If you’re into history and old-world charm, Fez is the place for you. The old city or Medina, is the oldest, intact, medieval town in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of the things we enjoyed were in the medina itself, but see below for our list of experiences and sights to enjoy when you visit. There is probably a modern side to the city, but the old city was so unique to us that we didn’t really venture further afield.
1. Get lost in Fes Al Bali
While there are parks and museums to explore, our favourite thing in Fes was getting lost in its winding alleys. It is rather difficult to navigate around, and even Google maps wasn’t much help, but like Venice, getting lost here is half the fun. In the old city, there is no motorised transport in use, and walking through the narrow lanes feels like stepping back in time, as you dodge donkey carts laden with goods, while admiring the lovely handicrafts on display. The smell of freshly made food entices you around every corner, and the bright colours will lure you deeper into the maze-like city. The sound of hammering metal clangs through the air, while craftsmen sit hunched over intricate lanterns and bowls, forming works of art in much the same way as in the past.
We opted to find a local boy to help us find the places we were looking for, and he happily showed us around for a few Euros. Be aware that there are also apparently scams where people will offer to show you around, lead you into the deepest recesses of the medina, and then demand exorbitant amounts to show you the way out.
Also make sure to bargain, as prices in the medina are often inflated to double their actual price, in anticipation of the haggling that will inevitably follow. Pay what you feel an item is worth, and if an agreement cannot be reached, rather part ways and you will likely find a similar item in another store. We found that the best tactic is to simply walk away, and the salesmen will often shout steep discounts to lure you back, and will even bring the price further down if you return and bargain some more!
2. Shop for magic carpets
Okay, so these carpets may not be able to show you the world Aladdin style, but seeing the amount of care and work that goes into making them will give you a new-found appreciation of the craft, even if, like us, you can’t afford the exorbitant price that goes with it. There are tons of carpet shops in the city, and be aware that the salesmen will go for the hard sell. Once you ask the price of a rug, they will take it as a sign of interest, and proceed to unfurl rug after rug, until you find one that you like. They will offer you tea and make conversation and drag out the process in the hopes of making a sale, and as soon as it becomes apparent that you will not be making a purchase, the whole attitude shifts, and they become cold and even ignore you!
They are also prepared for the argument of insufficient space or cash, and will happily offer shipping or show you how these huge carpets can get folded into the size of a little backpack. We were curious about the price after seeing how pretty they were, and the price for a musallah (prayer mat), which was approximately 80x120cm, was over R3000 (200 Euros).
3. Learn about leather-tanning
The Chouara Tannery is the largest in Fes, and still operates in much the same way today, as it has since the establishment of the city. Aside from the photo-ops of large vats of dye in an open courtyard, the salesmen will happily explain how the process works, in the hopes of enticing you into purchasing leather goods from them. It is also cleverly located, so that all the leather shops have balconies that overlook the vats of dye, since they know that is what most tourists want to see. They offer sprigs of mint to everyone who enters, to ward off the smells associated with dying tons of leather, before talking you through the process. It really helped initially, but we were surprised at how quickly we got used to the smell, and proceeded to abandon our mint leaves.
We learnt that the hides are processed with mixtures, whose ingredients include pigeon faeces, to soften them up and prepare them for dying. The dyes themselves get their colours from natural sources, such as blood red poppies and vibrant orange henna.
After the educational portion of the visit, you are encouraged to buy leather items such as belts and shoes, jackets and bags, in neutral and jewel tones, but they are of good quality and relatively low prices (after bargaining!).
4. Buy some silk
Many stores sell hand-woven silk scarves and bags, table runners and bedding, dresses and wall hangings, or just plain fabric that you can sew into whatever you desire. Most of these have a loom as well, where they will put on a show for you, to see how these vibrant colours come together. The salesmen in these shops seemed much more relaxed than at the pottery and carpet shops, giving you time and space and also chatting cheerfully. These make for great souvenirs or gifts, as they are affordable, good quality, and easy to pack.
5. Learn something at the Kairouine University
The oldest continually functioning university in the world, and founded by a woman, Fatima al Fihri, it is significant in so many ways. She was from Tunisia, and opened the Mosque and Madrasa as a way of giving back to the community. The university is open to men and women, and while it was founded as an Islamic school, it has since been incorporated into the state education system. It is simple in design, unlike most of the other places we visited in Morocco, but unfortunately, it is only open to Muslims. Non-Muslims can peer inside, but Muslims may enter and even offer up a prayer.
6. Visit the Attarine Madrasa
Built in the 1300’s by the Marinid Dynasty, the courtyard of the madrasa, which is the main attraction for visitors, is covered in breath taking tile-work, stunning calligraphy, and precise carvings. The name comes from the word ‘atr’ meaning perfume, based on its location at the entrance of the perfume market. For its location amidst the bustling old city, it is surprisingly quiet and peaceful, and a good place to clear your mind.
7. Satiate yourself at the market
From piles of spices and a variety of olives, to freshly slaughtered meat and a myriad of preserves, wandering through the market is an assault on your senses. We were staying at a hotel and had no kitchen, hence we limited our purchases to a couple of fresh things that we could eat as we walked around, but it was still a sight to behold lines of cow’s heads hanging in the aisles or lined up on the floors. Surprisingly, the smell wasn’t as bad as we expected, and we enjoyed walking around.
Also take advantage of the stalls selling local delicacies, such as bastilla, which are an unusual combination of sweet savoury. Traditionally pastry filled with pigeon, it can be found with a variety of fillings, then dusted with powdered sugar for a unique flavour.
8. See how pottery is made
Our first taste of Moroccan hospitality came courtesy of our host Rashida at Riad Harmonie in El Jadida, as she offered us delicious treats in the most vibrantly painted plates. It seems like every market or souvenir shop in the country is laden with crockery of every size, shape and colour, and a visit to the Art Naji Factory is the perfect place to witness the process from start to end.
Walking into the premises, we were greeted by piles of clay just waiting to be shaped, along with a couple of cats meandering around. We were shown how the clay gets moulded and coloured, then painted by hand before being baked and glazed into the gorgeous items for sale. We were also treated to a demonstration by an artisan who was crafting a mosaic table, using the same method as is used to make the gorgeous fountains dotted throughout the country. Instead of neatly shaped squares cut by machines, the craftsmen cut each piece to size with a little glass cutter, lay out the entire pattern upside down, before finishing each piece up.
After seeing each process, we were led through the requisite shop. Waving aside our protests of having insufficient luggage space and money, we were eagerly informed that they take any number of payment methods, and also had guaranteed courier services around the world! We chose to make our purchases in the medina instead, where the salesmen are more willing to bargain and prices were more affordable. However, we still recommend visiting the factory if you’re interested in the processes. If you only want to purchase souvenirs in the form of plates, bowls, tagines, and ornaments, the old city has enough options on offer where you will surely find something that suits your taste and budget, but as always, make sure to bargain, bargain, and bargain some more!
9. Marvel at Dar Al-Makhzen
Like other royal residences, this one isn’t open to the public, but it is worth driving by to marvel at the zellige tilework, shiny brass doors, and carved cedar wood. It is one of the iconic photo-spots and one you shouldn’t pass up.