Fez, and especially the Medina, stimulates all your senses. The maze of narrow lanes and souks are bursting at the seams with leather shops, bakeries, piles and piles of herbs and spices, vendors pulling carts or riding donkeys and (overall) friendly people who want to have a chat and sell you their goods. The best way to explore Fez is to just dive in head first and not worry where you are going to end up.
The thing that I did most and best when I took my city trip to Fez was get lost. Yes, I was warned beforehand by the friendly host in the Riad where I was staying. He drew me a map, marking the 'big road' and told me that whenever I didn't know where I was, I should just find my way to this road and all would be okay. Well, that was a nice theory. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering a dozen times a day where the hell I was! And it wasn't until I let go and accepted that I shouldn't even try and find my way, that I was able to really enjoy this magical emperial Moroccan city.
The Fez Medina
The walled old city of Fez, known as the Medina, is not only one of the oldest medinas in the world, but also one of the only ones left where people are actually still living. Over 100.000 Fassis call this maze of narrow streets and souks their home today. Once you enter the Media through one of the colorful and impressive gates (called a 'Bab') you'll immediately get completely absorbed by the smells of grilled meat, herbs, spices and leather. And even though the board of tourism has placed colored signs up so you can follow a certain theme through the Medina, these prove to be not quite faultless. A couple of places that you will be able to find in the Fez Medina, even just by getting lost, are the Kairaouine Mosque, the impressive theological college of Medersa Bou Inania and the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts. And if you find yourself completely clueless on how to get back, don't be afraid to ask the friendly shopkeepers how to walk to one of the main squares or the big road.
Visiting the tanneries
If you're in the market for a leather jacket that will fit you perfectly or a pair of custome made boots, Fez is the place to go looking. But not before you visit the tanneries. There is no place in the world where you can experience (and smell!) something like this. Now, I was blessed with cloudy weather when I visited the Fez tanneries. I watched the tanneries from one of the rooftops of a leather coopérative and just let me tell you: the small branch of mint they give you: it's needed. Even on a cloudy day. But watching the entire process of leather making, from the tanning of the hides to coloring the leather sheets, I now look with a renewed respect to a leather purse or bag. The coopérative is a good place to make a purchase. You won't find a better selection of leather in Morocco, the prices are as good as they're going to get and the profits will flow back to all the people working there.
Drinks and views at Palais Jamaï
Now, it's a bit of a myth that you can't buy an alcoholic drink in Morocco. No, you can't have a beer with a mosque in sight, you can't have a cocktail on the Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakech and having an alcoholic drink in public is frowned upon. However, what people do inside or on their own propery is their own business. Therefor, it's actually not that hard to enjoy a glass of (Moroccan!) wine when you're in Fez. Not every restaurant will serve alcohol, but you won't have to look hard for places that do. And after you survived a hot day in the Medina, you deserve a cool drink and some good Medina views. And there is no better place for these two things than Sofitel Palais Jamaï. This old palace is now a luxurious hotel with a garden and pool area that just breathes a 1001 night atmosphere. As a non-guest you are welcome to just have a drink on their mosaic tiled terrace whilst overlooking the bustling Medina.
Photos courtesy of Palais Jamaï
Top culture in Café Clock
One place in the Medina that doesn't require a search is Café Clock. Just follow the signs! Inside you'll find a three story restaurant, but it's actually so much more than that. Not only can you eat fantastic Middle Eastern food at Café Clock, you can also learn how to prepare it. The café offers many cooking classes, but is also the stage for concerts, poetry recitals and other cultural gatherings. The roof terrace is a haven away from the bustling Medina and the perfect place to enjoy a glass of fruit juice and some lunch.
Discover New Fez
When I say New Fez, take it with a pinch of salt. No high rises or cutting edge archirecture here, because the new city of Fez is about 700 years old. Only with a Medina that's a thousand years old, a 700 year old part of town can be marked as 'new'. The largest part of New Fez was built for the palace of Sultan Abu Yusuf Yacoub and even today the palace takes up half the grounds of the entire area. The other half went to the large Jewish population of Fez, forming a Mellah. This community is long gone, but the streets are still filled with typical Jewish architecture with wooden balconies. A walk through the Mellah and the synagoge and cemetary in the far end of the neighborhood is recommended, but please keep your wits about. The area used to be the seedy part of town and even though it's not that bad anymore, I found I got hassled and followed a lot more here than in the Medina, for some reason.
Where I stayed: Riad Lune et Soleil
When you're traveling to Morocco I can't recommend enough you stay in a riad. This is no standard hotel. Often, these traditional houses don't seem like much from the outisde. But once you walk through the door and a small hallway, you'll find yourself in a small oasis. Most riads have a lush mosaic tiled courtyard with beautiful large trees and wrought iron garden furniture. The rooms are traditionally decorated and very comfortable.
I was staying at Riad Lune et Soleil, in the Medina. The courtyard, lined with orange and palm trees and furnished with lovely lounge chairs, had another fun feature: 3 turtoise that kept following each other around and sometimes would crawl towards where I was sitting and look up curiously. My room was large and furnished with artefacts of different centuries, like I was sleeping in a treasure box of a long forgotten explorer. And the best part: the food in this Riad was outstanding. Breakfast would be a feast of pancakes, bread, cakes, honey, jams, eggs and olives. And when I didn't feel like venturing into the Medina at night in search for food, a three course meal could be whipped up in no time by the friendly staff.
So, tell me. Have you visited Fez? Please, tell me you got lost as well!