If you have limited annual vacation time like we do, then there’s a trip planning exercise you’re probably familiar with: The Deadly Edit. It’s the point where you recognize you’re probably not going to be able to see an entire country in 9 days, and you’re going to have to make some tough choices. But even as I painfully sliced away at my itinerary, I knew Fès had to remain a part of it. This historical city is the heart and soul of Morocco.
Why you should visit Fès
Morocco has four imperial cities: Fès, Meknes, Marrakech and Rabat. Each one served as Morocco’s capital city, but Fès is the oldest, and it served as the capital under two different dynasties. Sultan Idris I was a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad, and is oft considered the founder of the Moroccan state. Though he settled in Walila (now Volubilis), his son moved the capital of the Idrisid dynasty to Fès in 808, where it thrived as a political and religious hub. Power shifted over the next many years, and Fès didn’t regain its position as the capital again until 1248, when it flourished under the Marinid dynasty.
Fès is made up of three parts: Fès el Bali, Fès Jdid and Ville Nouvelle. Fès el Bali is the oldest walled part of the city, more commonly referred to as the medina. The Fès medina was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 because it’s considered “one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world”.
The best things to see in Fès el Bali
You could spend weeks, months, and probably years, exploring the labyrinth that is the medina. But it’s best to start with some of the things Fès is most well-known for:
The Blue Gate
Bab Bou Jeloud or the Blue Gate is the western entrance to the medina, so take a moment to admire its regal structure and watch as both locals and visitors make their way in and out of the busy old town. The gate also marks the point where the car-free medina begins. Blue is the official color of Fès, but once you pass through its arch, it might surprise you to find out that the Blue Gate’s interior facade is green. Green represents Islam, and Fès still holds religious prominance in Morocco. As much as the Moorish design has become synonymous with the Moroccan city, the gate was actually built by the French shortly after the French Protectorate was established in 1912.
Dar al-Magana (the Clockhouse) and its famous Hydraulic Clock
Islamic scholars are credited with many discoveries in the fields of science and mathematics, and the Magana is a shining example of that early innovation. Though hydraulic clocks had already been invented in Egypt, the clock at Dar al-Magana was heralded for its unique design. The clock consists of 12 windows and platforms carrying brass bowls. Every hour, one of the doors would open and a metal ball would drop into one of the twelve brass bowls, utilizing an intricate system driven by a reservoir. People could tell the time by the sound of the ball hitting the bowl, or by counting the number of open windows. Sadly, the clock is no longer functional and the brass bowls were removed as part of restoration efforts, but it’s still a marvel that shouldn’t be missed.
Medersa Bou Inania
Dar al-Magana was part of the larger Medersa Bou Inania campus, an educational institution which also had the unique feature of having its own mosque. The prestigious religious school only admitted huffaz, or individuals who had memorized the Quran in its entirety. The privileged few received free room and board, which allowed students of all economic levels to obtain a first-rate education. I’d fallen in love with the Andalusian architecture in southern Spain, and the design elements at Medersa Bou Inania felt instantly familiar. Classic architectural features shared by the Marinid and the Andalusian style include carved wood, carved plaster, painted zellige tiles, marble floors and a central courtyard fountain.
Pro Tip: With the Medersa being one of the few religious institutions to offer access to non-Muslims, it’s a popular site for tourist groups. Go early to avoid the crowds. The Medersa is also closed during Friday prayers, so check the hours before your visit.
Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts
I don’t know that a woodwork museum would have normally made my list of things to do, but I was pleasantly surprised by the Nejjarine Museum. First of all, it’s a splendid example of a fondouk, which was an inn of sorts for merchant travelers. It would provide them with a place to stay, as well as a stables for their horses and camels. As soon as you enter the impressive space, you’ll notice two sets of large scales, which were used to weigh the merchants’ goods. It ensured all possessions were returned to the rightful owners the following day. Fondouks were also centers for trade during the day. Now fully restored, the Nejjarine Museum’s 51 rooms exhibit samples of both traditional and contemporary Moroccan woodwork, as well as tools of the trade.
The tanneries of Fès have been around for centuries, though you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at them. A multi-million dollar restoration project from 2103 to 2018 spearheaded by the Agency for the Development and Rehabilitation of the Medina gave Chouara Tannery a much-needed facelift. When you arrive, you’re escorted upstairs to balconies that offer not only an amazing view of the tannery, but of the city as well. Giant stone vats fill the space, and in these vats leather hides are softened then dyed every color imaginable. To soften the leather, the tanneries use a noxious mixture of water, salt, chemicals, and animal urine and excrement, so accept the sprigs of mint leaves offered by the staff because trust me, you’ll need them. I’ve often said my impaired olfactory senses can be a boon, and that was definitely true here!
Entrance to the tannery is free, but note there’s an expectation that you’ll do some shopping afterwards. A tour through the shop usually follows, accompanied by some pretty aggressive selling. Colorful Moroccan slippers make a good souvenir, though admittedly, the selection is pretty varied. (I spied some fringed leather jackets and cowboy boots.) If you’re buying, be prepared to haggle. But if nothing catches your fancy, then you can make your way out after the tour.
Mosque and Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II
As mentioned earlier, Idriss II was a descendant of Prophet Muhammad the first ruler to make Fès his capital. His tomb is located in an elaborate shrine in the heart of Fès el Bali. As you approach this sacred part of the city, you’ll see a wooden bar across the street entrance, which was used to indicate mules were not allowed to pass. The mosque and mausoleum are restricted to Muslims only, and some make the pilgrimage in hopes of being blessed with good fortune and/or fertility.
The Largest Medina in the World
Visiting the Fès medina isn’t just about ticking off a list of sites, though. Here are some of the other things I fell in love with:
A Dose of Daily Life
How often have you visited a new place and felt like you only got to see the “touristy” parts of town? The ones locals wouldn’t be caught dead in? That’s not the case with the Fès medina, as it’s made up of a number of neighborhoods. Fassis live and work here, so you’ll get a glimpse of local, everyday life. Arches mark entrances to the neighborhoods, and there are five common elements you’ll see in each one: a mosque, a fountain, a school, a communal oven, and a hammam. (Though in some neighborhoods, it appeared the hammam had been converted into public restrooms.)
As you navigate the narrow streets, it’s not uncommon to see locals fill their water receptacles at the fountains or head to the area mosque for their daily prayers. I was fortunate to get a rare glimpse of a communal oven in Marrakech, which is usually off-limits to visitors. Similar communal ovens exist all over the Fès medina. Even if you can’t pop in to see the bakers hard at work, the wafting smell of freshly baked bread is pretty hard to miss. Families drop off their bread dough, then pick up their baked bread later in the day for their meals. It’s a rare occasion when the outsider is offered such an intimate glimpse into the local culture.
Cats of the Medina
You’ll likely cross paths with many Fassi cats, as statistics suggest there’s a 1:1 cat-to-human ratio in Morocco. Cats have always held an esteemed position in Arab-Islamic cultures for guarding precious food reserves and books from menacing rodents. It’s also rumored Prophet Muhammad had a soft spot for them. In the medina, the cats seem to enjoy access to a never-ending supply of scraps from the butchers, and they make comfortable beds out of baskets and boxes. But the large number of strays in Morocco simply means it’s impossible for all of them to get first-rate care. Having been a cat owner for many years, I could recognize eye infections in young kittens or bald patches on older cats. It was heartbreaking to see the effects of feline overpopulation.
Magical Moroccan Doors
The ornate doors of Morocco are mesmerizing, and it took an incredible amount of willpower not to photograph each one. In Fès el Bali, the doors are exactly what you would expect from a mature city: sedate, yet full of character. Weathered and worn, they make the imagination run wild about what lies within. There’s a door within a door, and though I wanted to believe the inlaid door was simply for petite folk like myself, it’s a meaningful part of Moroccan culture. The smaller door requires the guest to bow his head as he enters, a gesture of respect to the homeowner. Another common feature you’ll come across on the doors of the medina is a horseshoe design. Upon closer inspection, you might notice the horseshoe has five prongs. It represents the Hand of Fatima, a symbol of protection.
Where to Eat in the Fès Medina
Najat Kanaache is a world-renowned chef and television host. She was born and raised in San Sebastián, one of our favorite foodie destinations, and her impressive resumé features several Michelin-star restaurants. After striking out on her own, she now splits her time between Fès and Mexico City. Her fine dining restaurant, Nur, was named World’s Best Moroccan Restaurant in 2017 and has received accolades from top publications around the world. But I’m less of a Michelin-star fan and more of a Bib Gourmand fan, so I was thrilled to learn that she had opened a casual dining restaurant in the heart of the medina that combines her two home cuisines. Nacho Mama was a breath of fresh air, serving tacos and burritos featuring local Moroccan ingredients.
Café Clock is located only a few feet away from the Blue Gate, and if you snag a seat on their terrace then you’ll have a great view of the Medersa Bou Inania Mosque as you dine. The eatery is highly regarded by many, but I honestly found my meal to be fairly mediocre. Admittedly, I didn’t order its most popular menu item: the camel burger. Café Clock is a tourist magnet, and when settling the bill, I felt the “suggestion” to tip was rather heavy-handed (tipping is not required in Morocco). But the eatery also offers live music, jam sessions and cinema nights, so perhaps food is not the main draw here.
Pro Tip: If you plan on dining at Café Clock, I highly recommend making a reservation to avoid a long wait. Your hotel or riad should be able to make the necessary arrangements.
Where To Stay in Fès
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Riad Laarousa’s spa treatment came highly recommended, which is how I first came to discover the property. After I indulged in a lovely package which included time in the traditional hammam and a massage, I took the opportunity to explore the beautiful 17th century riad. The stunning property doesn’t just offer luxurious rooms and suites, but also a pool and a beautiful rooftop terrace with sweeping views of the city. The service is impeccable: from the time I set foot on the property, I was treated with the utmost care. Riad Laaroussa is located in the heart of the Fès el Bali. While the medina might seem like a maze, don’t let it deter you from staying here. Riad Laaroussa has porters available to escort you to and from the property.
Riad Tizwa Fès
Riad Tizwa Fès isn’t actually located in the Fès medina, but it’s a short jaunt to the Blue Gate. The property was lovingly restored by its owners, Scottish brothers Richard and Daniel Bee, who fell in love with Morocco and now own two properties there. (They are currently working on their third.) A delicious breakfast is served every morning on the rooftop terrace. The staff speaks English fluently, and is able to organize tours and make reservations as needed. On my final day at the riad I had to catch an early train, and the staff arranged to serve breakfast in the beautiful parlor downstairs, much earlier than it normally would. Another added bonus: since Riad Tizwa is located outside the medina, cars can pull up close by, making getting in and out of Fès with your luggage much simpler.
There’s no better way to experience the collision of past and present than with a journey through the Fès medina. It’s thrilling, confusing, overwhelming and frightening all at once. But as they say, life begins outside your comfort zone.
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