The most precious of all Morocco’s treasures, Fès is also one of the Great Cities of Islam. Fès can justifiably claim to be the most complete medieval city in existence, with its beehive of busy streets a working model of the way life was lived when the world was still young. Fès may no longer be the capital, but is decidedly one of humanity’s heirlooms and it remains the very heart and pulse of a Morocco that was.
Fès el-Bali the ancient walled city is the main attraction. A masterpiece of magnificent palaces and green-roofed holy places, its jungle of narrow alleyways as intricate as Fès’s own filigree work demand a guide should you want to penetrate the marvels that Fès has to show you.
But first, to get your bearings you could take a stroll up to the Merenid tombs which overlook the walled city. At its heart you will see the Karaouine Mosque, and appreciate then that in Fès, the awe-inspiring lives side by side with the ordinary. Humble workshops and tenements hem in the noble Karaouine whilst the river of teeming humanity washes through the narrow, twisting derbs (streets).
No motor traffic can manoeuvre through its labyrinth of 9000 alleyways which throng instead with a bewildering variety of people, tribes, costumes and races from the olive-dealers of the Zalagh Hills, veiled women on their way to the hammam, the industrious merchants, water-sellers and artisans, all scurrying to the sound of “balek, balek” as mules, piled high with merchandise, force their way through the sunless tunnels to fragrant souks, accompanied by the clatter of hammers in the Square of the Copper Workers to the stench of the Tanners Quarter and the ever present swarm of humanity.
To make the most of this amazing city, we recommend a minimum of 2 or even three full days here, giving you enough time to take a day trip out to visit the Imperial city of Meknes (about 1 hour away), and then on to the impressive Roman ruins of Volubilis (another 20 or so minutes on from Meknes).
Fes is 300 miles from Marrakech – about 7 hours by car or train, the latter being the most popular mode of transport with our clients between the two cities. There are daily flights with Royal Air Maroc from Heathrow via Casablanca with a change of aircraft, or twice weekly direct from Stansted with Ryanair on a Sunday and Thursday.
Spend the entire day visiting and exploring Fès, the unique, living Medieval city, dating back to the 9th century. Exploring is done mainly on foot so do wear comfortable shoes.
Hardly changed, it is easy to imagine whilst exploring this ancient Medina with its twisted, narrow alleyways (not enough room for 2 mules to pass), those earlier centuries in this remarkable labyrinthine maze.
The infamous Fès Tanneries, located near the Karaouine Mosque are an absolute must! Famous for its leather goods, Morocco owes it reputation to the young men who work tirelessly day after day, using the same methods as were used centuries ago. Reams of cow and goat hides are dyed in huge vats, the main ingredients being pigeon poo, sulphuric acid and cows urine, so you can imagine the excruciating stench that assaults your nostrils! The men trample the hides, up to their thighs in the acrid-smelling dye and turning their legs the colour of burnt Saffron, Scarlet and canary yellow. You can get a wonderful view from the terraces of the leather goods shops surrounding the tanneries, where you can watch babouche, bags, belts and purses being made, and browse the finished articles.
Amongst other things to see are its artisans’ quarters of leather, brass, bronze, ceramics, woodcraft, wool dyeing, carpet-making etc, the Karaouine Quarter, the Nejjarine fountain, Medressas (universities), mosques, ornate gateways and palaces.
Visit by car the outer walls, the museums and the Merenid tombs – from the latter the whole expanse of the city can be seen.
While Fès el-Bali (Old Fès) is indubitably the core fascination of this Imperial City, a quick trip uphill to the Merenid tombs to the north of the city near the Bab el-Guissa comes highly recommended.
There is not much left from the Merenid tombs anymore, but the stunning view back across the biblical bowl that is Fès, as well as the knowledge that the Merenid rulers were central in making Fès the cultural and religious capital of Morocco, will make the visit worthwhile.
Royal Palace and the Mellah
Also worth visiting are the Royal Palace and the Mellah (Jewish quarter) in Fes el-Jdid (New Fes).
The Royal Palace comprises of 80 hectares of land and the Palace compound includes beautiful gardens, mosques and also an ancient Madrassa or a school for Qu’ranic studies that whose origin can be traced back to 14th century.
General public are barred from entering the Palace, but it is still an impressive sight even from outside. The palace was built in the 17th century and it is situated right in the centre if Fès el Jdid. Part of it still serves as the residence of the King of Morocco when he visits this area. The palace is of great historical value and is one of the major attractions of Fez.
The Fes el-Jdid is one of the three regions into which Fez is divided. This region is the most colourful in Fès and it always bustles with life. It is a walled expansion on the Medina and its origin can be traced back to the 14th century. It is also known as the New Fès, and was built by the Merenid rulers who required extra space for their palaces so that they could detach themselves from the hustle and bustle of Fès el-Bali.
The Mellah was built in the 15th century when the Jews were ousted from their previous ghetto near Bab Guissa. Ornamented balconies and forged iron windows characterize the Mellah. The place is named after the Arabic word for salt, which is “melh” and refers to the old practice of the Jews of salting the heads of the bandits who were killed before they were publicly displayed.
The third region is the Ville Nouvelle, constructed by the French in 1916, impressive with its broad, tree-lined boulevards, and more conventional-style restaurants and shops than can be found in the medina.
Additional sites to visit during your Fès holiday:
- · Borj Nord and Borj Sud (16th century watch towers)
- · The Jewish Cemetery
- · Bab Boujloud
- · Boujloud Gardens
- · Musee des Arts et Traditions
- · Bou Inania Medersa
- · Fundouk Nejjarine
- · Attarine Medersa (14th century)
- · Karaouine Mosque (9th century)
- . Sefrou Cherry Festival – mid June each year – less than 1 hours drive from Fes and well worth a visit!
- . Fes World Sacred Music Festival – Early June
Complete Morocco – Fes press
The Guardian Press trip – Fes Medina food tour video with Gail Leonard