Fez: the most genuine and historic Moroccan experience
January 1, 1970
by Bruno Coelho
Wait, what is Fez again?
The city of Fez is still not the most obvious choice when considering a trip to Morocco; that can be explained by the still growing travel industry (not as many riads as, let’s say, Marrakech), an airport with a more limited set of connections, the fact that it’s geographically away from the Atlantic and the international media coverage, which is still very much shadowed by other more popular destinations. All of this is actually the basis for the greatest compliment and an even greater reason for visiting this amazing metropolis: Fez is still a relatively “unspoiled by tourism” city (at least compared to the other ones of course). Its medina (Fes el Bali) still has the look and feel of the old times, with artisanal industries and other genuine craft-works sustaining the lifestyles of the people that live here since it was created in the 8th century, making it little arguably the oldest and largest of the entire world.
The history of Fez
Also the oldest of the four Moroccan imperial cities, Fez is the result of the merging of two original urban areas (Fas Elbali and al-ʿĀliyá) which were divided by the Fes River (not a very nice sight to see at this moment unfortunately, but there’s hope) and were created by the Idrisid dynasty – father and son respectively. It was sometime later (11th century) that, already in the command of the Almoravid dynasty, Fes became to be what we know today. This and other dynasties of that time are particularly important to the current layout of the city, because their empires stretched all the way into Europe (today’s Spain and Portugal, an area called at that time Al-Andalus) and it’s possible to witness a significant amount of Spanish culture influence, such as the Andalusian quarter and its respective mosque; the opposite is also valid, with plenty of Muslim-influenced landmarks on the south of Spain. Although Fez is no longer the capital of Morocco – it lost that title in 1912 – Fez is still considered the most important country’s cultural and spiritual center, with many of its landmarks dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, when the city reached its height. The loss of capital status and the immense value of the city probably are the reasons why Fez is still such a perfect balance between a true Moroccan cultural experience and one that didn’t lose authenticity due to the travel industry overrun.
A labyrinth called medina
There isn’t really any other way to make justice to Fez other than to describe the experience of walking through the medina, the soul of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To start off, it needs to be mentioned that, besides being surrounded by hills, the medina itself is a hill that can be explored in many different ways, both navigating inside (with circular paths and alleys that run straight to the top) as well as when choosing your entry point. In fact, the city boasts tens of gates (or babs) that pierce through the walls of the city and actually make up for one of the major attractions of Fez (whole articles are dedicated specifically to them), with many being beautiful examples of Muslim architecture scattered literally across the city. The one that grew more famous over the time is Bab Boujloud, which acts as the most important entrance to the city and is located in the southwest, next to the other more modern quarters of Fez. The medina (which is completely pedestrian) represents one of the most intricate mazes of alleyways that you can imagine, with souks, madrasas, palaces, riads and restaurants in every corner. The street vendors here will tell you that their items are the most genuine in all of the Moroccan cities, and its people are more polite and pure than in other “polluted” places.
The must do’s
Among some of the most important places you should visit while in Fez are:
Medersa Bou Inania
The most famous madrasa of Fez, it has the amazing particularity of being also open to non-Muslim visitors, which makes it an incredible opportunity to see first-hand the environment experienced by this fascinating religion. The architecture and decoration of this building are a true gem for the enthusiasts, with the best tile and woodwork examples you can find in all Morocco.
An impressive armory with items from the Moroccan and international military history, this museum (built on top of a fortress) is situated on the north hill overlooking the city, so you’ll get an amazing panoramic view of Fez either from the roof of the building or the nearby walking grounds.
Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University
The complex of Al Qarawiyyin is the ultimate landmark of the city, containing not only its most important mosque but also the world’s oldest university as registered by the Guinness World Records. The green roofs and minaret dominate the skyline of the city.
For a complete experience into the commercial lifecycle of Fez, particularly of the handcrafted products, one needs to visit the tannery: it’s here that animal skins are refined, dried and then applied the different dyes that will at the end make up several types of leather products, from purses to jackets. Don’t be afraid to accept a tour of the place by one of the locals, who will let you use mint leaves to breathe during this experience, so your nose doesn’t tell your brain you are in one of the worst smelling places of the world, with environmental-impact reports being written about (I can’t stress this enough, so you’re warned!).
Fes el Jdid
This is a quarter of the city that sits between the medina and the more modern Ville Nouvelle (where you can find shopping malls, services and restaurant and hotel chains). This is sort of a “less crowded and less narrow” medina, still with many street vendors (the Grande Rue de Fès El Jdid is an open market), madrasas, mosques and gardens. The majestic Royal Palace is also located here.
Although the area around Bab Boujloud and Medersa Bou Inania concentrates the majority of tourism-related infrastructures, the east part of the city offers amazing views over the beige slum-like visual appearance of Fez, and I couldn’t possibly avoid but to lastly mention a premium establishment that is an all-in-one visitor marvel: Palais de Fes. This place is a renovated palace with pristine Muslim architecture and decoration (as you’d see in any paid palace or museum) that actually serves as a hotel, accommodating guests in beautifully ornamented rooms. But it doesn’t stop here. The restaurant of the hotel offers a delicious and very much complete menu of Moroccan delicacies, with an assortment of starters that will take you one step closer to heaven even before the tagines arrive; the cherry on top is the panoramic view over the city, since the restaurant sits at the top of a multi-story building with intricate terraces, really Moroccan-style.