Surprise and Delight in Fez, Morocco

Fez spice vendor

It’s taken distance – in both geography and time – to fully appreciate our late summer visit to Fez, Morocco’s second most populous city and its cultural and spiritual center.

It’s a fascinating place, but I have to admit, I didn’t always enjoy our time there. The heat might have had something to do with it – just shy of 110 degrees every day, with very little reprieve even in the early mornings when I’d scramble up the staircase to our hotel’s rooftop for sunrise, or at night, well after the fiery orb made its exit.

Fez sunrise

Rooftop sunrise. The temperature was already in the 90’s!

Back in California though, as I went through the hundreds of pictures I snapped during this trip, I found myself itching for another go-around in this other-worldly place. What is it about Fez that makes it so enchanting?

It’s old, really old.

When people talk about Fez, they are usually referring to Fes el Bali, the walled, car-free part of the city that was founded in the late 8thcentury during the Idrisid Dynasty. While there is a more modern section of Fez, Ville Nouvelle, built in the first half of the 1900s by the French, it is Fes el Bali, also referred to as the Medina of Fez, where most visitors flock. Entering the medina through the sparkling Bab Bou Jeloud, or Blue Gate (one of the medina’s 14 portals), you are immediately transported to another time and place.

Blue Gate in Fez

The Blue Gate is the main western entrance to the medina.

The Blue Gate of Fez

The interior side of the Blue Gate is actually green, which is the color of Islam.

Electricity, satellite dishes, and Gucci knockoffs may have found their way here, but the twisting, mud brick streets and bustling, old-world markets feel positively medieval. You won’t find a one-stop supermarket in this part of Fez, or noisy garbage trucks making their morning runs. Instead, you’ll see sellers doing business at outdoor stalls, and a crew of tired looking donkeys hauling trash and anything else that needs hauling through the alleys.

Fez butcher

Stray cats eye a yummy meal at a butcher’s market stall.

 

Donkeys in Fes

There are no cars or trucks in the medina, so donkeys are used to transport goods, and even trash.

Adding to its historic allure is the University Al-Karaouine, considered to be the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world. Founded in 859 AD by a Tunisian woman named Fatima Al-Fihri, this school and mosque is closed to non-Muslims, so a peek inside will have to suffice.

University Al-Karaouine

The mosque at University Al-Karaouine is closed to non-Muslims, but you may be able to catch a glimpse inside.

 

It’s a labyrinth.

Cat in Fez alleyway

You never know what you’ll find in a Fez alleyway.

When you visit the medina, don’t expect to be awed by wide promenades lined with majestic buildings, or expansive green space with trees and lush gardens. The old city is a maze of alleyways (between 9,000 and 10,000 reportedly), some just the width of a person, and many leading to dead ends.

Street signs in Fes

Even a map won’t prevent you from getting lost in Fez!

There are no cars, no sidewalks, no crosswalks. Primary streets may be abuzz with people and commerce, but just a turn or two away, all you’ll hear is the echo of your own footsteps.

Fez alley

Some of the alleyways in Fez are not much wider than a single person.

One of the advantages of this labyrinth structure is that in the summer the medina stays a tiny bit cooler than the rest of the city because less sunlight gets through. On your first day in Fez, it’s best to hire a guide to show you the way. Then on the next day, try it yourself. Explore, absorb, and delight in getting lost. That’s the magic of Fez.

Fez market street

Some areas of the walled city of Fez get very little sunlight, which keeps it cooler than the parts of Fes outside the medina.

 

It’s a feast for the senses.

Fez spices

Fez is a delight – and sometimes an affront – to the senses. One does not go to this ancient city to check landmarks off a bucket list; you go to Fez to absorb its sometimes chaotic, sometimes symphonic assembly of sights, sounds, and yes, smells.

For an intense olfactory experience, follow your nose to the tanners’ quarter to observe barefoot workers tread animal skins in dying vats to make leather goods.

Fes tannery

A visit to one of the pungent tanneries in Fez is a must-do.

Peruse the bustling souks, or markets, where vendors peddle anything and everything – vegetables, fruits, spices, flip flops, tagine bowls, camel meat, pigeons, you name it.

Fez market

There’s not much you won’t find in the markets of Fez, but be prepared to negotiate.

One of the most visually pleasing aspects of Fez is the exquisite and colorful tile work used to adorn mosques, religious schools, communal fountains, and private residences, as well as the ornate wooden doors found throughout the city. Some examples below:

Tile work

Tile work of Fes
Riad door
Fountain in Fez

 

It’s mysterious.

Palace door

Dar al-Makhzen, the Royal Palace of Fes, is not open to the public, but visitors can admire the imposing brass doors.

One of the things I found most intriguing about Fez is that it is devoid of curb appeal in the modern, Western sense. This is not to say that buildings and residences are not beautiful. They are. It’s just not something you observe readily from the exterior, in part because there are no porches, stairways, or adornments to hint at what’s inside; you’re as likely to discover a hole in the wall  as a palace fit for a sultan.

Fez street

Fez is a city of alleys and doors.

 

Luxury riad

Even the most nondescript entrances can lead to exquisite luxury.

Take our hotel, Riad Laaroussa. Its entrance along a dark, quiet alleyway is non-descript, marked with a modest brass sign. As the porter lead us to the door, I could see a look of concern cross my husband and daughters’ faces. Upon entering, that concern dissolved into delight as we discovered that our home for the next four days was a stunningly gorgeous riad, a Moroccan mansion built around an interior courtyard or garden. Each room left us breathless with its tile work, sumptuous woodcraft, and luxurious touches. And so, this is the mystery of Fes. You never know what you’ll find around each corner and behind each door.

Riad Laaroussa

The entrance to our riad hints little at what we would find inside.

 

Riad courtyard

Entering our riad we discovered a beautiful, open air courtyard . . . and finally, some trees! Riad is the Arabic word for garden. To be a riad, a house must have a garden, ideally divided into quarters with a central fountain.

 

Fes riad

Looking down into our riad from the rooftop patio.

 

Pool at Riad Laaroussa

The pool at Riad Laaroussa was a welcome retreat from the heat.

 

Bedroom at Riad Laaroussa

And our bedroom was fit for a sultan!

 

 

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