The medina of Fes, also called Fes el-bali, is home to more than half a million people in a densely packed ubran mass at the bottom of a valley. The distinct green-roofed mosques in this picture are where it all started. The two mosques - suposedly founded by two sisters are the Kairouan and Andalusian mosques. The Kairouan settlement was populated by exiles from Tunisia and the Andalusian area was founded just across the river by exiles from southern Spain (hence the name). The cities grew together quickly and a few hundred years later they were walled in. The medina has not changed substantially since the walls were completed - unless you count the addition of a few thousand satellite dishes on the rooftops.
The ruins of the Merenid tombs (top left) overlook the city of Fes. Sooner or later most visitors find themselves there, not so much to see the tombs themselves (which little is known about) but more for the panoramic view of Fes, the Rif mountains and the Atlas mountains. Both the previous picture and the following one were taken from that vantage point.
Fes is generally divided into three parts - the new city (nouvelle ville), the middle city (Fes el-jdid) and the old city (Fes el-bali). Many visitors, particularly those in medium or large sized groups stay in the new city where all the larger hotels with amenities like parking are located. We stayed in the old city, so for us the new city was basically limited to a couple of taxi rides to and from the train station and one visit to a car rental office. This is a picture taken along the road from the new city to the old city. Unlike other Moroccan cities, one can't easy walk from the new city of Fes to the medina. The building on the hill is a borj (fortress) - one of two which protect Fes. As for the bicycle cart full of plastic bottles - that's just to remind you that you're in Africa.
The middle city contains the royal palace and the mellah (Jewish quarter) as well as a few nice gardens. It is located just slightly above the old city and is within walking distance. This is one of the many gates into the middle city.
The mellah of Fes, like the mellah of any Moroccan city is most easily distinguishable by the presence of windows, balconies and external decorations on the homes. Islamic homes tend to be square constructions with an internal courtyard and everything is oriented towards that courtyard. As a result the outside of the building is often just unadorned walls with a single door.
The royal palace of Fes is still in use by the current royal family so this is about as much as can be seen of it. You are however allowed to walk right up to the gates and admire the tile-work, woodwork and the brass doors .
The most notable feature of old Fes is the complete and total lack of open spaces. There is no greenery visible from the streets. The streets themselves are rarely wider than a donkey-cart and there are no car-accessible areas. The handful of plazas are very small and in general the medina is one giant labyrinth. The major landmarks are the closest road access points. This one is place r'cif and is a massive congregation of buses, grand taxis, petit taxis and randomly parked private cars. The few signs that exist in the medina point the way to the half dozen or so access points around the outside of the city and the best way to learn to navigate the medina is to first learn your way to and from one of these plazas.
There are only a couple of specific points of interest in Fes. Most of the pleasure of Fes is just from random wandering even though the locals tend to discourage it. Of course, most of them discourage it because most of them make a full or partial living as a guide. We hired a government guide for our first day in Fes and spent the next three days declining further offers of assistance. This incidentally is one of those specific interest points - the Bou Inania Medersa. Medersas were Islamic theological schools and they consist of a central courtyard with a mosque along one side. Other sides of the courtyard contain dormitory rooms for the students.
This particular medersa is the only one in Fes accessible to non-Muslims. It was built in the 14th century by which we mean any year in the western calendar starting with the numbers 1 and 3. Why do we point this out? Our guide seemed to delight in using the differences between the Christian and Islamic calendars to make some things seem more impressive than they were. For example, an olive press in the Batha museum was in use in the early 1900s AD (or C.E.). In the Islamic calendar this would be the early 1300s. Thus our guide would claim first that it was an olive press from the 1300s (technically true) and that it was 700 years old (not even remotely true).
Speaking of our guide, here he is. We had no problems with our guide and I suspect he was quite happy with us since he no doubt received a commission from the carpet co-op and the tannery he took us to as well as the over-priced tourist restaurant we had lunch at. The general thing to remember with a guide is that while they are being paid to go where you want them to go they will fill in the cracks with the places they'd like you to go. This isn't a major drawback it's just something to keep in mind. The actual purpose of this picture was to demonstrate the width of an average 'street' in the medina of Fes.
We visited two museums in Fes. The first - the Batha museum is an old palace which now has rooms related to the history of the Fes region. Despite the multi-lingual informational signs on every exhibit, the Batha museum cannot be visited without a guide. This seems like a strange condition to us and if you're fluent in French or Arabic we'd highly recommend reading some of the exhibit markers on your own.
The second museum is the Nejjarine which is an oasis of calm in the very center of the medina. It also has some of the cleanest restrooms in the medina so time your visit accordingly. Besides all that it is a restored caravanserai (inn) from the days of the trade route to Timbuktu. Oh, and lastly it is an actual museum featuring anything and everything ever made out of wood in the history of Fes.
But wait - there's more. If all that wasn't enough reason to visit the Nejjarine there's also a very nice rooftop viewing platform with views around Fes. There is a small café up there as well serving mint tea in case it's been more than an hour since your last mint tea. Looking down from the roof, this is place Nejjarine - possible the largest open square in the medina.
Other directions from the roof tend to look like this. There are maps of Fes available but their usefulness is somewhat dubious. We participate in orienteering and adventure races every year and generally feel we have excellent map skills. Marrakesh has perfectly good medina maps, but that of Fes is only slightly better than wandering at random. The people of Fes seem to take a lot of pride in the confusing and chaotic layout of their city and there's certainly a cottage industry of kids accepting payment to lead tourists to the destination of their choice. The general rule of thumb here is to choose the youngest available child as they will not only ask for the least amount of money, they'll accept a reasonable amount with the least complaining.
The carpet buying experience in Morocco is a memorable one. It's also a bit stressful. We had done our homework and knew what to expect but it's still the sort of two hours one looks back on with a mixture of nostalgia and dread. We visited a government co-op with has the advantage that all carpets are tagged and classified according to grade. Furthermore they accept credit cards and ship directly to our local post office. The disadvantage is that haggling is either discouraged or only allowed at a minimal level, and they don't tend to carry lower-end carpets so it's not the best place to go if you're looking for a handful of simple rugs as souvenirs.
The experience begins on cushions like these with a first glass of mint tea and the usual array of questions anyone in Moroco will ask (where are you from, what do you do, etc..). All of these questions are indirect forms of asking how much money you have. Then come the carpets. We probably had about 100 displayed in front of us, we narrowed it down to 5 or 6 favorites and then slight variations of color and pattern were shown. More mint tea is served, slowly the floor of the co-op becomes visible again as we continue to eliminate carpets. The selling begins in earnest as the highly multi-lingual salesman attempts to cajole us into spending 10 or 20 times what we had intended and then in the end there is some haggling over prices and some more mint tea. When we left we felt vaguely uncertain of what we had just done and highly averse to ever having mint tea again. Really though it's not all that bad and now that we have our carpet at home we're quite happy with it.
Next stop for shopping - the tanneries. It's nearly impossible to get a good look at the tanneries without entering a maze of rooms selling the products associated with that tannery. We believe there are three tanneries in Fes, although there could be more. They tend to be located along the river (the lowest point) and you can always smell them when you start to get close. The smell was not as bad as we might have expected, but it could easily be far worse in the heat of the summer. In this picture the white vats contain lye which is amassed from pigeon droppings (adding to the odor), the colored vat contain vegetable dyes, mostly from assorted tree barks and roots. The walls on the left hold drying skins.
If we turn around from the balconies overlooking the vats the view looks something like this. Everything comes in several grades and a vast array of colors. Slippers, gloves, jackets, poufs, belts, purses and wallets are the most common items. The skins themselves come from camels, cows, goats and sheep. The accumulated knowledge from other travelers seemed to be that it was worth buying a higher quality item (i.e. more expensive) if you didn't want your home to smell like a dead camel a few weeks later. We are writing this a couple weeks later and our home does not smell like a dead camel so I guess it worked out ok for us.
We found food in Fes to be difficult at first. Eating in a restaurant often involved such a vast amount of food that we could barely manage one meal a day. Thus for a couple days we never bothered entering a restaurant and just bought nuts, fruit and bread from the street vendors. This is a very flexible and cheap way to eat, plus you can try new and unusual fruits like those of the strawberry tree. At least they were new to us. These look like a cross between a raspberry and a lychee. They don't really taste like much of anything, but since you can get a couple dozen for a dirham, they're worth a try. This meal comes from Café Medina which is located just outside the Bab Bou Jeloud. In the foreground is Kefta tagine (which always comes with a fried egg on top). The far plate is kefta brochettes. Any fresh citrus beverage (citronade and orange juice in this picture) is exemplary throughout Morocco.