The medina, the old part of Fes city, is considered the biggest pedestrian area in the world… but it’s just by chance, being the result from the narrow and maze streets of this compact urban area, with an extremely high population density, with two-thirds of the Fes population living there. But things are changing, and small trucks have slowly replaced the use of donkeys to carry goods. Still, walking on foot is the only option to move around the medina, and getting lost in this labyrinth is part of Fes experience.
But in fact, moving random is the best way to visit and feel the local lifestyle of the medina, find hidden alleys, be surprised by the sunrays that bravely break the shadowy streets, walk through the colours of the fruits and vegetables of the street markers, find unexpected squares and yards, watch where a solitary tree resists urban pressure.
Basically… go with the flow and get lost in the medina!!!!
Fes medina is like a living being, changing all the time according to the local population schedules, a rhythm regulated by prayers calling, the smell of freshly baked bread, the freshness of the seasonal fruits, the sweet aroma of the dry fruits the acre of the olives, by the bubbling of hot tea being poured into the glass and savored with a quiet conversation.
It’s a busy and intense rhythm that fill up the streets but at the same time you feel that the time slows down as you watch the little shops that line the streets of the medina, each one dedicated to a specific craft or product, where it seems that nothing has changed in the last decades, where the arts and traditions pass from generation to generation without change or surprises.
Passing at the same place several times you are always surprised by something new that you didn’t spot before. And this is the beauty of the medina, where the ancient walls keep its own lifestyle and pace apart from the outside world.
But there’s also the other side of the city, with the high concentration of people putting in risk the delicate urban balance, where the lack of with some lack of infrastructure where buildings suffer from lack of maintenance threatens the safety of buildings in an area where the population has low economic resources.
A visit to the tanneries is a classic of a Fes experience… in fact it’s an impressive experience not just because of the famous nasty smell of the manufacturing leather process (that is not so disgusting as people say) but also because of the beauty of the place itself, where the sunlight provides a geometric play of contrasts. Officially there’s not an entrance to the tanneries, and the only option to see the tanneries is to enter in one of the many leather goods stores that invariably have a balcony or a rooftop from where you can watch the hard work that involves the leather manufacture, totally based on human labor.
So, if you want to see the tanneries from one of these shops it’s more or less expected that you buy something… I was able to avoid this pressure by arguing that being vegetarian did not use products of animal origin… that was received with a certain regret but well accepted.
As in Morocco, all the mosques are closed to non-muslim, the madrassas (Islamic schools) are the best opportunities to contact with the traditional Moroccan architecture, with impressive intricate Moorish ornaments. The Medrassa El Bouanania, a few meters from the Blue Gate is a very good example but it’s also very busy as it’s mandatory to any tourist tour in Fes medina… although it worth the visit. Entrance fee 20 Dirhams.
But for me, the most impressive memory of Fes was the public hammam! A real local experience that left me with glowing skin, a melting sensation in the body and a sleepy mood.
Where to sleep in Fes:
Being almost so popular as Marrakesh in terms of tourism, Fes offers many accommodation options for all budgets, from luxury riads to basic dorms.
I choose the Riad Verus, located outside medina walls but 5 minutes walking from Bab Boujeloud. It’s a nice and attractive place with a cool decoration…. but it doesn’t make my vibe, as is more a social/party place. The breakfast is famous, with a compromise between Moroccan and western style that mixes toast, fruit and yogurt, beans soup, juice and cakes, which didn’t impress me but it’s a good way to start the day. I got a bed in the top dorm, on the rooftop that was a bit chilly during the evening and away from the comfortable expected for a 140 Dirham bed.
I would not recommend it unless you’re looking for fun and partying in a city and alcohol is not available everywhere.
But the roof top of this hostel provide a very good view to the medina, and watching the sunset from the was very chill.
Where to eat in Fes:
Very close to Rue Talaa Sghira, not far from the Bab Boujeloud can find a big concentration of eateries with the traditional Moroccan food. There’s a big choice, from meat, bread, snacks, soups, sweets… Walking a 100 meters further you’ll see on your right another street (Rue de la Post) with several street stalls, that only start in the afternoon but are a good place for a quick meal.
Along the main streets, you’ll find several restaurants, most of them orientated to the tourist expectations and standards. To find the local eateries you must go to the small alleys… follow your senses, as the smell of the grilled meat, the steam of the tagines and the fragrance of the besara soup will guide you to the right place.
How to move around in Fes:
Fes is a big city, and to be honest, the two days that I spent there where not sufficient to explore more than the medina, the old walled city… but the medina itself has enough points of interest to keep you entertained for several days, as there is always something to discover in this vast labyrinth of streets.
About orientation in the medina, you’ll find a lot of tips on the internet, that of course, are useful but it will not resolve the problem of orientation in this maze. Some hostel and riads offer tours, but you’ll be conducting in a group along the main streets that are basically full of shops selling tourist orientated products, and missing the small alleys where the food markets and the more local lifestyle takes place. But if you are running out of time these tours are still a good option and Fes medina is so cool that even the most crowded areas are a delight for the senses.
I think it’s more interesting to explore the medina by yourself… maybe you skip one madrassa, a mosque, a Moorish detail or any other touristic sightseeing but you’ll be able to have a less standard experience.
Basically, there are two main “streets” that goes down from the Bab Boujeloud, one a bit on the left and the other more to the right; knowing that Bab Boujeloud is the West entrance and that the medina goes down as you walk East it’s a great help in terms of orientation. As you keep walking down, you’ll end you nearby a water canal.
Even when you feel lost… keep walking along the more busy streets, as a certain point you’ll end up coming out from the medina, and there your GPS will work well. But do not expect to find a place you’ve gone before or a store where you’d like to come back … maybe you might never find the same place again!!!!!
Avoid walking in the streets after 10 p.m. as at that time all the shops and restaurants are closed, the streets become deserted and the reference points that you had from the day will vanish, and it will more difficult to find the “mains” streets. With the dark and absence of people, I found that the medina gaining a somewhat sinister atmosphere with just a few young guys hanging around.
However, efforts have been made to make easier the orientation inside the medina and there are signs that you can flow, identified by colours, pointing the most important landmarks as Bab Boujloud and Place R’cif. You just need to look up while you walk… sometimes it looks like some of this sign are missing, so the best option is to ask to locals; don’t accept the help from people that are just hanging around the streets as sometimes they are touts that end up pushing you to shops or ask money for their guiding services… try to ask directly to the shop owners, they are trustful and will be pleased to help.
Google maps and maps.me are not reliable at all. Try the HERE WeGO app that is the only that can help you to orientate inside the medina.
Around the medina:
A bit far away from the medina, about 1.5 km away from the famous Blue Gate (Bab Boujeloud) is the Mellah, the Jewish quarter. Segregated during ages from the Muslim part of the city, this area shows up with a different vibe, quieter, with wider streets flanked by a more Westernized architecture but without losing the touch of Arab culture that dominates the whole city. To reach the old Synagogues you must walk through small alleys where the old buildings attest to the antiquity of the place.
Nearby, on the way back to the medina you can walk through Jnan Sbil (Parc du Boujloud), a green and fresh park where you can refill your batteries with nature. It closes on Mondays.
Didn’t have time to visit the Merenid tombs but I was advised to go for the nice medina views, particularly in the morning or before the sunset.