Fes -- an IntroductionFes (Fez) is Morocco's oldest Imperial city and its "old town" is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Medina (old town) is called Fes el-Bali and behind its high walls is a magical, medieval city just teeming with life in every one of its 9000 narrow streets. Fes is the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco and you'll certainly experience its vibrancy.
The new part of Fes, called ville nouvelle, was built by the French and is totally different from the medina. The wide boulevards are lined with modern shops and traffic is hectic. There's not much to see, but if you prefer larger Westernized hotels, this is where you'd stay.
When to Go to FesThe best time to visit Fes is from September to November and April to June. It's not too hot and there are fewer tourists. The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is usually held in June and is certainly worth planning your trip around.
What to See in FesFes el-Bali
The biggest attraction in Fes is the entire old medina (Fes el-Bali)and the best way to get around it, to see (and find) its main sights, is to hire a guide through your hotel or Riad. A full day should cost around 250 dirhams. You can tell the guide exactly what you'd like to see, specify if you don't want to buy a carpet and tell him (or her) what language you prefer. Once you feel comfortable getting lost, there's no need for a guide anymore and you can simply rely on friendly shopkeepers to point you in the right direction or a good map.
The joy of old Fes is turning down little alleys and finding a donkey drinking from the most fabulously tiled fountain you'll ever see; watching local artisans at work; or ducking into a local Hammam and enjoying a good scrub (this is a good way to meet local women, if you're a woman too of course!)
There are two main alleys in old Fes, the Talaa Kebira and the Talaa Seghir. Both end up at the main gate of Bab Bou Jeloud. If you get lost, head for either of these, and ask for the direction of the Bab Bou Jeloud. The Bab Bou Jeloud is quite impressive, but it's the little square with rooftop restaurants that you'll enjoy even more. The Kasbah restaurant is decent and the service is pretty good; they don't mind you lingering over mint tea while you stare at the goings on below.
Fes is famous for its leather products and most of it comes from the leather bazaar (souq) in old Fes. The tanneries have been in operation since medieval times and little has changed, which makes them absolutely fascinating to visit.
In order to visit the tanneries you have to head into a leather shop filled to the brim with handbags, jackets and slippers of every conceivable design and color known to man. This is not just an excuse for your guide to make a little commission off of your visit. The best views of the tanneries are from these shops and I had no problem not buying anything and giving the salesperson, who handed me a sprig of mint, a small tip. Sprigs of fresh mint are an essential accoutrement when you visit the tanneries since the animal hides are stinky, and the pigeon poop they're treated in doesn't smell so sweet either. It's best to visit the tanneries in the morning because the different colored dyes are at their most vivid and make for some great photos. A salesperson will give you the rundown on how the hides are treated and what dyes come from what plants.
Tucked deep into the heart of the medina, the Kairaouine Mosque is huge but you can barely get a good glimpse of its size because it's simply wedged in between hundreds of shops and homes. 20,000 people can pray here but unless you're a Muslim, you won't be able to go inside. However, since the Mosque has recently opened up again after extensive renovations, when the doors are open tourists can peek in and marvel at the beautiful tile work. The library here is one of the most important and oldest in the world. You'll know you're getting close to the mosque if you bang your head on a wooden beam in an alley. The beams were placed so people would lower their heads when approaching the mosque and it also stops mules from getting too close.
There are 3 museums in old Fes that are worth visiting and offer a place to get some rest from the bustle of the streets. The Nejarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts is in a beautiful building with a nice little rooftop cafe. I wasn't too impressed with the objects on display but the museum was worth a visit just for the building itself. The Dar Batha Museum has a very interesting display of artwork, especially if you enjoy the traditional blue-colored pottery Fes is famous for. The Belghazi Museum offers similar artwork to Dar Batha, but you can buy it here if you like! The museum is housed inside a palace and is a good, if pricey, place to enjoy some lunch.
There are two Medersas (religious schools) worth visiting in old Fes. The Medersa Bou Inania was built in the 1300's and has some beautiful examples of Merenid plasterwork and woodwork. Medersa el-Attarine is also filled with examples of excellent Merenid craftsmanship and offers fantastic views of the old city from its rooftop.
The Mellah is the old Jewish quarter of Fes and you can tell the architecture differs from the rest of the medina. Houses with balconies and windows overlooking the streets are very un-Muslim like. The Jewish cemetery is quite eye-popping here with white tombstones heading down the side of a hill as far as the eye can see, some are teetering right over the edge. It's worth having a guide bring you here to tell you some of the history of the area.
The Merenid Tombs are situated outside the walls of old-Fes and you see them from most rooftops in Fes. Tourists traditionally head up the hill to the tombs to get a good view of Fes as the sun sets. The tombs themselves aren't much to look at.