Part 2: Fez
Fez (May 1st-2nd, days 4-5)
Fez (or Fes) was founded around 800 to be the capital of Morocco's first dynasty. In 859 the university of Al-Karaouine was founded here and it is still operating, giving it a claim to being the oldest existing university in the world. Fez was Morocco's capital several times, and in the 12th century it may have been the biggest city in the world for a while. Nowadays Fez is Morocco's cultural heart. Though Marrakesh has the more impressive monuments, Fez is more interesting because of its authenticity.
Fez el-Jdid (Fez the New)
We got a hotel in the Ville Nouvelle (the newest part of town which dates from the French period) and on the first morning walked all the way to the medina. This took us through Fez el-Jdid or New Fez, which despite its name dates is a city extension from the 13th century.
Inside Fez el-Jdid lies Dar el-Makhzen, the royal palace, which was built in the 17th century. It's closed for visitors but its huge brass doors are a sight by themselves.
Fez el-Jdid is linked to the old city by a cluster of squares surrounded by fortress walls which I couldn't make much sense of. If the idea was to confuse possible invaders by having walls everywhere and sending them through this gate and that then it works beautifully though.
Since all the walls threw us off course we walked into the Kasbah an-Nouar instead of the medina proper. This is a sort of city inside the city, all walled around. Only one gate (the one we'd come through) was open, as a local brat kept pointing out to us. It seemed inconceivable to him that we would still want to look around instead of turning back, and I got into a little verbal brawl with him.
Fez el-Bali (Fez the Old)
The big medina (walled old city) of Fez is called Fez el-Bali (Fez the Old) since it's the original town. It is the best preserved medieval Arab city in the world and probably the world's largest car-free urban area. It's a huge (2km across) labyrinth of tiny alleys which is nearly impossible to navigate because none of these alleys are straight and many have dead ends. 150 000 people still live in this amazing place.
We mostly stuck to Talaa Kebira (Big Slope), one of the main streets which runs roughly west to east, and the alleys close to is. All the following pictures were taken in Talaa Kebira itself.
These pictures give a good idea of what the medina of Fes is like. There are no cars, only people and donkeys. It's very crowded (not so much on these pics though coz it was friday) and there are small shops everywhere.
Some alleys in the medina can be opened or closed with the exact same wooden doors as the thousands of little shops. The picture of speckled Lotte below is taken in such an alley.
In Morocco almost all mosques are forbidden territory for non-muslims, which I find very weak and unhospitable of Morocco. None of the other islamic countries I've visited were like that, quite the contrary.
Fortunately you can visit Morocco's medersas (islamic schools) to give you an idea of its religious architecture. Fez has two big 14th century medersas. One was closed for restauration but fortunately we could visit the other, Medersa Bou Inania, named after the Merenid sultan who had it built in 1350.
The carved ornamentation in all the walls is an amazing sight.
The medersa is not used as a school anymore but it is still a very active mosque; we had to wait as a lot of people streamed out after a prayer service before we could get in.
In the heart of Fez el-Bali lie the Al-Karaouine university, which is the oldest still active one in the world, and the mosque that belongs with it.
This is where the Talaa Kebira ends in fact. The huge mosque can hold 20000 worshippers but only a few gates are visible from the outside and again non-muslims can't visit. The university is said to be the second most prestigious site of islamic learning after al-Azhar in Caïro, and it also can't be visited. I'd like to mention that I could visit al-Azhar in Cairo any time, even during prayers.
Anyway, on the far side of Al-Karaouine is the little Place as-Seffarine and the small Medersa of the same name, which we could and did visit. A student showed us around and invited us to get on the roof and climb the little minaret - for money of course.
On the second day in Fez and our second visit to the medina our main goal were the famous leather tanneries. These go back to ancient times, and little has changed in the process: skins get coloured in traditional dye pits by tanners who stand among the chemicals all day. The pits lie in the north east of the medina and are completely surrounded by buildings, but vendors eagerly take tourists to terraces on the back of those builings to watch the spectacle. It's a fascinating sight.
The tanneries are said to be a very smelly affair because of the use of ingredients like pigeon dung and cow urine, but we didn't really notice that.
From the hills north of Fez, called Borj Nord, on which the ruins of the Merenid tombs stand, you get a fabulous view on all of the medina of Fez which lies at your feet. I was very much reminded of the view on Jerusalem from Mount Olive. Open the following panorama in a separate tab or window to see it at full size.
The cluster of buildings in the middle of the following pictures (and in the heart of the medina) are the Al-Karaouine university and mosque.
On the opposite side of the hills there's a graveyard and views on the green hills beyond the city.
Our original travel plan was to visit Meknes and Volubilis as a day trip from Fez, then head south across the Atlas to visit the desert and then work our way west towards Marrakesh from there.
Since there were no agencies offering such a day trip in Fez (there simply weren't any agencies for travelers at all, a gaping hole in the local tourism market), and since I gradually came to realise that visiting the south of Morocco with public transport would be very tough and inefficient, that travel plan got changed completely.
We took a train to Meknes (a one hour ride only) in the early afternoon of our second day in Fez, but instead of making it a day trip we'd stay there for three nights, longer than we did in Fez. But all that is the subject of the next part.
Table of Contents
1. Northern Morocco
3. Meknes, Volubilis & Moulay Idriss
5. Atlas mountains & Aït Benhaddou
6. Drâa valley to Merzouga
7. Erg Chebbi & Rissani
8. The Gorges
9. Taourirt and Telouet