Fez is one of the world's most spectacular city-museums and exotic medieval labyrinth—mysterious, mesmerizing and sometimes overwhelming. Passing through one of the babs (gates) into Fez el-Bali is like entering a time warp, with only the numerous satellite dishes installed on nearly every roof as a reminder you're in the 21st century, not the 8th. As you maneuver your way through crowded passages illuminated by shafts of sunlight streaming through thatched roofs of the kissaria (covered markets), the cries of "Balek!" ("Watch out!") from donkey drivers pushing overloaded mules—overlapped with the cacophony of locals bartering, coppersmiths hammering, and citywide call to prayer—blend with the strong odors of aromatic spices, fresh dung, curing leather, and smoking grills for an incredible sensorial experience you will never forget.
Designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Fez and Meknes are respectively, the Arab and Berber capitals of Morocco, ancient centers of learning. culture. and craftsmanship. Recognized as Morocco's intellectual and spiritual center, Fez has one of the world's oldest universities as well as the largest intact medieval quarters. It is the country's second-largest city (after Casablanca) with a population of approximately 1 million. Meknes, with nearly 850000 inhabitants, offers a chance to experience all the sights, sounds, and smells of Fez on a slightly smaller, more manageable scale. Both Fez and Meknes still remain two of Morocco's most authentic and fascinating cities, outstanding for their history and culture and rival Marrakesh as top tourist destinations and hosts of international events and festivals.
In between Fez and Marrakesh, the Middle Atlas is a North African Arcadia, where rivers, woodlands, and valley grasslands show off Morocco's inland beauty. Snowy cedar forests, ski slopes, and trout streams are not images normally associated with the country, yet the Middle Atlas unfolds like an ersatz alpine fantasy less than an hour from medieval Fez. To remind you that this is still North Africa, Barbary monkeys scurry around the roadsides, and the traditional djellaba (hooded gown) and veil appear in ski areas.
Most travelers to Morocco can get a glance of the Middle Atlas as they whiz between Fez and Marrakesh, or between Meknes and points south. The central highland's Berber villages, secret valleys, scenic woods, dramatically barren landscapes, and hilly plains blanketed with olive groves lie in stark contrast to the exotic imperial cities. For this reason alone, the region is rewarding to discover for its integrity and authenticity.
Fez el-Bali is a living crafts workshop and market that has changed little in the past millennium. With no vehicles allowed and some 1.000 very narrow debris (dead-end alleys), it beckons the walker on an endless and absorbing odyssey. Exploring this honeycomb of 9th-century alleys and passageways with occasionally chaotic crowds, steep inclines and pitted cobblestone steps is a challenging adventure. At night, the adventure can become quite intimidating. Fez isn't really yours, however, until you've tackled it on your own. become hopelessly lost a few times. and survived to tell the tale.
Bou Inania Medersa
Musee des Armes
Musee Nejjarine des Arts et Metiers du Bois
This little henna market is one of the medina's most picturesque squares, with a massive, gnarled fig tree in the center and rows of spices, hennas, kohls, and aphrodisiacs for sale in the tiny stalls around the edges. The ceramic shops on the way into the henna souk sell a wide variety of typically blue Fassi pottery. At the square's end is a plaque dedicated to the Maristan Sidi Frej, a medical center and psychiatric and teaching hospital built by the Merenid ruler Youssef Ibn Yakoub in 1286. Used as a model for the world's first mental hospital—founded in Valencia, Spain, in 1410—the Maristan operated until 1944.
Terrasse des Tanneurs
The medieval tanneries are at once beautiful, for their ancient dyeing vats of reds, yellows, and blues, and unforgettable, for the nauseating, putrid smell of rotting animal flesh on sheep, goat, cow, and camel skins. The terrace overlooking the dyeing vats is high enough to escape the place's full fetid power and get a spectacular view over the multicolor vats. Absorb both the process and the finished product on Chouara Lablida, just past Rue Mechatine (named for the combs made from animals' horns): numerous stores are filled with loads of leather goods, including coats, bags, and babouches (traditional slippers). One of the shopkeepers will explain what's going on in the tanneries below—how the skins are placed successively in saline solution, lime, pigeon droppings, and then any of several natural dyes: poppies for red, tumeric for yellow, saffron for orange, indigo for blue, and mint for green. Barefoot workers in shorts pick up skins from the bottoms of the dyeing vats with their feet, then work them manually. Though this may look like the world's least desirable job, the work is relatively well paid and still in demand for a strong export market.
Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II
Originally built by the Idriss dynasty in the 9th century in honor of the city's founder—just 33 at the time of his death—this zaouia (sanctuary) was restored by the Merenid dynasty in the 13th century and has became one of the medina's holiest shrines. Particularly known for his baraka (divine protection), Moulay Idriss II had an especially strong cult among women seeking fertility and pilgrims hoping for good luck. The wooden beam at the entrance, about 6 feet from the ground, was originally placed there to keep Jews, Christians, and donkeys out of the horm, the sacred area surrounding the shrine itself. Inside the horm, Moroccans have historically enjoyed official sanctuary—they cannot be arrested if sought by the law. You may be able to catch a glimpse of the saint's tomb at the far right corner through the doorway; look for the fervently faithful burning candles and incense and tomb's silk-brocade covering. Note the rough wooden doors themselves, worn smooth with hundreds of years of kissing and caressing the wood for baraka.
Fez el-Djedid (New Fez) lies southwest of Bab Boujeloud between Fez el-Bali and the Ville Nouvelle. Built after 1273 by the Merenid dynasty as a govrenment seat and stronghold, it remained the administrative center of Morocco until 1912, when Rabat took over this role and diminished this area's visibility and activity. The three distinct segments of Fez el-Djedid consist of the Royal Palace in the west, the Jewish Quarter in the south, and Muslim District in the east.
Bab es Seba
Named for the seven (seba) brothers of Moulay Abdellah who reigned during the 18th century, the Gate of Seven connects two open spaces originally designed for military parades and royal ceremonies, the Petit Méchouar and Vieux Méchouar, now known as Moulay Hassan II Square. It was from this gate that Prince Ferdinand, brother of Duarte, king of Portugal, was hanged head-down for four days in 1437 after being captured during a failed Portuguese invasion of Tangier.
Fez's Royal Palace and gardens are strictly closed to the public, but they're an impressive sight even from the outside. From Place des Alaouites, take a close look at the door's giant brass knockers, made by artisans from Fez el-Bali, as well as the brass doors themselves. Inside are various palaces, 200 acres of gardens, and parade grounds, as well as a medersa founded in 1320. One of the palaces inside, Dar el-Qimma, has intricately engraved and painted ceilings. The street running along the palace's southeast side is Rue Bou Khessissat, one side of which is lined with typically ornate residential facades from the Mellah's edge. Note: Security in this area is high and should be respected. Guards watch visitors carefully and will warn that photographs of the palace are forbidden; cameras are sometimes confiscated.
With its characteristically ornate balconies and forged-iron windows, the Mellah was created in the 15th century when the Jews, forced out of the medina in one of Morocco's recurrent pogroms, were removed from their previous ghetto near Bab Guissa and set up as royal financial consultants and buffers between the Merenid rulers and the people. Fez's Jewish community suffered repressive measures until the beginning of the French protectorate in 1912. Faced with an uncertain future after Morocco gained independence in 1956, nearly all of Fez's Jews migrated to Israel, the United States, or Casablanca. Head to the terrace of Danan Synagogue on Rue Der el-Ferah Teati for a panoramic view of the district.
Museum of Moroccan Arts
Housed in Dar Batha, a late-19th-century Andalusian palace built by Moulay el Hassan, the museum of Moroccan Arts has one of Morocco's finest handicrafts collections. The display of pottery, for which Fez is particularly famous, includes rural earthenware crockery and elaborate plates painted with geometrical patterns. Other displays feature embroidery stitched with real gold, astrolabes from the 11th to the 18th century, illuminated Korans, and Berber carpets and kilims.
Moulay Abdellah Quarter
Built by the Merenids as a government seat and a stronghold against their subjects, this area lost its purpose when Rabat became the Moroccan capital under the French protectorate in 1912. Subsequently a red-light district filled with brothels and dance halls, the quarter was closed to foreigners for years. Historic highlights include the vertically green-striped Moulay Abdellah Mosque and the Great Mosque Abu Haq, built by the Merenid sultan in 1276.