Even though the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue, we were cold as we stood on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the ancient city of Fez. To our backs were some crumbling ruins with sections of an original wall and a free standing gate and on either side of us, climbing up and down the hills were whitewashed grave markers dating from eons ago.
We watched some men below us carefully spreading out animal hides to dry in the sun before taking them to the tanneries, just like their ancestors had done for centuries. Our surroundings felt timeless but, in a jarring contrast when we looked below us at the thirteen-hundred year-old, walled city of Fez, we noticed the satellite dishes, all faced in one direction awaiting the magic signals that would bring them to life.
The feeling of stepping back in time and watching things done just as they’d been for centuries past juxtaposed against the bustle of daily commerce followed us during the days we spent in Fez. As the oldest imperial city of Morocco it was a major market located along the Trans-Saharan trade route connecting the empires of Western Sahara to the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes. Goods like salt, cloth, beads and metal were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves and caravanned by the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, first in two-wheeled chariots pulled by oxen, donkeys and horses. But, as anyone who’s watched an epic desert movie knows, it was the introduction of the camel, probably from the Levant, which revolutionized the industry of desert transport. Even some of the various names by which Fez is known reflect the mix of civilizations passing through: the French spelling of Fès, the Berber name Fas and the lacy script of the Arabic culture.
The days spent in Fez flew by quickly as we tried to pack in as many sights and sounds and tastes (and smells!) as we could. However, even self-professed history buffs and aspiring culture vultures have limits and we soon realized that one visit could not cover everything. The following is our list of recommended favorites:
1) Stay in a Moroccan Riad. These traditional houses of two or more storeys are built around a courtyard with a garden and fountain and are decorated with carved stucco and colorful tiles in geometric patterns. Once the homes of the wealthy and powerful many of these have been renovated into fine hotels like the Ryad Ayla where we stayed and wrote about it and our next listed place here.
2) Wander about The Medina of Fes. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this was one the highpoints of our stay and later we had to laugh when we recalled various guidebooks and posts we’d read that suggested “Get lost in the Medina” as a chosen activity. Once you enter this maze of narrow streets and alleys twisting in various directions there are no other alternatives. With its shops and bustling souks (an Arab market or bazaar) bakeries and restaurants, crumbling architecture, many historically recognized buildings, mosques, museums, schools and homes, visiting the Medina is an unforgettable experience and a great example of full sensory overload.
3) Visit the Chouara Tannery in the Moulay Abdellah Quarter of the Medina. Unfortunately for us, a major renovation was just being completely at the time of our February stay including the restoration of the earthen vats. In fact, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, was scheduled the very next week for a dedication of this site that dates back to the 11th century. A later visit to another tannery convinced us that we may have been lucky to see the Chouara Tannery at its cleanest as the stench from the centuries-old tanning process which includes vats filled with pigeon feces, lye baths, various natural dyes and piles of animal skins is not for the faint-hearted. But the proximity of the tanneries leads to our next suggestion …
4) Shop in a Leather Souk. Here’s a much better way to appreciate the smell of leather and the luxury quality of handbags, coats and jackets, vests, shoes, wallets, hats, furniture and poufs. The leather goods are all beautifully handcrafted in their original colors or rich with the brilliant hues from the dye baths. And, despite the hard sell tactics, we managed to escape with just a reasonably priced pair of slippers.
5) Watch a master potter and artists at Art D’ Argile. Visiting this ceramics shop gave us a true appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making the beautiful quality Moroccan pottery found in reputable shops. We watched a potter making the conical shaped tagine dishes using a foot-driven wheel and women hand-painting ceramic bowls, cups and dishes with beautiful designs.
However, far and away the most impressive sight was watching the three men seated on the floor chiseling away with small hammers at the colorful, glossy, enamel-painted zellige tiles and patiently chipping them into precise forms. The tile shapes are put together like puzzle pieces using a template to form a geometric pattern that becomes a larger tile, tabletops and other mosaic works of art. There was a bit of a soft sell here but really, the pieces sold themselves.
6) Stroll through Jardin Jnan Sbil. Sitting just outside the Medina walls, the gardens were once a part of the Royal Palace and were donated to the city of Fez in the 19th Century. Although it was a cold day we still saw people walking about admiring the grounds and enjoying the open, green space with its towering palms, fountains and other plantings. However, it took us a while to figure out what was missing but in this traditional Islamic country there were no young lovers strolling about hand-in-hand or seated on the benches, canoodling.
7) Admire the exterior of Dar el Makhzen, Fez’s Royal Palace with its seven massive, bronze doors. Built in the 17th century the mansion covers 80 hectares, about 200 acres and is the (humble) abode of the Moroccan royals who stay here when they’re in Fez. One important note is that, while we had no problem with taking photos of the palace at the elaborate entrance of the seven doors the guards in another area several block away indicated that no photos were allowed.
8) Find your way to the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter of Fez dating back to the 15th Century and follow the winding lanes past homes with intricately carved balconies. For centuries Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims in this once vibrant community, now with only about fifty families remaining. Once there were several synagogues within the quarter and we recommend a …
9) Stop at the 17th Century Aben (Ibn) Danan Synagogue. This 17th century synagogue is reached by climbing a short flight of stairs and appears almost plain when contrasted to other much more extravagantly decorated Moroccan buildings. However, this only highlights the beautifully decorated Torah Ark, a huge cupboard of carved wood also dating back to the 17th century which houses a centuries old Torah Scroll. The building was placed on the 1996 World Monuments Watch which provides funds to help preserve cultural heritage sites at risk. And we can’t forget to mention the Jewish Cemetery nearby which can be seen through slits in the Medina’s walls or from the rooftop of the synagogue.
10) Practice saying “No.” A-L-O-T. Perhaps we should have written this advice first … No matter where we went in the marvelous city of Fez, there were shopping experiences galore whether we wanted them or not. At one point we found ourselves in an enormous two-story carpet emporium where it seemed hundreds of rich wool and shimmering silk carpets in deep hues and intricately woven patterns hung from every surface – ceiling, walls and floors. Any comments we made of appreciation resulted in them being rolled out in front of us with a flourish while the vendor began a steady barrage of offers and counter offers. Saying “no” seemed to amp up the hard sell even more and we finally escaped (or rather skulked away) feeling a bit cheap and ungrateful for not supporting the artisans’ cooperative but with our hands empty and wallets intact. Shopping in Fez requires enormous willpower and is not for the faint-hearted!
Our list is, of necessity, limited to the amount of time we had to invest in this marvelous jewel. We’ve only mentioned some of the many things to do and places to go to when visiting Fez. The hardest part of any traveler’s stay might be selecting among the myriad of choices. The three days we had allocated were totally insufficient to the task. We resolved to make another visit and immerse ourselves, again, in this fascinating cultural milieu.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash