The moment you step into Fez-el-Bali, the oldest part of Fez medina, you are transported centuries back in time. Ancient walls and madrasas, narrow mud corridors, goods-laden donkeys, and artisans engaged in millennium old crafts – all seem to have been suspended in time. The city is very well preserved, with most buildings and open spaces retaining their original features and functions, but it is the thriving ancient trades, deep-rooted customs, and traditional lifestyles, as well as the overall vibe of old Fez that make this time travel possible.
Strolling through Fez Medina and observing local artisans is a major treat. Here are the weavers hand looming highly textured and ornamental fabric, the shoemakers padding and embellishing babouches with hand stitched embroideries, the ceramists masterfully chiseling Zellige tiles, and, Fez being Morocco’s Mecca of leather, the leather masters! From famous tanneries introducing visitors to the full cycle of leather production, to artisan workshops where intricate designs are born, to old leather shops where expert salesmen serve tea and bedazzle shoppers with variety and color, this is the place to discover, to touch, to smell, to learn about leather and, most decidedly, to stock up on beautiful handcrafted items to take home.
The highlight of the trip is a visit of the Chouara Tannery, a holdover from the middle ages, which continues to supply the city with fine quality leather. Here, skins and hides undergo an elaborate multi-step curing and coloring process according to the ancient method, which is passed from generation to generation. The fascinating spectacle of dozens of tanners, some waist deep in huge earthen vessels arranged as giant multi-colored makeup pallets, rinsing, soaking, scrubbing skins, can be observed from the terraces of adjacent shops. Brown liquids – concoctions of pigeon excrement and cow urine – are the sources of the pungent ammonia odor permeating the air. After the initial olfactory shock (somewhat subdued by fresh scent of mint handed out by shopkeepers) your senses gradually assimilate, and toward the end of the visit, you are able to embrace the smell as part of the overall wondrous process.
The entrance is free, but many visitors feel compelled to reciprocate with a purchase on the way out. A lovely gesture; just be aware that the initial asking price here is 3-4 times higher than in most stores with a less fortunate location.
The souk is the heart and soul of old Fez. Apart from the artisanal shops for tourists, there is a buzzy and vibrant market for the locals – after all, the population of old Fez is over 150 thousand. Stroll through Talaa Kebeera, Fez’s main street, and you will find all the essentials: fruit and vegetables, fresh spices, sweets and oils, meats – some still alive, Chinese shoes, traditional djellabas, cell phones, and CDs with 80s music. The one thing that is manifestly nonexistent is any type of motor vehicle – this is an auto-free zone where carts and donkeys have never been replaced.
In the afternoon, Fez-el-Bali fills with children: school kids sipping snail soup and munching on fried donuts, teenagers running errands for their families and hustling to make a buck (or more likely a dirham) by guiding lost tourists, and young children, some no older than 3 or 4, expertly navigating the labyrinths of the medina and striking conversations with foreigners in English and French. The west end of Talaa Kebeera is a great place to stop for a mint tea and observe the modern life of old Fez.
As you stroll through medina, you get snapshots of the famous Al-Kairaouine complex – the world’s oldest continually running university and one of Morocco’s holiest mosques: the mosque’s courtyard through the main entrance, beautiful wooden doors leading to the library, accordion-shaped roofs and pyramid-like tower from the neighboring terraces. But as a non-Muslim, you do not get to explore Al-Kairaouine inside. Nor do you get a good overall view of its exterior – over the centuries, shops and fondouks have “grown” all over Al-Kairaouine, gradually blending it with the souk, disguising its true silhouette, concealing it from the public eye.
MADRASA BOU INANIA
In fact, the medina is dotted with mosques and madrasas, but the only two currently open to visitors of non-Islamic faith are madrasas Bou Inania and El-Attarine. Bou Inania, visible immediately through Bab Boujloud, is one of Morocco’s most important religious institutions, which has received the status of a Grand Mosque. With an impressive marble courtyard, fantastic zellige tilework and magnificently carved dark cedar, Bou Inania is said to be the most beautiful of all Marinid monuments.
MUSEUM DAR BATHA
A short walk from Bou Inania is Fez’ arts and crafts museum – Dar Batha. It is housed in a spacious summer palace, but as is often the case with museums in Africa, the collection itself is underwhelming. The three halls in the main building and one in the back palace exhibit a few examples of calligraphy, ceramics, daggers and rifles, traditional bridal attires and textiles. A stand that catches my attention displays astrolabes used to measure positions of celestial bodies and calculate the exact times for Ramadan. Overall, the items on display are few; space wise, the museum could host ten times its current collection. Batha also seems to be lacking in funding and upkeep; once an opulent structure, the palace now looks neglected and rundown. Nonetheless, for 10 dirhams – an equivalent of $1, Batha is still worth a visit for a glimpse at the palace’s courtyards and lush gardens and as a mid-day retreat from the souk bustle.
THE MARINID TOMBS
Two main reasons to venture outside the medina are getting bus tickets and hiking up a dirt road towards the Marinid Tombs. On the other side of the wall, the city has a very different feel. The greens of the minarets, the blues of the tiles, the reds and purples of the rugs are no longer visible; there are no smells of spices or perfumes; no children sounds, nor loud exchanges of the merchants. The road sounds are only interrupted by an occasional braying of a donkey. The dust is everywhere, and the cityscape looks tawny-gray, but as you climb to the top, you get a good, if sooty view of the whole town and another glimpse of the Al-Kairaouine from up top.
STAY IN A RIAD
An integral part of Fez experience is a stay in a riad – a traditional Moroccan palace or house with an interior garden or courtyard historically inhabited by a wealthy family. A typical riad has a fountain and a citrus tree and is adorned with traditional mosaic tiles decorated with Arabic calligraphy.
There are dozens of riads in and around the medina, and prices range from just a few euros to several hundred. Exquisite Riad Layalina with spacious apartment-like suites, Andalusian-style courtyard with a pool, and a cozy terrace with panoramic views of the Medina offers excellent accommodation. But it is Layalina’s award-worthy customer service provided by Said and his team that turn a pleasant stay here into an unforgettable experience!