Travel tips, hotels, food, sightseeing in Fez
Fez (sometimes spelled “Fès”) is a city in central Morocco. It is famous for the hats of the same name, which originated here. Fez is also famous for its ancient walled city, which many compare to the walled city of Jerusalem. It is a UNESCO Heritage site.
Fez is the medieval capital of Morocco, and a great city of high Islamic civilization. It also has the best-preserved old city in the Arab world, the sprawling, labyrinthine medina of Fes el-Bali, which is incidentally also the world’s largest car-free urban zone.
Flights operate regularly from Casablanca and Paris-Orly to Fes-Saiss airport.
New services starting soon from Frankfurt(Hahn), 25 Oct 06, London (Luton), 31 Oct 06, and Marseille Provence, 09 Nov 06. Direct service from Heathrow airport twice a week also available from November 1, 2006.
There is regular train service, along the line that runs from Rabat to Oujda. It is about 3.5 hours direct from Rabat to Fez.
Fez is less than 4 hours’ drive by car from Casablanca. The stretch of toll highway from Rabat to Fez is in superb condition and is inexpensive.
Travelling by grand taxi (inter-city taxi), though more expensive than trains, is viable for tourists- a ride from Fez to Casablanca in spring 2005 cost 1200 dirhams (approx 120 euros), not bad if you are sharing the cost among 3 or 4 passengers. Note that grand taxi fares are regulated and it is worth checking the official rates with the tourist board, as some drivers or hotels will quote inflated prices.
Within Fez, ride in the petits taxis (local taxis) rarely cost more that 15-20 dirhams (spring 2005). However, the medina of Fes el-Bali is only accessible from a few points by car. Place R’cif is a taxi and bus drop-off in the heart of the medina; there are a couple of parking areas such as Ain Zleten on the edges of the medina.
The main bus terminal (“gare routiere”) is just outside the old city on the north side, near the Ain Zleten entrance. Grands taxis (inter-city taxis) can also be obtained here. There is also a bus terminal in the ville nouvelle, 7 km from the medina, with taxi stands nearby.
Ignore the travel guides that tell you that you’ll get lost in the medina and that you must hire a guide. Most guides will simply take you from shop to shop where you will be pressured to buy goods, which will cost you extra because the seller will be obliged to pay the guide a hidden commission. There are some basic landmarks that you can use to get around, and there is an increasing amount of signage. The main drag is the Talaa Kbira, which runs from the Bab Boujloud area to the Karaouiyne mosque in the heart of the medina. Once you get into the narrow, windy heart of the medina, you can find your way out again by constantly heading downhill. That way you will eventually come out onto the Place R’cif, a dropoff for buses and taxis, where you can get a petit taxi out of the medina. Look for the book Fez from Bab to Bab (Hammad Berrada). It has a complete map of the medina and several well-described walking tours. However, be discreet taking out your map or you will have many offers from false guides!
Leather-dyeing pits in Fes.Just walking around, you will see a great deal!
In the midst of the maze-like medina are the colorful leather-dyeing pits.
Bou Inania medersa: a breathtaking 14th-century religious college. The best example of Islamic architecture a non-Muslim can see in Fez, with wooden walls elaborately carved with geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy, and a beautiful minaret. In the courtyard there is a portico with a still-functioning mosque, separated by the rest of the courtyard by a small moat.
The view from the hills surrounding the old city is spectacular- there are two fortresses overlooking the old city, the Borj Nord which contains an armaments museum, and the Borj Sud, which is being developed for tourism.
The Merenid Tombs next to the Merenid Hotel, provide excellent panoramic views over the medina and the wider city, as well as the olive tree lined hills surrounding the city, and sanctuary from the bussle of the rest of the city. Beware of the odd opportunistic tout.
One of the most fascinating activities to do in Fez is a trip in the medina (Old City Market). The medina is so complex to navigate that sometimes it’s easier to simply lose yourself in the hustle and bustle of the market, and find your way out once you have had enough of all the sights, sounds, and smells that will overwhelm your senses. You will eventually find your way out via lots of dried fruit, leather goods, ceramics, textiles and food stalls!
Make sure you find an opportunity to escape from the bustle of the streets and see the medina from one of its rooftops – some shops and restaurants have rooftop terraces (see the food section below for some useful tips). The views are particularly spectacular during sunset and after dark.
The Berber pharmacy in the Medina has hundreds of jars of twisted root and twig neatly lined up along the walls. Don’t eat the seed-pod like things the proprietor offers you. Although he’s eating them also, they are very high in oestrogen and can cause a man’s nipples to be sore for several days afterwards.
The tannery in the medina features leather-making techniques unchanged since the Middle Ages. Men walk the narrow paths between huge vats of lye and colorful dyes, water wheels creak as the leather is rinsed, and buildings facing the tannery are covered with pelts hanging to dry. Visit early in the morning before the sun hits the tannery and the stench sets in.
There are several well-marked trails through the city: follow the green (Andalusian palaces and gardens), orange (walls and fortifications), or blue signs and you won’t get lost in all the narrow twisting streets.
The Arabic Language Institute in Fez, +212 35 62 48 50 (fax +212 35 93 16 08, <email@example.com>),  offers high quality three-week and six-week courses in Arabic, both Modern Standard Arabic and the Moroccan colloquial langauge. The Institute can also arrange accommodation with a Moroccan host family for their students if required.
Some may consider Fez to be the handicraft capital of Morocco, but in reality the quality and value of its wares can be hit and miss. Leathergoods, copper and brassware are the bargains to be had, although you may also find good prices on drums and other musical instruments. As a rough guide, you can expect to pay:
Leather satchel: Dh 200 – Dh 400 depending on quality
Drums: Dh 30 – Dh 150 depending on size and quality
Tagine dish (see picture): 10 Dh – 20 Dh for a full size tagine dish, plus an extra Dh 10 if it’s been varnished and / or decorated.
If you’re interested in the cobalt-blue ceramic, you might go to the potteries where they make it. It’s really cool to see how they model the clay into a tagine in 45 seconds. From Bab el-Ftouh, it’s a 5 dirham taxi. Ask the driver to take you to “Les potteries de Fez”. There’re 2 big “factories”, both show you the whole process if you want or you could just see the exhibition (and buy). Bargain -really- hard, prices seem to be fixed, but they are not at all!
The markets near the ‘main’ gate of Bab Boujeloud (near to Hotel Cascades) are full of yummy food. It is worth just wandering through them, buying random bits of food.
Le Kasbah (near Bab Boujloud). Friendly service, a solid selection of inexpensive Moroccan staples (excellent vegetarian tagine) and a couple of lovely high terraces overlooking the Gate on one side and the medina on the other, makes it a comfortable atmospheric place to chat to other travellers and its a welcome haven from the bussle of the crowded streets of the medina.
Café Medina (near Bab Boujloud). Tasty and cosy café-style restaurant, maybe too touristy. Food is fine, specially the “boricuas” (deep fried thin dough layers wrapping meat-chicken-rice fillings). Mains starting in 60dh.
Restaurant Bouinania (near Bab Boujloud). Enjoy lunch on the terrace or a leisurely dinner on the carpet-adorned second floor. The service is very friendly and more than willing to fire up the grill to make you the first brochettes of the day. Tagine, couscous, and other staples are well-done and offered for around 40 dh, but prices are negotiable down to 25 dh.
Le Kasbah (Bab Boujloud) has 2 nice terraces, a set menu or a la carte dishes. If you’re tired of potatoes everywhere, try the grilled lamb chops and ask the waiter to change the french fries and rice for salad. Great for lunch!
Casa Nostra for tasteless pasta and ok pizza, you can try this italian “thematic restaurant”, 1 block from Hasan II and Mohammed V
Palais des Merinides (Talaa Kbira). Table d’hote menus with basic Moroccan specialties in a very grand setting. Decent quality, but fabulous surroundings.
San Remo. Fed up with Couscous and Tajine, then you could try this Morocco owned Italian restaurant in the new part of town. Just opposite the police station, it offers a lovely Italian deli and numerous pasta and pizza dishes for a decent price.
Dar Saada Restaurant. Located in the centre of the medina.
HI youth hostel, 18 Rue Abdeslam Serghini. Clean, bright, friendly and well placed in the ville nouvelle. Unfortunately there is a debilitating 10 pm curfew and a five hour lockout. Dorms / twins with shared bath from Dh 45 / Dh 55, plus Dh 5 surcharge for non HI members.
Hotel Cascades (near Bab Boud Ganoush – main gate) in the Medina. The rooms are clean and simple. There is a shared bathroom on the first floor. A double costs 150 dh / night, this makes it cheaper than the youth hostel with a better location and no lockout. Sleeping on the terrace, recommended by some, is not advisable due to midday heat, lack of space during the day, and lack of security for luggage.
Pension Batha, (100-150 Dhs) 8 Sidi Lkhayat Batha, Fax: 05-574-1150, just across from Hotel Batha, around the corner from Bab Boud Ganoush. It has limited rooms, and fills up quickly, but they are clean and include private bathroom. It comes with breakfast on a nice (but small) terrace on the top floor.
Dar Bennis: traditional 18th century house (riad) in the Medina for vacation or holiday rental for up to five people, starting at 80 euros for entire house, www.houseinfez.com. This website also has lots of information about Fez museums, architecture, restaurants, real estate & monuments.
There are a growing number of beautiful, comfortable guest-houses (“riads”) in the medina of Fes el-Bali. They are expensive by Moroccan standards but offer luxury for about the price of a North American chain hotel. Some European proprietors prey on Westerners’ culture-shock to direct business toward favored or overpriced services, so it is worth doing your research before going.
Fez is safe, but crowded. Take standard precautions regarding wallet, purse, etc. If you hear “Belek! Belek!” behind you, stand aside because a heavily-laden donkey is bearing down on you! Appear to know where you are going, even if you don’t, or you will get offers from false guides. False guides are not dangerous but they can be exasperatingly tenacious.
For a North American traveller, Fez requires a real change of outlook or it will be a very high-stress trip! Shopkeepers and guides are very assertive and you will have to get used to saying “no” a lot. On the other hand, they can be genuinely warm and friendly even while trying to sell you something, an idea that is pretty alien to North Americans where it is assumed that a business relationship is the opposite of sincerity!
A lot of guide books talk about bargaining, and while a certain amount certainly still goes on, it seems to be in decline. More and more shops with a tourist clientele have posted prices and the proprietor is not willing to negotiate. As well, some prices on popular handicrafts are being regulated to protect both tourists and sellers. This seems to be a rapidly changing situation, as Morocco is making an active effort to professionalize its tourist industry.
Non-Muslims are not allowed to visit mosques, although they can visit the medersas (religious schools). In the busiest part of the medina, there is a lane that is blocked by a wooden beam at eye-level. It is a very busy intersection but the beam indicates the precinct of a revered shrine, and non-Muslims are not supposed to pass it. It is likely you will be tut-tutted if you do!
Bargaining “seems to be in decline”? No, Sir. This is a way of life that has survived for centuries, and shows no sign of changing. Moroccans even bargain among each other for everything except perhaps their utilities. Don’t believe anyone (and you will hear it all the time) who tells you prices are being “regulated”. Every other souk claims to be a “Government Regulated Co-op”.
There is a single, genuine government-regulated fixed price shop in the Ville Nouvelle where all prices are posted, the goods are of decent (if not amazing) quality, and the single bored cashier will just stare incredulously at you if you attempt to bargain with him. Ask any hotel manager where the “fixed price shop” is, and they will point you in the right direction.
A visit to the ancient Roman site of Volubilis is a must. This crumbling yet spectacular city has stunning mosaics on offer, and you can easily spend a couple of hours ambling through the ruins. There are organized coach tours running from Fes, however the more intrepid budget traveler can make this journey on their own by catching the train from Fes to Meknes and then a couple of ‘collective’ taxis to the picturesque historic town of Moulay Idriss then on from there to Volubilis. This is approx a 1/4 of the price of the organized tours and provides far more opportunity for adventure. Alternatively, Meknes itself is worth a visit, if only due to its calmer and less crowded medina, which has ample shopping opportunities.
Fez, one of Islam’s most prestigious cities, cannot fail to weave its spell over those who pass through its gates. While the new town built under the French Protectorate holds little of interest, the two old towns, Fès-El Bali (old Fez), founded at the end of the 7th century by Idriss I, and Fez El-Jdid (new Fez), founded by the Merinids five centuries later, are altogether unforgettable – a Medieval setting still a-bustle with life today!
Attractions in Fez
Al Andalous Mosque
An edifice of modest proportions built in the 9th century by Meriem, El Kairaouani’s daughter, it was embellished with a minaret almost identical to that of its rival, the Kairouan Mosque, in 956, financed by the Caliph of Cordoba, Abd Er-Rahman III. Legend has it that both mosques were in fact built by women, two sisters. Between 1203 and 1207 it was totally rebuilt by the Almohad Sultan En-Nasser, and soon afterwards a fountain and a library were added. It underwent further restoration in the 16th century under the auspices of Moulay Ismail.
Here, where the minarets of the Bou Inania Medersa and the Sidi Lazaz Mosque stand out against the sky, is the main entrance to the Medina. Hispano-Moorish in style and built in the 13th century during the reign of the Almohads, it was renovated in 1913 and is the most recent of the city’s gateways. It leads to the square of the same name, which adjoins the former Kasbah of Boujloud built by the Almohad Sultan Mohammed En-Nasser and in use today as a residential district.
Built by the second son of Emir Zenete Doumas on the site of an earlier gateway, Bab Ftouh was reconstructed in the reign of Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah in the middle of the 18th century. On the slopes of a hill outside the city walls stretches Bab Ftouh cemetery, where the most famous Kairaouan teachers are buried.
The Belghazi Museum is the first private museum in the Kingdom to be recognised by the State. Covering an area of 5000 m², its exhibition galleries contain an impressive number of exhibits – around 4 000 antique items, illustrating the whole range of traditional Moroccan arts. The fruit of 12 years’ labour, the museum is a model of conservation work in the interest of Morocco’s national heritage. It is also a dynamic establishment, open to other fields of activity, to research and to artistic exchange.
Dar El Makhzen
Opening onto Place des Alaouites, the Sultan’s seat of government, with its eggshell façade and saracen tiles of pine green – a colour that the Prophet Mohamed declared as good to look upon as a woman’s face – keeps its doors firmly closed. This monumental esplanade contains palaces, arsenals, a menagerie, a mosque, a koubba, a medersa founded in 1320 by the Merinids and, of course, the vast and deservedly famous Lalla Mina gardens.
Also known as the Merinid Medersa, it was built between 1350 and 1357 under the auspices of Sultan Abou Inan and is the largest Medersa in Fez. Its sculpted plasterwork, cedar woodwork (now faded), bronze, marble and onyx ornamentation and windows often capped with mukarna are all typical of Merinid architecture. The walls of the interior patio are adorned with zellij topped by stuccowork and a canopy of green tiles. The prayer room is notable for its superb old stained glass windows and magnificent minbar. Now in use as a mosque, the medersa is one of the few religious buildings in Morocco open to non-Muslims.
In Morocco, this term refers to any Jewish district, and comes from the word “Melh” (salt). The Mellah of Fez, thought to be the earliest in Morocco, is located in El Yahoudi district in the north of the city. The area used to bustle with life around small businesses, goldsmiths’ workshops (once a Jewish speciality), synagogues and Talmudic schools., Nowadays, however, the district is largely inhabited by Muslims, mostly coming from the countryside and newly settled in the city. Among the historic sites bearing witness to seven centuries of Jewish life are the Chief Rabbi’s house, the Danan Synagogue and the Jewish cemetery located at one end of the district.
The M’nabhi Palace is one of the most beautiful monuments in this historic and imperial city. At the end of the 19th century, the finest artists and craftsmen in Morocco spent 15 years on its construction, and the fruit of their skills was destined to play a major role in the Kingdom’s history. It housed the Minister of Defence during the reign of Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz, and was Marshal Lyautey’s residence. It was here too that the earliest French lessons were provided and the Protectorate Treaty between France and Morocco was signed in 1912. The palace now houses a top quality restaurant serving Moroccan cuisine as well as a manufactory producing carpets of traditional design.
The square takes its name from the cabinetmakers’ souk hidden away behind a wooden door in an alleyway below. Its fountain is of an unusual splendor and at its far end stands the Fondouk En-Nejjarine with its richly decorated façade, probably built in the 17th century and recently converted into a museum.
Sebbaghine, also called the street of dyers, is located on the river and is lined with workshops where rolls of wool and cotton are dyed in large copper receptacles. At the end of the street is Sid El Aouad Bridge, leading to the Andalusian district.
Beyond Bab Bou Jeloud stretches the largest and most beautiful medina in the Maghreb, once split up into a score of small medinas provided with water by a complex system of pipes laid in 1068. A thousand or more dark alleyways, rather less alluring but more authentic than its two main streets, wind through Fés el Bali in endless succession. A stroll along Talaa Sghira, with its fountain and mosque of the same name, is one of the best ways to discover the old town.
Beyond Bab Boujeloud stretches the largest and most beautiful medina in all the Maghreb. Once split up into a score of small medinas, Fes-el-Bali counts up to a thousand dark, narrow derbs (small streets), less alluring but more authentic than its two main streets.
Built in 1879 and former Menzeh residence of the Jamaï Family, highly placed officials who enjoyed power during the reign of Moulay El Hassan, the edifice opens onto a magnificent Andalousian garden of lush greenery and a splendid patio adorned with fountains. The palace was converted into a luxury hotel in 1930 and is now a favourite haunt of jet setters and show biz celebrities.
City of Tanners
Bordering the Fez River, which provides the water necessary for treatment of skins, the Chouara tanneries are a rainbow of vivid colours. From the terraces of the surrounding houses, you get a bird’s eye view of the series of tanks of red and brown dyes and of multitudes of skins drying in the sun. Wool, animal hides and wax are exported in great quantity to Europe; but the finest skins stay in Fez where they are fashioned by skilled workers into belghas (a type of slipper), cushions, belts, and other luxury items sold throughout Morocco.
The gate leads into Fes-Jdid (New Fez), the part of the city developed in the 14th century when the Merinids built a series of new palaces and administrative buildings outside the overcrowded medina of Fès El Bali (Old Fez). Today, Fes-El Jdid is the bustling home of Berber carpet makers, snake charmers and street musicians.
This high arched gateway, rebuilt in 1924, is the main entrance to the famed Fes El-Jedid district. To the right, beneath the archway, where Merinid silos once stood, stretches a food market, bursting with life and colour.
The Chrabliine Mosque was built by the Merinid Sultan Abou El Hassan and is a fine example of that dynasty’s art, elegant in its proportions and beautifully decorated with multi-coloured zellij.
Built on the site of a lunatic asylum opened in the 13th century by Sultan Abou Yacoub Youssef, the Kissaria is still functioning as a market and is famous for its brocades and silks, although its present concrete buildings lack the character of the original souk destroyed by fire in 1954. Its internal organization follows the Turkish system, with cooperatives of craftsmen sharing the overall profits made by their shops.
Built between 1323 and 1325 during the reign of the Merinid Sultan Abou Saïd, many consider this to be the most beautiful Medersa in Fez. From its bronze double-doors to its interior courtyard encircled by fine marble and alabaster columns, from its cedar wood awning to its white marble ablutions fountain with its zellij rose motif, the Medersa is a true masterpiece.
The Merinid Tombs
From this mound overlooking the city spreads a magnificent view of Fès El Bali and the Sebou Valley. The necropolis perpetuates the memory of the Merinid sovereigns, to whom the whole nation attributes the cultural and religious influence of Fez, their art finding expression in mosques, and especially in medersas which fostered the spread of religious learning. Most of these tombs date back to the 14th century .
The Old Mechouer
The monumental doorway of the Makina, surmounted by two decorative arrows dating back to the 1930s, opens onto the former royal parade ground. Once a munitions factory, built by an Italian mission in 1886 during the reign of Moulay El Hassan, it was later used as stables. Now open to visitors, it houses a manufactory producing traditional Moroccan carpets destined for export.
Crossing this small parade ground which partly overlooks the river Fez and is surrounded by high walls, you come to the once forbidden district of Moulay Abdallah where, behind the souks, the mosque bearing the name of the Alaouite Sultan was built. Its 25-metre-high minaret is ornamented with vertical green ceramic bands and topped with four globes and its Koubba contains the Sultan’s sepulchre. The more imposing Abou El Haq Mosque was built by the Sultan of the same name in 1276. Bab Esbaâ (gateway of the seven), which was named in honour of Moulay Abdellah’s seven brothers who succeeded to the throne in the 18th century, links the Small Mechouar to the Old Mechouar.
The Dar Batha Museum
This Hispano-Moorish palace, built towards the end of the 19th Century, houses fine collections of traditional Fassi art: carved wood, zellij, wrought iron and sculpted plasterwork, all from the hands of masters and true works of art. Of equal fascination are exhibits of embroidery, carpets, jewellery and antique coins.
The North Borj
More recent than the South Borj, this bastion with its unrestricted view over the old town now houses a museum of weaponry. Exhibits from all over the world are displayed chronologically, from the flint arrowhead to the gun, from prehistory to the present day – axes, halberds, pikes, spears, a fine collection of ornate sabres and swords, Iranian helmets, ornamented saddles, muskets, pistols, revolvers and guns of every shape and size.
The South Borj
The Saadians constructed the majestic Borj Sud and Borj Nord in the 16th century, as watchtowers for the city which, even after the centre of imperial administration had been transferred elsewhere, remained the hub of the empire. The fortification with its magnificent panoramic view of Fez El-Bali, was built by Christian slaves during the reign of the Saadian Sultan Ahmed El Mansour Eddahbi (1578-1609). Today, it is here that Fez’s famed Sons et Lumières show takes place.
The Zaouïa of Moulay Driss
The Kissaria opens directly onto the Horm, the sacred precinct of the Zaouia of Moulay Driss, originally built in the 9th century and later reconstructed in 1437. The faithful reach through a hole in a small copper plate to touch the sepulchre, which is covered with a kassoua (a cloth), donated by the silk makers guild, and renewed each year. Non-Muslims are not allowed in the shrine, whose perimeter is marked out by wooden beams set about 1.60m off the ground across the roads leading to it, to stop donkeys and mules getting through.
The surroundings of Fez
Boasting both picturesque architecture and mild climate, the small village of Azrou was built at a height of about 1250 metres by its first inhabitants, the Berbers. The town is known for its Kasbah, built by Moulay Ismaïl in 1684 and its famous place Mohammed V, housing a large handicrafts centre. A little further away in the surroundings stretches the cedar grove famous for being undoubtedly the most beautiful forest in the Kingdom and the best maintained.
Ifrane, Jewel of the Middle Atlas
1650 metres above sea level, in the midst of a vast clearing in the heart of the mountains lies the resort of Ifrane (founded in 1929). With its splendid Royal Palace, its houses with their sloping roofs, its carefully maintained gardens and its snow-capped peaks, it is reminiscent of a Swiss mountain village and is on its way to becoming the preferred winter sports resort of the Moroccan elite. The town also boasts Morocco’s only Anglophone University, Al Akhawayne and is an excellent base for hikers and trout fishermen summer and winter alike.
Meknes, Imperial City
Meknes reached the height of its glory in the 17th century thanks to the legendary Sultan Moulay Ismaïl, who decided to make the town into the most splendid of the Imperial Cities. Entering the city by way of Bab Mansour, considered the most beautiful gateway in Morocco, you come upon a world entirely dedicated to the memory of the Sultan, a contemporary of Louis XIV’s and like him obsessed with grandeur and glory.
The famous spa of Moulay-Yacoub is 20 km from Fez, in a striking setting in the middle of luxuriant vegetation. This spa stands out from all the rest because of the temperature of its sulphur springs, which come out at more than 50°. It is mainly used by local residents who come to take the cure based on ancient practices. However, the site has just been fitted out with ultra-modern facilities where you can take advantage of daily consultations.
Moulay Driss Zarhoun
The small holy town of Moulay Driss was built atop a rocky spur facing the plain of Volubilis. The town houses the mausoleum of the founder of the first Arabic dynasty to rule Morocco. Close descendant of the prophet, he is the most venerated saint in the Kingdom. Every year, at the end of the summer, a large moussem is held and thousands of the faithful gather to pitch their tents on the side of the Zerhoun hill where prayer, dance and procession are on the agenda.
The Roman Ruins of Volubilis
To the north of Meknes stand the Roman ruins of Volubilis, its columns and temples overlooking the cereal fields of the valley below. This former capital of the Roman province of Tingitane Mauritania had its hour of glory in the first three centuries of the Christian era. Strangely enough, the remains of manufactories are also to be found in the heart of the city, especially those of olive oil mills, the source of the city’s wealth. This is undoubtedly the most fascinating excursion to be made from Meknes or Fez.