Many-walled Fez rose up before us out of the plain toward the end of the day. The walls and towers we saw were those of the upper town, Fez Eldjid (the New), which lies on the edge of the plateau and hides from view Old Fez tumbling down below it into the ravine of the Oued Fez. Thus approached, the city presents to view only a long line of ramparts and fortresses, merging into the wide, tawny plain and framed in barren mountains. Not a house is visible outside the walls, except, at a respectful distance, the few unobtrusive buildings of the European colony, and not a village breaks the desolation of the landscape. - Edith Wharton
And that, dear readers, is the perfect description of Fes. There is very little to add to Edith Wharton’s description of the city and its environs but I am going to go ahead and try.
After a long stay in Meknes, we took a prearranged taxi to Fes. It was cheaper and easier than taking two taxis and a bus and by now we had copious amounts of luggage. To be honest, what we had read about Fes was the least accurate and the least helpful of any touristic information we had during the 10 months that we traveled. Wharton’s 100 year old description was more helpful than the blogs we read or the major travel sites we skimmed.
Fes was touted as having great shopping - we did not find it to be so. The medersas that were proclaimed as being beautiful and mysterious were closed to the public except one of them and that one for only one hour a day. Many restaurants and museums were closed as well. Perhaps that is because It was off-season because we had found the same to be true in Marrakech and Meknes and we did not expect things to be bustling. But for some reason, Fes was less “open” than the other places we visited.
But the approach is gorgeous. It really looks like a hollywood movie set - tower after tower, tiled gate after tiled gate, telescoping into the river valley and back out again - Fes looks like a dream. Fes has hills all around it and they are full of herds of goats and horses, caves and castles. The city itself is full of winding and narrow streets, many of them quite steep, that lead often to dead ends or archways that abruptly open into the hollow shells of abandoned buildings. While we mostly wandered in Marrakech we got good and thoroughly lost in Fes.
We had rented a house in Fes - a large 12 room house - for under $45 a night. Finding it with the maps on the phone was impossible so we paid a man at the gate to walk us in. The streets and buildings were grey upon grey - none of the brilliance of Essaouira nor the colorful dinginess of Meknes to distinguish them. People are dressed in gray and beige, the sunshine does not penetrate the souks, and the light is full of shiny, dusty particles.
A misty radiance washes the tall houses, the garden-walls, the archways, even the moonlight does not whiten Fez, but only turns its gray to tarnished silver...Fez promises fantastic revelations of native life; but the dun-colored crowds moving through its checkered twilight, the lack of carved shop-fronts and gaily adorned coffee-houses, and the absence of the painted coffers and vivid embroideries of Tunis, remind one that Morocco is a melancholy country, and Fez a profoundly melancholy city. - Edith Wharton
THIS IS THE BEST QUOTE ABOUT FEZ. It is absolutely true. But there were highlights nonetheless, that made Fes yet another awe-inspiring place to visit in Morocco.
1. The Medersa - The one Medersa we did visit in Fes, Bou Inania, was really lovely. They have an active community there and the building is shuttered to tourists and non-muslims the majority of the time. There were about 20 visitors clogging the narrow street outside waiting for the stream of the faithful to pour out the doors. We had lunch across the alley and paid the bouncer for a look. It was sunny and warm that day and it made for pretty photos.
2. The Garden - Outside the Medina of Fes there is a really pretty garden near the palace called Jnan Sbil. It makes a nice walk. As in Spain and other Moorish-influenced places, the gardens provide a respite from the chaos and the dust. While we walked a group of college students were blowing up balloons and hanging streamers for an impromptu birthday party for a friend. Lots of kids ran screaming down the paths and couples sat intimately on benches in the shade. It is a great place to people watch.
A minaret springs up between the roofs like a palm, and from its balcony the little white figure bends over and drops a blessing on all the loveliness and all the squalor. - Edith Wharton
3. The Photography - Fes is famous on Instagram and for even an amateur photographer, is a wealth of opportunites.
The tanneries of Fes are renowned for their photogenic nature and the mysterious streets, gates and shops all make great material.
4. The Shopping - The two long market streets that run from the Blue Gate to El Jamai and the Tannery are called Tebira and Sghira. They have some interesting places to browse Including extensive leather and ceramics shops. Taking pictures in the souk is tricky but can yield memorable shots.
5. The Museum - One of the highlights of Fes for us was a trip to the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. Deep in the medina, we wound around and asked for directions twice but eventually found the impressive entrance in a round courtyard where many streets meet. The museum is really beautiful and interesting. If you are into museums, like we are, you will love it. If you have an interest in woodworking or in artisanship then you will be delighted.
The museum is housed in a funduq - an inn for traveling merchants and all three floors are filled with wonderful and historic pieces. If you read about it online, it says no pictures but everyone was taking them when we were there...so we did. The roof has a little cafe and expansive views of the medina.
6. The Day Trip - We knew we could have taken a public bus and seen Chefchaouen on our own, but we decided to do a tour instead. Actually, we decided to use the transport provided by the tour to see the famed Blue City, but we didn’t actually take the tour. We were shuttled around between gates and cars for about 30 minutes and then, along with a Spanish and an Italian couple, went north to Chefchaouen.
One restaurant that we liked in Chefchaouen was Hamsa. They had vegetarian and vegan options and really good coffee and tea service. The rooftop dining is incredible.
It is about a 3 1/2 hour drive - most of it is very interesting and pretty. We made a couple of pitstops but the majority of the day was spent in the town itself. What a wonder! It is even better than the pictures you see when you figure out how to spell it and look it up online. If we had it to do over, we would have spent a little more money on better tours.* That was one area where we only chose inexpensive operators and were surprised by the quality and service we DID receive (a lucky break) in Marrakech and didn‘t receive, in Fes. But Chefchaouen is so dreamy, it really didn‘t matter because we got to walk through the dream that is the Blue City.
The End of the Road - When we left Fes, we left Morocco. What an incredible month! We loved every minute of it and we recommend Morocco with a couple of reservations. Vegans are not catered to in Morocco and animal lovers be warned, this is not a gentle nation. The butchery street near the Blue Gate in Fes prompted us to gag and cover our faces. At one point I had to close my eyes and follow Peter out of there. It is harsh. The donkeys in Fes were overburdened and sad to see.
This is the reality of foreign travel - you may not like everything but you will find something that makes you love a place, even while you wish other aspects were different. You have to be able to hold these two realities in your mind at the same time to be able to travel deeply and widely. You must suspend your judgement even while you are turning away in sadness or disgust. Acknowledge the differences and move on.
When we were leaving Fes, via train to Casablanca and then flying to London, I got very sick - bronchitis and a serious sinus infection. Thank God for the wonderful pharmacy on the southern bank of town. It is such a relief to get good care in a foreign country. The OTHER side of Fes is really local and authentic. We got some medicine and walked through the market that regular Moroccans go to, seeing no tourists at all but plenty of strange sites like a gentleman selling baby chicks to kids and a pile of mannequins.
We had so much luggage and I was ill so our host helped us get to the gate to catch a $2 cab to the train station. We found the cab service in Fes to be exceptional! And trust the dudes at the gate with your luggage. They were all very helpful without being pushy and it is such a relief to hand your cases over to someone and know that your small amount of money goes to an enterprising and hard-working (usually older) man. Morocco is the land of the deserved tip - go ahead and add a Moroccan dollar or ten to whatever charge is quoted.
Nothing endures in Islam, except what human inertia has left standing and its own solidity has preserved from the elements. Or rather, nothing remains intact, and nothing wholly perishes, but the architecture, like all else, lingers on half-ruined and half-unchanged. - Edith Wharton
We hope that most things in Morocco never change. It is such a beautiful place. The eye for detail, the color and the light, the people, the languages, all of it are part of a beautiful mosaic that remains a puzzle even for seasoned travelers. Yes, Morocco, like much of Africa, can be a challenge for a first timer. It is not always easy to get what you need or want but it is always a blessing to be helped by someone on the street or in your riad and in the meantime get to know people better than you would have if the place were better organized or if everything were in English.
On Islam, we can only say that the devout muslims we met were good and honest people who shared a little bit about their beliefs as we did ours in the hope of understanding and inclusion, not judgement. One young man who worked at our riad in Marrakech said that we would make good muslims and that we should read the Quran. We took that as a deep compliment. But Islam is not the dominating force in Morocco. There is a monarchy, a variety of cultures and languages, many landscapes and people in all kinds of industries and arts who make the land rich and rewarding, as we found out in our weeks in Morocco.
* (If you don’t feel up to organizing your own travel in Morocco) Recommended tour provider: https://www.moroccoinfocus.com/ - fantastic and customizable tours in the affordable luxury category with excellent customer service and cheerful agents