If you get lost in Fez, this means a real adventure begins. Situated in a narrow valley between Riff and Central Atlas mountains in the northeast of the North African country of Morocco, reveals before you a range of places that can move all kinds of feelings. The most appealing part of Fez is without doubt the old Medina (town) of Fès el-Bali (old Fez). With its narrow passageways filled with food stalls giving off exotic scents, streets, covered bazaars, workshops, coffeehouses, mosques and colorful people, the old and the new intersect at every step. While vendors riding donkeys and mules, which are currently the most important means of transport in those narrow streets, chat on their mobile phones, satelite dishes and minarets fill the background. Though dizzying at the beginning, when you keep pace with the rhythm of the city, you get carried away by the fascination of the city soon. Fez reveals its beauties at the most unexpected moment. Passageways that look like dead ends lead to squares adorned with magnificient fountains where a unique rhythm reverberates at every beat of artisans striking copperware.
A 1200-year-old city
It is natural to see intensive whitewashing, painting and restoration works underway in Medina. Everywhere may be full of scaffolding but Medina never loses its romantic appeal. While romanticism of Medina attracts foreigners on the one hand, most residents of Fez prefer to seel their medieval lives to foreigners and move to modern apartment blocks in the new city. In recent years, Fez has stood out as a tourist destination. With the riads that foreigners have bought in Medina (traditional houses and palaces with gardens or yards in Morocco) and parks and fountains built in the new city, money has flowed to the city. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Fez has become the new Marakach when one looks at travel and style pages in western media. However, when you say this to a Moroccan, it is highly likely that he will not take you seriously. This ancient and self-confident city does not feel compelled at ll to prove itself to anyone. Dynasties and storms have come and gone throughout its 1200-year-old history and even when this travel trend loses momentum, Fez will continue its exitence for a while.
The secret is to take a dip into this medieval life. Fez is one of the world’s most prominent museum cities. Exotic medieval labyrnths are fascinating and amazing. When you enter Fez-el Bali through babs (gates), it feels as if you are entering a time tunnel. The only thing that reminds you that you are in the 21st century, not the 8th century is satellite dishes that can be seen on almost every roof. When you pass by crowded kissarias (covered bazaars) through the thatched roofs of which sun beams pass, sounds of calls to prayer from minarets, cutthroat bargains, and sounds coming from blacksmiths’ hammers invite you to a totally different atmosphere. Moreover, smells of spices, fresh manure, tanneries and grilled meat mix with them.
A rival to Marakach
As one of Arab and Berber capitals of Morocco, Fez is regarded as a center of cold culture, education and art and included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In addition to one of the world’s oldest universities al-Karaouine (al-Qarawiyyin), one of the world’s largest and intact medieval settlements is located in Fez, which is Morocco’s intellectual and spiritual center. It is not a coincidence that Fez is, as a rival to Marakach with its history and culture, one of Morocco’s most authentic and fascinating cities. International festivals and carnivals are also organized here. Sufi (Mystique) Culture Festival and World Holy Music Festival add a different atmosphere to the city.
For a true experience of Fez, stay in 1200-year-old Medina (the old city surrounded by walls) and set off on a course which includes the city’s important historical places but where you will also join life in the city. Enter Medina through Bab Bou Jeloud (Ebu Jelut Gate), walk along Talaa Kebira, and take a break to see one of the most neuatiful religious schools in Fez, Bou Inania Medersa (Ebu Inaniye Madrasa). Built by the Merenid Sultan Bou Inan (1340- 1357), the madrasah is attractive with its ornamented zellij (tile mosaic), carved plasterwork, mashrabiyyas (lace cages) made from cedar trees and gigantic brass doors. Although most madrasahs have unadroned worshippin space, what makes Bou Inania unusual is that it harbors a tue mosque within it with a green-tiled minaret. It is highly likely that the reason why a mosque was needed in the madrasah was that there was not a mosque nearby. The workmanship of its mihrab (altar) and onyx marble columns are impressive. Take a coffee break at the terrace of Cafe Clock (www.cafeclock.com) right across the madrasah to get in the mood for Medina. Including choices such as falafel, and vegetable and camel burgers on its menu, the cafe also offers calligraphy courses, conferences and sunset concerts every sunday. While you are going down the street, take a closer look at the shops on your way, the souks (open air markets) and stalls sprawled on the streets.
When you are going through Chrabliyine (shoemakers’ street), turn right at Derb Fakharine and discover Henna Souk. This market is one of the oldest shopping centers. Traditional cosmetic products such as serami and henna are sold in the shade of sycamore trees. The large scales there remind one of the mohtassib once in charge there (the person whose job wa to check the prices). You can see the Nejjarine Woodwork Arts and Products Museum at Nejjarine Square. The museum in this interesting square is in fact an 18th-century funduq (a caravanserai where goods belonging to travelling vendors are stored and sold downstairs and people spent the night upstairs), which was exquisitely renovated. Hand-made products, large prayer beads, barbers’ keys, chests and musical instruments are on display in the rooms surrounding the yard. The cafe on the roof offers a beautiful bird’s view look on the Medina.
You need to pass through Bab Moulay Idriss to see the heart of the city, i.e. Zaouia Moulay Idriss (Moulay Idriss Monastery), where the tomb of the founder of Fez is located. This is the most important place of pilgrimage in Morocco. It dates from the 9th century. It was enlarged in the 17th century and includes a mosque, a fountain and the tomb of Moulay Idriss. When you go behind the building, you see wooden sheds with beautiful decorations, wall zellij and painted and decorated plaster coating on the doors. Votive candles, prayer beads and various incenses are sold to meed pilgrims’ needs in the streets surrounding the monastery.
A Center of Tolerance
Our itenerary also includes al-Karaouine (al-Qarawiyyin) mosque and university, which is accessed through the kissariat (covered bazaar) and claimed to be Africa’s largest mosque as well as being oldest university. Education provided on different topics here has had a substantial effect on Fez’s becoming a center of education, culture and religious tolerance. This complex has been significantly expanded since its inception. Its prayer spaces, altar and paintwork, wooden and zellij decorations are likened to those of Alhambra in Andalucia. The mosque, which dates form the 10th century and has a domed and square-shaped minaret, is surrounded by madrasahs.
The road leads you to Blida neighborhood and form there to Chouwara Tanneries. The tanneries of Fez are among the city’s typical scenes and smells. Smells of hide and dye which you begin to feel at Seffarine Square take you to the very center of the tannery zone. It is impossible to miss here thanks to a wealth of customer hunters trying to show you the way. You are not allowed to go near the dye boxes, but it is possible to see these wells from the terraces of leather shops belonging to Moroccans, who are skilled both in hospitality and sales. Sellers give information about procedures involved in dyeing of hides in return for a small tip or preferably some shopping.
Proceed from here towards Seffarine Square: Around this beautiful square are blacksmiths and ironsmiths shaping their materials. Stop over in Cremerie La Place, which has a prominent position in Medina, for mint tea or fresh fruit juice. Another important square is Pl de l’Independence, also called Batha. Cafe Firdaous and La Maison Bleue (www.maisonbleue.com) are in this square. Batha Museum, which was converted into a mueseum from a 10-century summer palace, houses a perfect collection of Moroccan handicrafts and hand work. Let your day come to an end at La Maison Bleue, where you can taste typical Moroccan dishes such as cooked salad, tajin (sesame paste), couscous and bastilla (pastry). This Moroccan style dinner will turn into a real culture feast with serenades accompanied by the lute, Gnawa songs and dances.
Watch the magnificent sunset over Medina from the terrace of Hotel Les Mirindes .
Do not miss
Fez Sufi Culture Festival is held in April every year while World Holy Music Festival takes place in June.
For a more memorable experience, go to the tanneries in the morning when the wells are filled with dyes.
Although the shops, from whose terraces you can watch the tanneries, have a commercial feel, the best leather products and the most reasonable prices in Morocco are here.
How to get there?
Take a look at the website of ONCF (www.oncf.ma) for train trips between cities in Morocco including Fez.
Take heed of shouts of “Balek” (Watch out) by owners of overloaded donkeys carrying cargo hurriedly in the streets of Souks.
On the trekking tour beging at the Azrou Berber town, you pass through the famous cedar trees of the Central Atlases, feed monkeys known as Berber macaques and walk with Berber shepherds.