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Why is the city of Fes so recommendable?
Its Medina (historical district)
It is said that whereas Casablanca composes the economical capital of Morocco, and Rabat its political, Fes will be its cultural capital. And there’s a pretty fair understandable reason for it to be alike. Why? Because its Medina, (historical district of the town) also known as Media Fes-el-Bali, was recognised by the UNESCO as World Heritage Site since 1981 due to the high amount of monumental buildings that it has from ancient times.
It was in the city of Fes, where the FIRST, I repeat, the FIRST University of the World was founded. Can you image it? The University of Karueein/al-Qarawiyyin that even got into the Book of the Guinness World Records for being the oldest university of the world. The university of Karueein was founded by a women; Fatima al-Fihri in 849 AD. That, was founded as a religious, islamic institution, that serve also as a Mosque.
The Medina itself it is fenced by its historical walls, it has around 200 Mosques, and more than 9.000 streets, the famous Tanneries (the square in which even still nowadays theres workers treating leather as a material, from which they produced hand bags, shoes, jackets..everything you can imagine that was sold in the shops nearby the square.
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As it is pretty easy to get lost through the multiple streets of the Medina, shoud you hire a tour guide?
I do recommend you to hire a licensed tour guide to have a proper visit around the Medina, in which you will not only learn a lot about the history of the town while visiting its multiple cultural and historical buildings, as well as you will do with the markets, you will also avoid 2 important things that will very likely happen to you if you decide to go by your own:
1) Avoid to get lost. As I said only in the Medina there’s around 9.000 streets, it feels like a labyrinth, all streets look exactly the same but also…
2) You’ll be able to avoid people’s harrassment (very often and as soon as they see you are a tourist they will start approaching you to offer you to guide you, follow you.. it is very random to experience as I did the time I walked alone those streets and witnessed it. One guy from Spain whom I met some days before had the same feeling of being harrassed. Is not a matter of gender, moroccans do not respect tourists personal spaces. With a local guide you’ll avoid experiencing that feeling, that’s why walking around with someone local is even more important.
Hiring a licensed trustful tour guide will cost you approximately around 40€ for the whole morning tour that will probably last 3h.
What to see in Fes, whether it is by your own or with a tour guide?
1. Medersa (Quranic School)
This is a beautiful building placed at the entrance of the Medina, in which religious / islamic studies used to be taught, also studies like law or theology.
The entrance to visit this place is only 20MAD, thus 2€, as the Government of Morocco prohibits to charge more money for visiting any museum of the city.
As I said before this is one of the main sites to visit whenever you are in Fez, and it is the place in which the workers tan the colours of normally leather products that later on are sold in the shops around the area. The Tanneries (that exist since the city of Fes was built in the IX Century) are placed in the middle of the Medina, and you can see them from the rooftop of a shop that sells the leather products.
As the smell of the place tends to be quite strong and maybe even disgusting for visitors who are not used to it, the owner of the shop will provide you with a piece of mint so you can inhale the mint smell and avoid noticing the real strong smell of the place.
3. The Blue Gate
It’s worth to start your visit through the Fes Medina el-Bali through the entrance of this emblematic door, one of the most emblematic of the all the Medina. The blue represents the colour of the city of Fes, and it’s also a colour very much used on the pottery(artisan/handcraft are still nowadays an important economical sector and activity among the Moroccan population).
It was from this entrance from where I started my tour around the Medina-el-Fes-Bali and from where most of the tourist visits start normally from.
4. Al-Qarawiyyin University
This constitutes one of the most important buildings of the city of Fes, being culturally very relevant for being this, the first University that was founded in the world and thus the oldest (inscribed in the Book of Record Guiness) and founded by a women: Fatima-al-Fihri (849 AD).
Nowadays it’s been converted into a Mosque, as it always served as it, being a religious educational institution (from the Islam).
As it is a place reserved for the community of the Islam, non-muslims are currently not allowed to visit it from inside but you can still have the view from the door and from the rooftop of a shop nearby.
5. Place Seffarine
Place of Seffarine of Fes it is a square of the Middle Ages, in which still nowadays and since the time it exists, people work material such as the metals, coppersmiths and boilermakers. It is very curious to pass by that area of the Medina, as it really makes you feel in the Middle Ages when you see the worker working all type of materials by hand.
To visit this ‘place’ or square in english, is better during the weekdays, when the shops are open and the owners working the materials, otherwise during weekends (fridays and saturdays) the square is pretty empty and all shut down.
6 .Nejjarine Museum
Nejjarine Museum, it is also considered as of one of the UNESCO Worldwide Heritage sites. The museum itself displays traditional artefacts of craftsmen’s tools. It costs 2€ (there’s a rule over Fes that stipulates the maximum entrance fee to any museum or cultural building is 2€, not like in Marrakech when in many occasions you’ll end up paying much more money for a visit entrance, here that’s the maximum). There’s 3 floors filled with wood objects related to the history of Morocco, the berebers, the Amazigh, the Islam, Quranic studies..and much more. In the top of the building there’s a peaceful cafeteria with views to the medina in which you can drink coffee or tea for 1€.
I’d like to add, that Morocco didn’t start being an ‘Arab’ country. The native peoples of the territories were the berebers, native to the North Africa region and it was not until the year 620 that the Islam arrived into the country. Is for this reason, that a part than the Arabic, you’ll hear and sea many institutions such schools, police offices, written also in another language with different signs: the Bereber language. The bereber culture in the country has a very important impact and you will for sure learn something about it if you travel Morocco in more deepth.
Don't forget about the Markets of the Medina, also known as the Souks!
Like in the rest of the country, and all the Moroccan cities, Fes is filled with typical markets also known as souks, in which you can find all kind of products (from food like olives, fruits, fried groceries..) to handbags, clothes, and so much more.
The best of these markets is that they are usually extremely cheap as it is where the local people buy the products, and also are open to discuss and negotiate the prices with the owners.
Visit the Jewish District, or also known as the Bab Mellah
As I was explaining in previous posts of my trip to Morocco in this blog, the Jewish community was very relevant for the Kingdom of Morocco, specially after the Spanish Inquisition (1492) to the the foundation of the State of Israel (1948) period in which they accounted to be around 300.000 of the Moroccan inhabitants. The mechoragim (sephardic Jews expelled from the Spanish Peninsula during the Inquisition) had to coexist with the tochavim (the native Jews of Morocco). What it is sure, is that during so many years of inhabitating the country, they did not only turned Moroccan citizens, but left a remarkable social, economical and cultural legacy into this country.
Every single town of Morocco has a Bab Mellah (Jewish Quarter) that is normally composed by at least one Synagogue, one cemetery, and some markets. The city of Fes, could not be any different! It has to offer, by far, the biggest Jewish cemetery of the country: the ‘Cimetiere Israelite’ of Fes, towards which, a lot of Israeli tourists will head to, as they may probably have family graved in it.
The entrance costs another 1€, the graves are all painted in white, there’s a place to pray with the book of the Torah opened in it.
Then you also have a synagogue Aben Danan, which was built in the XVII century (considered as one of the oldest Synagogues in the country). It had its book of Torah, as the women who was working there showed me around the building, as I was the only tourist by that time.
In the markets I didn’t find anything specifically Jewish, besides the balconies of the buildings which were the typically characterised architecture from the Jewish houses. Someone in the quarter told me though, that nowadays there’s no Jews who remain living in that neighbourhood, that most of them (from those who haven’t yet move to Israel) were living in other parts of the Fes city. For this visit to the Jewish Quarter, in difference to the one of the Medina, I won’t tell you to hire a tour guide as it may not be super necessary. People there are less pushy, the ambience is relaxed, and the main spots to visit are easy to be found.
Where to stay in Fes?
Riad Fez Yamanda. This is the Riad in which I stayed during my days in the city of Fes, that not only included chilled tourism, combining multiple cultural visits around the city, with time to work on my laptop and nights of fun in the roof of the Hostel with the crew that worked there, and that at night used the nice roof to smoke some sisha and drinks some beers. My stay in Fes also and unfortunately included some period of uncertainty due to the sudden closure of the Moroccan borders due to the appearance of a new variant called Omicron.
For the Riad I got a special discount from a tour guide friend, and if it normally costs around 45€ per night, I just payed 30€ (and not payed the last nights because of what happened in Morocco).
The Riad is a medium standard Hotel, which one of the best characteristics that it offers to the guests, under my point of view, is the situation, it is perfect. It is right inside of the Medina, the most important part of the city of Fes for tourists to visit. It has a nice roof in the top
How to reach the city of Fes?
The city of Fes is at almost 500km distance from the Desert of Merzouga, that is the place from which I did depart towards Fes. The journey takes around 6-7h, as the driver will make some stops along the way, to drink coffee and have lunch. You have 2 ways to reach Fes from Merzouga: one is by taking a bus from the only one Bus Station there is in that small desert town that it only departs once per day at 6pm, and the other one is to take a shared taxi with 4-5 more travelers and pay 30€.
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