Last Updated: 2020-11-30
15 gateways, more than 300 neighborhoods and more than 9000 alleys makeup Fez el-Bali, the oldest medina in Fez. Other places worth admiring are Fez el-Jdid (the city’s second medina) or the Ville Nouvelle (the French section), as well as different places that connect the three areas.
You could almost say that Fez is an infinite city. Unfortunately, vacation days that we can spend exploring other worlds are not infinite. So, on a trip to Morocco, we usually only have one day, or two at most, to discover the oldest of the imperial cities.
So, I’ll bite the bullet, and resign myself to being brief and to the point in this article. We’ll discuss what to do in Fez into two parts. The first part will focus on its oldest medina. The second will focus on what the lucky travelers who can spend one more day of their vacation in Fez can see, including the second medina as well as other places that will allow us to understand the kaleidoscope of cultures that make up this city.
Let’s get started!
An Initial Warning: Touring a Medina
Medinas are maze-like by design. The idea being that, in times past, any stranger with dubious intentions who tried to penetrate it would get lost and the fury of the inhabitants citizens would befall him.
Today something disturbingly similar occurs: if a tourist decides to tour the medina on their own, they will surely get lost. Then, a local entrepreneur “offers their help”, which usually means taking the tourist to a store where he’ll get a kick-back or maybe he’ll just charge for his guide service, or maybe both.
Fortunately, there are medinas that are easy to navigate. These are either smaller in size, like the one in Chaouen, or were built more recently in a more linear fashion, like the medina in Essaouira.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in Fez. I once met a local guide who had decided to move there, and I asked him how long it had taken him to get around the medina freely enough to offer his services. Approximately 3 months he told me, although he noted that there are still times that he gets lost. He then approaches a fellow citizen to get his bearings. He takes advantage of the fact that since he’s speaking in Arabic the tourists he’s guiding will think that he’s simply greeting a friend rather than asking for help.
So, we can’t call this article “how to get around the Fez medina like a fish in water” because it’s simply not realistic. But it is useful in two cases:
If you have never visited a medina and you acquire the services of a local guide, this article will help you to make sure that you visit all the essential places.
I highly recommend a professional local guide; you will recognize them by the ID badge they wear around their necks. Although they’re more expensive, it’s worth it because not only will you be helping a qualified worker to make a living but you’ll also avoid the embarrassment of your guide running away if you happen upon the police (not unknown to happen).
If you’re already used to getting around in ancient, labyrinthine cities, this will help you to get your bearings and recognize the main sections of the medina on your own.
The medina has two main arteries that cross it almost in parallel, Tala’a Kbira and Tala’a Sghira. Our route will mostly follow the Tala’a Kbira, since a large part of the places of interest are on or around it. There have been signs for years showing visitors how to arrive at these places. Despite all of this, getting around on your own is still not an easy task.
Don’t let your imagination play tricks on you imagining a large avenue with well-marked signs and small connecting streets. This is a Moroccan medina and as such, the feeling of chaos is ever-present. If your eye is sufficiently trained, though, with a little effort you can do the whole route successfully on your own.
If, despite this, you get lost (which will probably happen) instead of panicking, try the following steps in order to return to the main avenue or the next place of interest.
First of all, don’t stop walking. A stranger standing and looking around is an invitation for a hustler to offer to “help”. Alternatively, it’s an opportunity for a merchant to insist on you entering his shop “just to take a look”, if you happen to stop in front of it. I insist that you keep walking, slowly but surely.
Now that you are walking, focus on getting back to the Tala’a Kbira by observing the signs and the streets parallel and perpendicular to the one you are on. If any of them seems to have a lot more foot traffic, that’s probably the one you are looking for.
If this fails, seek help, but make sure to ask a woman or an old person. It’s typical for them to help just out of the kindness of their hearts.
If none of the previous steps work, you’ll have no choice but to pay for help. In such a case, make it clear that your only intention is to return to the Tala’a Kbira (or the next place that you would like to see) and agree on the price in advance. It shouldn’t cost a lot (10 dirhams at the most). And although you may have an overwhelming feeling of doom, imagining that you are completely on the other side of the medina, you’ll probably find out that you are only a couple of streets off and in a few minutes you’ll be back on the right path.
I’m not going to deny it, it doesn’t sound easy and it truly isn’t, but if you are one of those people who feel that traveling is not merely a way to relax, but also a way to get to explore other cultures, learning the skill necessary to navigate the medinas of Morocco is deeply rewarding.
Grasping the Layout of Fez: the Borj Nord Lookout
Before starting, it is best to get a bird’s-eye view of the medina, in order to understand the structure of the seemingly chaotic medina before we dive into it.
To do this, we climb to one of the city’s highest watchtowers. It’s easy to get there, since it’s next to one of the bus stations in the city. The most convenient thing to do, however, is to take a Petit taxi, at an approximate cost of 20 dirhams.
We can give our eyes some exercise and take the time to understand how it’s organized from above. From here, we can distinguish the most notable sites and recognize its two main streets and the route that we’ll take, entering through the western end of the medina and leaving through the East.
Touring Fez el-Bali
Bab Bou Jeloud
We begin our visit with the best known entrance to the medina, the Bab Bou Jeloud (meaning: the Blue Door), which owes its name to the blue tiles it’s adorned with. Interestingly, the façade of the same entrance is decorated with similar tiles but in green on the inside of the medina, which is the characteristic color of Islam.
Once we cross the threshold, it feels as if we traveled back in time. There’s an overwhelming feeling that comes from the narrow and crowded streets, bustling with the traffic of people and donkeys (the only possible means of transport in the medina due to its layout) and rows of shops. All these one-of-a-kind features make up the unique personality of this extraordinary space.
Bou Inania Madrasa
Once we have gone through the Bab Bou Jeloud we reach a small square that also connects to several other streets. Leaving behind the entrance to the medina, directly in front of us will be Tala’a Kbira and Tala’a Sghira. The first street we take is the one on the left.
A few meters from our starting point we find ourselves next to the Bou Inania Madrasa, one of the most representative Koranic schools in Morocco. It’s also a perfect architectural example of how to combine different materials and details into an elegant ensemble. While it’s true that we’ll probably only be allowed to visit the central courtyard, this does not limit our ability to imagine the very special community of students that call this building home.
Something quaint that often goes unnoticed: in front of the Madrasa is Dar al-Magana (meaning: the Clock House), which has a water clock on its inside wall (which we can see by going through an alley located on the left). While currently in disuse, there are plans to repair it soon.
The water clock has 12 windows and 13 small wooden platforms that we can see now, where there used to be 13 bronze bowls. It used a hydraulic pulley system, a cart moved on a rail. When it moved forward it would open each of the windows, releasing metal balls that fell into each bowl producing a characteristic sound. A vital tool in the Muslim culture, there would be no need to ask if it was time to break a fast or to go to the mosque.
We return to the main street and walk along it while being captivated by all the shops lining the road featuring products and displays that seem like they’re from the Middle Ages.
The most outstanding feature of this area are the fondouks, which are old inns that catered to merchants who visited the city. They used to have a ground floor for storing merchandise and livestock under lock and key, and one or two upper floors for sleeping. Today they’re used as workshops and stores.
One of the most picturesque things we will see is the Fondouk Kaat Smen, meaning the Butter Inn, on our left, where we can see first-hand the centuries-old utensils used to make this dairy product, so present in Moroccan cuisine.
Then, on the right hand side is Fondouk Tazi, run by five families that produce crafts of all kinds, from leather to ceramics. Probably the best chance to observe the complete production process of a variety of craft products.
If it seems like we haven’t seen much, we can continue down this street and enter the heart of Souk Ain Allou. This is the oldest and one of the main souks of the city. Rows of shops surround us on our left and right.
For our next stop we’ll take the Tala’a Kbira street until it meets back up with the Tala’a Sghira (as a hint, there is a restaurant called Dar Saada where these two meet).
The second street on the right after the crossroads is called Rue Nejjarine, which leads us to the Nejjarine Square. It’s a distinct space with a large public fountain and the Nejjarine Museum, a former Fondouk converted into a woodworking museum.
To the right of the fountain there is a semi-covered street that leads us to a shopping street filled with all kinds of products. The commonality among these shops is that most tourists are not typically enticed by their wares. You can find anything from wooden locks to wedding thrones to combs carved out of horns.
Souk El Henna and Souk Attarina
To avoid complicating our route, I recommend going back to Tala’a Kbira. Once we get back on this road, a few steps away and to our right there are two unique souks that are very popular with locals in the area, since practically everything on offer here is for daily consumption.
The first of these is the Souk El Henna, where not only all henna-derived products are sold, but also cosmetics. Right next to it we have the Souk Attarina, specializing in spices and nuts. You might max out your camera’s memory. The colorful displays of merchandise, added to the fact that each spice and nut has its own uniqueness, make this souk very photogenic. This souk also has a highly recommended fondouk of the same name.
The Mausoleum of Mulay Idris II
Once we leave the two souks behind, we turn into the next alley on our right to the Mausoleum of Mulay Idris II, dedicated to the memory of the second founder of the city of Fez. As you will surely guess, it’s a place of great religious meaning and pilgrimage. As you may have also guessed, it’s not possible for non-Muslims to enter.
Al Karaouine Mosque
After visiting the Mausoleum, we return to the main street. At the end of this street, on the right hand side is the Al Karaouine Mosque, established in the year 859 and continually expanded throughout its history.
An interesting fact, this is the oldest university in the world. I bet all my dirhams that if you go with a local guide they’ll tell you all about it.
However, as it continues to function as a place of worship as well, non-Muslims cannot enter. But we can all visit its library, in the back, and the Attarine Madrasa, in front, which has a similar layout, though smaller, is similar to the Bou Inania Madrasa and no less interesting.
Lalla Yeddouna Plaza
Our tour is about to end, but before it does, the medina surprises us again as we head on down to the main street down by the river.
Yes, believe it or not, there is a river that runs from north to south through the medina of Fez, although we can only see it in this section since the rest of it runs underground.
Despite the inward urban crawl of the medina, the plaza and the riverside area were able to stave off erosion and today make up one of the largest recreation areas in the city.
If we follow the river bed to our left, we soon arrive at the Chouara Tannery. The smell becomes more and more intense and alerts us that we are getting closer.
It’s not located here by accident. In the beginning, all the trades occupied specific areas in Moroccan medinas. Little by little tanneries were moved to the outskirts due to their no-so-pleasant smell. In the case of Fez, the tanneries also benefit from their location near the river, as they need to use large amounts of water.
It’s important to clarify that the tannery is surrounded by bazaars with several floors, each one dedicated to a different leather item. The good news is that, when viewing the process from the bazaar balconies at a certain height, the smell is not as strong. Another is that the visit is free. The bad news is that owner of the bazaar, although he’ll assure us that we’re welcome whether we buy anything or not, he’ll still do his best to persuade us to make a purchase.
Opinions regarding this trade and this place are usually one extreme or the other. There are those who think it’s a must see, while there are also those who don’t understand how anyone would want to visit such a spot just to watch workers dipping their feet and hands in jars full of lime, pigeon droppings, ashes and cow urine, all the time putting up with the stench produced by the fermentation process that is almost unbearable even at a distance of more than 30 feet (10 m) while holding a bouquet of mint to make it a little more tolerable.
Be that as it may, it’s a sight that you‘ll never forget. You can decide for yourself whether this is enough reason to visit or not.
Finally, once we finish our visit we look around us to locate a row of parking lots, which the river runs under. When we walk away from the river, we reach a large esplanade where we find yet another salesperson who still hopes to sell us some last minute souvenirs along with a roundabout where taxis continually pass by. We shouldn’t expect to pay more than 25 dirhams for a ride home, even if our hotel is on the outskirts of the city.
That’s it, I hope this article has transported you to one of the most fascinating medinas in Morocco. Much love to all and see you in the next post!
If you want to know more about the city, check out our Fez tourism guide.