumbling mosaics.

As soon as you’ve stayed overnight in this amazing city the first thing you will notice is the call to prayer.  As this occurs at dawn it will literally be the first thing you notice.  The mosque takes turn in calling all to welcome the day and come and pray.  Loud speakers ensure no resident is left unturned in this important ritual.  Visiting a mosque is prohibited in many cases unless you are Muslim.  However one very special building that you must visit is Bou Inania Medersa.

Bou Inania Medersa is a mosque, cathedral and school combined and one of the most decorated ever built by the Merinids.  A wonderful example of all the craftsmanship mentioned above and the architecture of the times.  It was built in the 1350’s and once again is centered on a courtyard.  Be sure to look around and appreciate the tile work, wood carving, and intricate architecture of the minaret.  It’s only open to non-Muslims from Wednesday to Monday but check this before planning your days in Fez.

When deciding where to stay in Fez it is definitely worth staying in the medina. My recommendation would be Riad Fez. A reasonably expensive option for staying in the middle of Fez but one that will be richly rewarded. Tucked away in the labyrinth of paths is this amazing restored Riad that has a few extra trimmings including a bar and great restaurant. It’s an excellent resting spot after spending the day in the medina.

Travel photographs from the UNESCO city of Fez. Images from the souks and medina.

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