Fes – the beating heart of Morocco

Fes, Morocco

There can only be one place in the world where, in a tiny 20 metre stretch of alleyway, a shopper can tick the following off his/her list: nougat gift wrapped in ribbons; babouches of all colours of the rainbow; a tailor-made shiny tuxedo; bras with Mickey Mouse on; garish white and silver sedan chairs for all your wedding needs; bed headboards; chillies as big as your forearm; and a camel head.

I’ve finally regained the Moroccan vibe recently lost in Meknes, and find I absolutely love Fes, the ‘real’ centre of the country. The oldest of the imperial cities, it has the heart and soul that the former lacked, or as hubbie delicately described it, Meknes really needed to “grow a pair”. Not quite how I’d have put it, but it’s at least succinct!

Camel for supper anyone? Fes

Camel for supper anyone? Fes

We’re currently writing our journals sitting up on the pleasantly breezy roof terrace of Riad Laayoun in the heart of Fes el-Bali, the old medina. It’s dark, the calls to prayer are buzzing across the city, and there is a spectacular thunderstorm rumbling across the skyline, with lightning flashes momentarily displaying the city ramparts. Perfect!

We’d been picked up from Chefchaouen by our faithful taxi driver, Khamal, slightly relieved he’d turned up since there had been some confusion about the time. Apparently the Moroccan Government don’t decide until the very last minute if the clocks are going to change in keeping with Daylight Saving Time, and we couldn’t for the life of us find out what the correct time was. Even for about a week after the event! No-one seemed to have a clue, even the banks had it wrong, and employees in the guest houses turned up to work late because they weren’t sure either. In the end it was Ryanair of all people who gave us the right answer with our changed flight details. It appeared the Government had decided to not put the clocks back after all, but hadn’t bothered to tell the rest of the country. No-one seemed perturbed by this however, which just shows how reliant we are as westerners on schedules and timings.

Khamal’s car, which had always been a little cranky, by now sounded like it was about to lose its exhaust and we found ourselves bracing as we negotiated each bump in the road. The back seat had also decided to come loose so each time Khamal braked (admittedly this wasn’t often) it flew forwards and threatened to chop off our legs at the knees.

We visited Fes in October, one of the best times of year to travel to Morocco as it’s finally cool enough to go into the desert whilst still being able to enjoy warmth in the rest of the country.

Fes, Morocco

Fes, Morocco

Fes, Morocco

Fes, Morocco

Coming from England, I don’t really do heat that well, and have to admit I well and truly sweated in Fes. Nice.

It wasn’t that it was too hot, rather that there was so little air flow in the medina, and all the buildings are so high that the narrow alleyways are stifling and a little claustrophobic. Even the locals appeared to be somewhat glistening, which made me feel a bit better. Quite different to Marrakech and Meknes, where buildings are lower so at least the sky does get a bit of a look in.

Having said that, it’s a rather special experience to wander around this maze-like medina, not being able to see anything except straight ahead does lead to lots of exciting discoveries around each corner.

OUR FAVOURITE FES SIGHTS

Pick up a free map from your riad or hotel, and explore the medina using the really handy colour coded walks. At strategic (and some not so strategic!) points along the alleyways you’ll come across directional signs with colours corresponding to the walk you’re doing. Sure you can’t always tell if the colour is pink or red, but the gist of it is you can always find your way back if you get lost.

Our friends were amazed at our navigational skills when we showed them the sights of Fes el-Bali for the day, before they realised all we were doing was following the signs!

Fes el-Bali (old Fes)

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate)

The main entrance gate to the medina is a great place to find cafes and restaurants, albeit the more tourist-orientated ones. It’s also at the top of a long hill street lined with souks, so you’ll probably be thankful for a drink stop when you’ve reached it!

Bab Bou Jeloud, Fes, Morocco

Bab Bou Jeloud, Fes, Morocco

We ate lunch one day at Le Kasbah café, by Bab Bou Jeloud, mainly because we could sit up on the terrace and have a great view of the gate. I must admit the food was some of the worst we’ve tasted in all of Morocco, a beef tagine that was tiny, luke warm and more fat than meat. The waiter chap was really grumpy too, and there was a cat that just wouldn’t take no for an answer. If you just order a drink you have to pay a surcharge (for the view) but this is probably preferable to eating here. You have been warned.

View from Kasbah Cafe, Bab Bou Jeloud, Fes, Morocco

View from Kasbah Cafe, Bab Bou Jeloud, Fes, Morocco

On the other hand, the Medina Café just outside the gate looked really nice inside, especially for a dinner, it just lacked the view, which is why we opted for lunch at Le Kasbah.

It’s also a good spot to pick up a taxi if you want to head for Fes el-Jdid or the Ville Nouvelle. It’s worth noting most drivers will be reluctant to do a short trip around Fes el-Bali, for example to Place R-Cif, as they don’t deem it to be worth their while.

Big and Little streets

Pottery souk in the old mental hospital, Fes, Morocco

Pottery souk in the old mental hospital, Fes

Babouches souk, Fes, Morocco

Babouches (slippers!) souk, Fes

There are two main streets running almost parallel down from Bab Bou Jeloud into the old city…Talaa Kebira (big hill) and Talaa Seghira (little hill). As long as you can find one of these, then you’ll be able to work out where you are.

Both streets are lined with stalls, mosques, and secret little alleyways, so just walking up one and down the other is a great way to get a taste of the medina.

Souks

The souks are peppered all over this area, so you can hop in and out of them as you please. From haberdashery and chicken feet to djellabas and teapots, this is where the locals go to shop, and tourists go for a taste of real Moroccan life.

Boy meets mule in the souks of Fes

Boy meets mule in the souks of Fes

Tanneries

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Fes it was the tanneries. We’ve seen the ones in Marrakech on our very first trip to Morocco, and knew they were supposed to be even better in Fes. The tanneries area can be accessed by the alleyway at the side of the Nejjarine Square by the Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, a wonderfully restored funduq and apparently a former police station.

Fes

Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, Nejjarine Square, Fes

Following the alleyway to the left of the door above, you’ll soon come to one of the many entrances that lead up to rooftops for viewing the tanneries. Each is connected to a tannery co-operative, where the profits from sales of finished leather products are shared out between all who have worked to make the bag/belt/stool. From the guys spending days up to their thighs in the foul-smelling tannery vats, and the chaps who colour the leather in the dyers souk, to the craftsmen who produce the finished items and the men who show the curious tourists what it’s all about, each get a share.

The Tanneries of Fes need no introduction!

The Tanneries of Fes need no introduction!

We weren’t about to purchase anything (leather is the one thing that isn’t cheap!) so offered the chap who’d given us a little tour a few dirham for his troubles. To our surprise he refused, and explained about the collective operation of the tanneries. Quite refreshing, since he could so easily have pocked the change with his colleagues being none the wiser.

Visitors are given small sprigs of mint to ward off the smell of anomia (they use pigeon poo to soften the animal hides!), but to be honest it wasn’t as bad as everyone makes out, and we were happy without, both in Fes and Marrakech.

The dyers souks – all the colours are natural so they don’t stain the skin of the men who spend their day wading through brightly coloured troughs

The dyers souks – all the colours are natural so they don’t stain the skin of the men who spend their day wading through brightly coloured troughs

Medersa Bou Inania

With it’s intricate zellej (tiling) and woodcarving adorning the interior, this is the most impressive of the theological colleges in Fes, built by the Merenid Sultan Bou Inan in the 1350s. Entrance costs DH10.

Fes

Medersa Bou Inania, Fes

Kairaouine Mosque

This was built in 859 by refuges from Kairouan in Tunisia (see my forthcoming blog about our visit to Kairouan) and is so huge it can hold about 20,000 worshipers. There is an attached Medersa (religious school or university) which has become the leading spiritual and educational centre in the historical Muslim world. It is closed to non-Muslims, but you can look through the door and take those all-important photos.

Kairaouine Mosque, Fes

Kairaouine Mosque, Fes

Fes el-Jdid (new Fes)

The name ‘new’ Fes is rather misleading since it was built way back in the 13th Century by a sultan who wanted to separate himself from his subjects. This part of Fes is known for the royal palace, the gardens and also the Jewish quarter.

Mellah

This is the Jewish Quarter, and most Moroccan cities have one of these. The Jews built their homes here so they could enjoy an element of the sultan’s protection and in return would support him in times of conflict. ‘Mellah‘ is the Arabic word for ‘salt’, with this name being given to Jewish communities country-wide due to their dominance in the salt trade. Outside of Morocco we know these areas as ‘ghettos’. Although few Jewish families actually live here now, behind closed doors there is still great wealth in the gold trade traditionally associated with these communities.

Mellah (Jewish Quarter), Fes, Morocco

Mellah (Jewish Quarter), Fes, Morocco

We did feel a little more uncomfortable here than elsewhere in Fes, and were advised it’s not somewhere to be wandering around at night. Hubbie did however do some of his finest bartering in the souks here, acquiring yet another new Moroccan-style shirt that he probably won’t ever wear!

Royal Palace

You can’t go inside the palace, but you can gaze at the gold doors and walk around the outside walls, making sure you don’t take pictures of the numerous policemen or the guarded gates.

Royal Palace, Fes, Morocco

Royal Palace, Fes, Morocco

We had hired a guide for a couple of hours and thankfully he told us what we could and couldn’t photograph – he was very anxious we didn’t take any of the other palace entrances as we’d get him and ourselves into a lot of trouble. Indeed the guards kept a beady eye on us at all times.

The public gardens are worth a stroll through too, perfect for finding a shady spot in the heat and a good link between Fes el-Bali and Fes el-Jdid.

Strolling the public gardens between the main districts of Fes

Strolling the public gardens between the main districts of Fes

We only had a couple of days to enjoy Fes, but I’d recommend three to really see all the main sights properly and get to know the city. As always, we stayed at a riad, and were more than happy with our choice of Riad Laayoun, in the heart of the medina. Staying in Fes el-Bali really is the best way to experience the old city.

Fes is quite different from Marrakech: we saw very few tourists and almost felt part of the everyday life that has changed very little over the centuries. In contrasting the two I do neither a disservice – each is equally fascinating and fun to explore, and both should be visited to understand the Morocco of yesterday, and today.

34 Comments

  • Sammi Wanderlustin' says:

    Gorgeous 🙂

    The more I read about Morocco the more I want to visit 🙂 it sounds fabulous, and probably the perfect winter getaway. I’d probably go on a tour rather than alone, tho’

    • Heather Cole says:

      It’s perfect all year round! And there are plenty of tours if you don’t fancy independent travel…although I’ve always felt 100% safe in Morocco and personally would be happy travelling alone there.

  • Veronika says:

    Beautiful, beautiful photos..! And those from the mosque? Wow.

    I didn’t get to see Fez on my Morocco trip, but at least saw Meknes. It should be kind of a small version of Fez, I’ve heard 🙂

  • Harvey (H-Bomb's Worldwide Karaoke) says:

    I really liked Fes! And I saw most of the places there that you mention in this post. I think it was also in Fes that I first encountered the ruthless sales tactics of the carpet stores. 🙂 I ended up with a nice rug that I really didn’t need. 🙂

  • Allison says:

    I went to Morocco with a tour group based out of Sevilla, Spain and it was really cool. We were only able to spend a few hours in the medina in Fez though. It looks like you guys had a more relaxing time. I love that picture of the boy looking at the mule! His expression is so funny!

  • Karen Warren says:

    Wonderful! I’d love to wander down those little alleyways – so full of atmosphere.

  • Els says:

    Can’t wait to visit, hopefully in 2015!!! Fez seems so much more authentic than Marrakech!!

  • Elena (http://gonewiththebackpack.blogspot.com/ ) says:

    Morocco is colourful and beautiful! I´ve only been to Casablanca and Marrakesh but Fes is on my list for sure!

  • Paul says:

    Great photos – brings back fond memories of my time in Morocco back in 1989. I haven’t been back since but am going to Marrakech this November, so really looking forward to that…

  • Casey O'Connell says:

    Your pictures are sooo captivating. I love ‘boy meets mule’- his expression is priceless! The tanneries look like a very interesting sight to see. I’ve always wanted to visit Morocco… this makes me all the more intrigued!

  • Jowita says:

    Reading this post made me miss Morocco even more! It looks and sounds as an amazing city. I would love to visit Fes one day!

  • Juergen says:

    When I visited I found Fez much more enthralling than Marrakesh – and less hassle! This is probably because it still gets less tourists, so let’s hope it remains like this. It’s so nice to wander around and discover the traditional trades in their hidden corners of the Souks.

  • Sandra @ Tripper says:

    I always enjoy your posts and writing — not the biggest fan of the camel’s heads though…

  • Gabor Kovacs says:

    I would really love to get to Morocco, and Fes is probably one of the most genuine and authentic places to visit there. I would really love to visit the Festival of Sacred Music that they hold there every year. Really nice post with beautiful photos!

  • Eric says:

    We have just been notified that we will be posted to Rabat for the next 3 years leaving this Summer! We know quite a bit about Morocco from a trip we took there back in 09. Your experiences certainly ring home. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I’ve enjoyed reading your posts so much that this will be my “go to” reference when explaining to our friends where we are going.

    We are Canadian so our friends are less familiar with this part of the world. Anyone that intends to come visit us will be referred to your blog for their pre-visit training! Thanks a bunch.

    • Heather Cole says:

      Wow, thanks Eric, that’s a compliment indeed! I hope your friends do come and visit you, what a great opportunity. I hope the move goes well and you settle into being a local rather than a tourist…very jealous 🙂 !

  • Danik says:

    Love the Morocco blogs and will get their one day. Was going to do it soon but I booked up a trip to Kenya instead! Oops! Keep up the good work. 🙂 Danik the Explorer

  • Adelina Wong says:

    What beautiful photos. I think not knowing what time it truly is would drive me a little mad not to mention in combination with the heat! I don’t do well with heat either. Morocco has long been a fascination for me – it is so completely different from anything that I know. I’ve heard that the tanneries smell pretty bad, but good on you for not noticing it.

    • Heather Cole says:

      Thanks It was a bit stressful not knowing the time, but once we reminded ourselves we were in fact on holiday and really time didn’t matter, it was quite liberating. And the heat is definitely worth suffering to see this wonderful place!

  • You scared me with a description of narrow, claustrophobic streets without enough air flow. Was sweating myself, just reading it :-). Bad luck with that lunch at Le Kasbah, as I believe the food is Morocco must be great. Thanks for warning us.

    • Heather Cole says:

      Its not that bad once you get used to it, but I can imagine in the summer it would be oppressive Just all part of the experience (or so I kept telling myself) Le Kasbah was the only meal we’ve had in the entire country on several trips that was bad, aside from that I’ve never enjoyed such amazing grub!

  • Jennifer says:

    True story: After getting completely frustrated with booking my upcoming trip to Asia, this weekend I put aside the Asia travel guides I have all over the place and picked up my Morocco travel guide and started mentally planning that trip instead. I know I am not going to Morocco this year but it was such a nice diversion.

    I love looking at pictures of Fes. It sounds so stupid but I have wanted to go there ever since Lorelai and Rory Gilmore talked about going there on The Gilmore Girls. Sigh!

    You posted some really good tips. Thank you for that!

  • SJ Begonja says:

    Okay, soon I’ll have top stop reading any post that has to do with Morocco. It’s just so enchanting. I like how the mosque are closed to non muslims, I often wonder when I travel if those around me are of the faith or just curious like me.

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