Fes, gleaming little pearl of the arab world
Morocco’s cultural capital, Fes is also a pearl of the Arab world. In the northern part of the country, between the sea and the Middle-Atlas, this eighth century museum city is the crown jewel of the four imperial cities. A world heritage site since 1981, Fes shines with its Quranic University and its Arabo-Andalusian artistic treasures. The city’s incredibly talented artisans make her the steward of traditional Moroccan craftsmanship.
The city has two medinas: Fes El-Bali (old Fes) and Fes El-Jedid (new Fes) founded by the Marinids 500 years later. In a medieval setting of a thousand and one colours, let yourself be seduced by the lively atmosphere: for their treasures and diversity, Fes’ souks are unforgettable!
Take note! The medina of Fes is forbidden to cars and two-wheelers. Only pedestrians and mules have access to it. Bring good walking shoes as many of the roads are sloping. High heels are certainly not recommended…
Constructed beginning in the ninth century on either side of the Fes Oued, it presents a veritable maze of cobblestone alleyways. When you penetrate into Fes’ historic heart, you have the sensation of being transported back to the Middle Ages. We recommend you begin your visit of Fes-El-Bali at Bab Boujloud, a majestic gate of blue and green zellige tiles that leads directly to the medina’s two main streets: the larger Talaa Kebira or, great ascent, and Talaa Sghira, or the little ascent, lined with shops and merchants. The best thing to do is walk down one then up the other! Both will lead you to the heart of the medina, the Nejjarine square and its famous fountain, the souks, the Karaouine mosque and the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss.
- The Bab Oujloud gate opens onto the large esplanade which hosts the free annual concerts of Fes’ World Sacred Music Festival (in June).
- Once you reach the square go to Nejjarine’s fondouk home to the Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts: not only are its exhibits remarkable but you will be blown away by the view its tea room offers out onto the rooftops of the medina!
- Only a few footsteps away from the square you’ll find the Al- Karaouine mosque, Fes’ most beautiful. Only Muslims can enter it. Follow the fields of medersas from here until you reach the oued and its souks.
Fes El-Bali’s souks and treasures
Lining the Fes Oued, they are populated by artisans who produce work of incredible beauty. They can be found at the juncture of the Andalusian and Kerouan districts. Enter one of the foundouks here (a big artisanal workshop and hostel for workmen), feast your eyes on its treasures, and try your hand at bartering if you’re suddenly inspired to take everything home with you!
- The most impressive visit is of the tanning district, Chouara. Don’t refuse the mint leaves that you will be offered here, as they will help to alleviate the smells. A small price to pay to observe in person the steps that go into confecting Fes’ famous leather goods. You should also visit the dyeworking and henna souks, located on a picturesque shady square, or, if your artisanal fervour isn’t get quenched, the jewellery, ironworking or woodworking souks.
- Visitez également le souk des teinturiers et du henné sur une jolie place ombragée, ou encore ceux des bijoux, de la forge et de la menuiserie.
After stopping to catch your breath and relax, walk around the hilly outskirts of the medina:
- North of Fes el-Bali, the Bab Guissa gate will bring you to the Marinid Tombs: from atop this hill, the view over Fes and the Sebou Valley is magnificent.
- Next, discover the legendary Borj north and south: built by the Saadiens in the 16th century, these fortifications are known for their unique panoramas!
This newer medina was built by the Marinid dynasty starting in 1276. Enter it in the north by the Bab Es-Seba gate to discover the very lively neighbourhoods of the Vieux Mechouar and the Petit Mechouar.
- Go straight down the Grande Rue de Fès el-Jedid (main road) and you’ll come upon two sumptuous buildings on your right, the medersa and the royal palace.
- Keep going down this road until you reach what used to be the city’s main gate, Bab Semmarine. Under its archway you’ll find a well-known market where you can sample all the colours and tastes of the local specialties.
- When you go through Bab Semmarine, under a procession of archways, take a left on the Bou Khessinat road to get the Alaouite Palace and admire the incredible gardens of Lalla Mina.
Beside these two medinas, the new city developed under the French protectorate starting in 1912.
The Mellah was first the home of the Sultans’ Syrian troops before it became the Jewish quarter beginning in the 14th century. You should check out: the flea market next to the Jewish cemetery and the Danan synagogue magnificently restored by Fes’ Jewish community.
Day trips out of Fes
- West of Fes, the Tgat peaks (837m) offer a grand panorama over the city and the region surrounding it. From the top of the Zalagh (900m), a bit further north, the horizon gives on the Rif foothills and the verdant valley of Oued Sebou.
- Meknes, 60 km away: an imperial city that the sultan Moulay Ismail used as his capital. He had many imposing monuments built here: Bab El Mansour, a tremendous gate, Dar Jamaï, now a museum, the famous Moulay Ismail mausoleum, etc…
- Volubilis, 73 km away: the ruins of an ancient Roman city over 40 hectares. Its remnants of second and third century mosaics are superb.
- Azrou, 90 km south of Fes, and its cedar forest, home to many Barbary Macaques.
- Sefrou, 33 km from Fes, is famous for its cherry festival in June. An important pilgrimage site for Jews and Muslims, its charming medina houses the tomb of the prophet Daniel.
- Even though the climate is Mediterranean, afternoons can still be harsh for walkers. Remember to bring protection from the sun and a bottle of water!
- Fes has its own airport. The city its 60 km from Meknes and 200 km from Rabat.
Fes, Festival time!
- Every year, Fes plays host to an internationally known celebration, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, taking place each June since 1994. It brings together world famous singers and musicians in unbelievable settings (Bab Makina, Batha museum).
- The Sufi Culture Festival, facilitates the intercultural dialogue between East and West.
- Fes also celebrates music: jazz in autumn and Andalusian music in the winter.