Fez is a city where I’m supposed to be attached to by my « roots »but I didn’t know much about it, so as soon as I got the opportunity to visit it, I said yes! My four friends and I will now take you hostage to discover one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, in a story through historical sites, wonderful addresses to stay at, and places to eat !
The city has a distinct traditional character, especially the old town or the medina called Fes el-Bali, that has hardly changed throughout the centuries. It was a great discover and I really fell in love with this city, even though our trip was short. Two days are clearly not enough to see what Fez has to offer. If I were asked to describe Fez in one sentence after this journey, I would say: full of history and life.
Let’s start :
The Palais Batha was our riad (hotel) and the first place we visited in Fez, and while meeting our hosts we suddenly understood why so many had insisted on the Fassi’s (Fez inhabitants) amiability and kindness, better known as “swab”, a specific word in Moroccan. From our taxi driver to the merchants, every single person we met was welcoming and benevolent.
Our rooms were incredibly beautiful and well-designed, showing incredible Moroccan craftsmanship. I especially loved the smell of the prestigious wood ceilings. The dinner was always compound of delicious Moroccan salads as a starter, with a mind-blowing main meal: a vegetables tajine for the first dinner, and a chicken tajine with candied lemon and olives for the second.
At Batha Square, next to our hotel, we found a fascinating marble tablet, representing the Moroccan manifesto of Independence dating back to January 11, 1944 which means twelve years before the real proclamation of independence. Back then the nationalist Istiqlal Party (which still exists), under the aegis of Sultan Mohamed V (the grandfather of the current King), published this manifesto, calling the french settlers for full independence, national reunification, and a democratic constitution for Morocco. On paper Morocco was only a protectorate, but we all know what that means, and the date is still seen as key in Morocco’s struggle for independence.
We then took a taxi in the direction of Al Quaraouiyine University, which only cost us 10 dirhams (less than 1€, 1$ and 1£), and the driver dropped us off at the Rcif Square, the start of the médina pedestrian area. We realized we were very lucky to arrive now, because a major renovation effort for the historical places of Fez had just been finished, and had only been ushered in by the King himself few days before.
The Al Quaraouiyine University Library & Mosque
My experience at the Qaraouiyine University that includes a library and a mosque was extremely pleasant !
We decided to make our first stop at the fresh renovated library, where I fell in love with the craftsmanship and smell of the woodwork on the ceiling (again). I was also fascinated by the fresh environment inside the library, caused by clever ancient techniques. While outside it was at least 30°C, the inside stayed cool due to antique techniques using a combination of high ceilings and thick exterior walls, no air-conditioning! The Moroccan vernacular architecture, also called « The Riad architecture », ensures in this way that the foundation is passive at an energetic level, making rooms fresh in summer, perfectly in line with the meteorological and spatial conditions of Fez!
Sadly all the rooms with books were off-limits, but it still proved a marvelous find!
Founded in 859 by a woman, Fatima El-Fihriya, it’s the oldest working library in the world, holding ancient manuscripts that date as far back as 12 centuries. According to UNESCO, it is the oldest operational educational institution in the world, with a high-profile role call of alumni such as the muslim historian and economist Ibn Khaldun or the jewish philosopher Maimonides.
About five minutes of walking brought us to Al Quaraouiyine Mosque, with its doors opening to a magnificent (and I really mean it) peaceful place. The first thing you see when entering is a huge marble fountain, that also works to take ablutions (apparently 😀 ), even though there are ablution rooms. Besides the beautiful and important architecture of this mosque, my attention was focused on the kids playing around like at home. I really appreciated that side of the religious edifice, where you can not only come to pray, but also to have a sit and clear your mind, having a good time while listening to the music of laughing kids in the background.
The Leather tanneries of Fez
Fez is famous for its leather products, and most of it comes from the leather bazaar (souq). The souq is home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara Tannery, almost a thousand years old, which we had the pleasure of visiting.
Also freshly renovated, these tanneries process the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels, turning them into high quality leather products, such as bags, coats, shoes, and slippers, commonly known as “belgha” in Morocco. The work is all achieved manually, without the need for modern machinery, and the process has barely changed since medieval times, which makes these tanneries an absolutely fascinating place to visit, the only disadvantage being the bad smell which tourist guides try to mask by handing out fresh mint 😀
Moulay Driss II Zaouia
Right before having breakfast (yes it was Ramadan and I was fasting), we decided to go on a quick tour to see the Moulay Idriss II Zaouia, the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 and founded the city of Fes for the second time in 810. He is considered to be the patron saint of the city of Fez.
I’ll let you appreciate the beauty of the site:
Breakfast at Café Clock
A highly recommended place by my parents, the Café Clock, was built in a 250-years old courtyard house (as all houses in Fez used to have patios), and maintains these magical traditional vibes within its walls. The breakfast was not that good, but the hot lemon with ginger and honey drink definitely made a difference, you should go there, just for that!
The restaurant/bar that includes a library, a little cinema, a courtyard and a balcony offers a spectacular view of the Bou Inania minaret from the terrace, which makes the difference in enjoying your tea. I definitely urge you to visit this place, where you can meet expatriates of different nationalities and speak several languages! Indeed, you can read “Cross-Cultural Café” on their business card.
It has been said that we should visit this hotel for it typical fassi design, so we went for it the following day, and were not disappointed. Its architect completely respected the Fassi mind, and has set up a peaceful patio inside the hotel where you can listen to the sound of the falling water next to the fountain, while looking at the huge view of Fez from the terrace. The restaurant L’Amandier is also atypically decorated with both modern and traditional Moroccan symbols. A lovely place to visit in Fez!
Marinid Tombs/ Necropole
You may be asking yourself who are those people whose tombs are spread in the hills of Fez, offering such a picturesque view? The Marinid Dynasty was comprised of Zenet Berbers who came from the Saharan borders highlands. This dynasty ruled Morocco for 221 years between 1244 and 1465, and instituted Fez as the capital of Morocco.
Starting from 1216 and taking advantage of the weakening power of Almohad, they penetrated into the South regions of the Rif and continued their advance towards central Morocco until 1244, when the Almohad rulers were no longer able to contain them inside their historical migration “corridor”. Marinids then transformed their annual expansion movements into a territorial conquest.
They created a new town in Fes (Fes Jdid) and built a reserved district for Jews called el mellah, protected by the Sultan.
They briefly controlled all the Maghreb in the mid-14th century, and attempted to reconquer Spain under the command of Abou Youssef Yakoub, by intervening four times in what was left of the Andalus between 1269 and 1286, and again between 1340 et 1344, ending with their defeat at the Battle of Río Salado.
The traces of their reign are very apparent in the current city. Besides their necropole, they left us this unique Moorish art savoir-faire (more known as zellige) and an amazing number of Madrassat (Quranic teachings centers and universities), with the most emblematic being the Attarin Madrassat, the Seffarin Madrassat and the Bou Inania Madarsat, which we couldn’t visit due to lack of time, but we will certainly return as soon as possible.
The door of the Royal Palace of Fez
Our last stop was at the beautiful door of the Fez Royal Palace.
We couldn’t (of course) go inside the palace (we tried to knock though 😀 ), but the huge doors still offered a great scene. The doors open by huge hinges carved in copper by a local craftsman around 1970.