Fez is fabulous; one of the largest car free medeival cities in the world, it's authentic, exotic, and superb for shopping...
Move over Marrakech: Fez has entered the league of city breaks that are short haul and super-exotic. Before British Airways launched its new non-stop flights from Gatwick, reaching it was a mission, but now Morocco’s most Arab feeling imperial city is just 3 1/2 hours away.
It will take time to for the allure of Fez to become as polished as it’s illustrious neighbour, but that’s an advantage. Visit there now and you’ll be catching it at just the right time - with its magnificent and authentic Medina packed with history and culture (the largest inhabited mediaeval city in the world), a sprinkling of tastefully restored and decorated raids and restaurants, and amazingly few tourists.
To walk into the car free Medina is to step back in time - back to sights and sounds straight from the Tales of the Arabian Nights. There are dozens of exotic souks, each for a specific commodity, like spice, henna, or jewellery. In each, under the shade of reed mats slung high above, is the marvellous commotion of daily life, just as it’s been for 11 centuries. And each of the 186 micro districts within the walls has a mosque, a drinking fountain and a communal bakery, all in constant use.
Wandering through the Medina is a thrill in itself, and you soon get used to peeking through doorways at every chance. The hustle and bustle of the alleys evaporates behind modest doorways, through which you’ll spy brilliant mosaic floors of a Madersa (or Islamic school), peer into the clattering gloom of a woodcarving workshop, or step into one of the meticulously restored emporiums or raid hotels. The latter is the perfect opportunity for a relaxing mint tea by the courtyard fountain or high up on the roof terrace.
You don’t need to be intrepid to enjoy Fez, but being prepared for the culture shock and being open to becoming lost does help. With almost 10,000 alleyways inside the ramparts - enough to madden a Minator – it’s a cert that you’ll be lost within minutes. And this is part of the city’s magic. Trust in serendipity, relax, and go with the exotic flow.
Fez has three distinct sections: to the east is the vast 9th Century Medina of Fes el-Bali (Old Fez); five kilometres south west is the administrative quarter of the Ville nouvelle, constructed by the French in colonial era; and in the middle is Fes el Jedid (Fez the New), the first stab at a new town, built in the 14th Century and home to the giant Royal Palace and Mellah (Jewish area).
The best views of the Medina are from the decayed footsteps of the Merinid Tombs or from the Borj Nord, which houses the Arms Museum and a vast collection of weaponry. From either vantage point, particularly at dawn or dusk, it’s mesmerising to gaze down over the pell-mell of houses and minarets. The tall minaret above the expanse of green tiled roofs is the Karaouyine Mosque, capable of holding 20,000 worshippers and built in 859.
The Fes el-Bali is where you’ll spend most of your daytimes, but most restaurants not attached to hotels close at night, which is the best time to head over to the Ville nouveau and its busy streets and cafes.
Sightseeing: The best idea is to hire a guide for your first morning at least. They can be booked through your hotel or the tourist office (055 62 34 60), for about £7.50 for a half day, regardless of the size of your party. It’s also worth highlighting what you want to see before you set off, as unchecked many guides will gleefully take you to emporiums all day long.
Apart from the Medina itself, the tanneries are the most arresting sight in the city. It’s a scene that’s changed little over the centuries - mud-walled vats are filled with coloured dye, as youths, up to their waists in liquid, tread pigment into the hides. Stuck onto the surrounding buildings are dozens of hides, curling as they dry in the heat and looking like a rash of giant’s shaving cuts. The smells can be powerful (from pigeon poo powered dyes, amongst other things), as can the twinge at seeing such hard labour. The best views are from the leather emporiums, which have terraces looking over the sites.
The Najjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts is housed in a meticulously restored caravanserai, or merchant hostel. The collection of woodcarvings ranges from ornate shelves to elaborately carved and painted children’s cots. Also don’t miss the excellent display of cobalt blue ceramics in the Dar Batha Museum of Arts and Crafts (Place de L’Istiqlal), which has a large peaceful courtyard and collections of carpets, jewellery, and some fine antique astrological devices.
Fez El-Jedid contains the 80-acre private Royal Palace, but it’s worth a visit just to look at the front door – a grand gateway of many arches with intricate inlays and mosaics. Next to it is the Mella, or Jewish quarter, where there’s a cemetery, finely decorated windows, and the little Ibn Danan synagogue, recently restored.
Shopping: even if you don’t fancy yourself as a carpetbagger, it’s a good idea to visit some of the tourist craft shops: they are set in beautifully restored buildings and there’s always a preamble on the history and techniques involved.
Fez remains an important centre for craftsmanship and its wares are exported all over Morocco and the World. Good buys include; clothing, leather, woodcarving, jewellery and carpets. A little south of the Borg Sud is the Quartier de Poterie (32, Ain Nobki route Sidi Hrazem), where you be given a tour of the small pottery and massive shop, selling excellent plates, jugs and mosaics.
Out of town: under an hour’s drive away is the imperial city of Menkes, known as the Versailles of Morocco for it’s super showy monuments built by Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century. It also has an excellent Medina, and is easily combined with Volubilis 30 km to the, where there’s a ruined Roman city, set stark against an expansive valley and wooded hills.
Nightlife: most of the hotels and raids have an alcohol licence and make great havens for a gentle tipple. Otherwise do as the locals do and promenade the Avenue Hassan II in the early evening – this tree-lined boulevard is alive with activity and has many cafés and a few bars.
The Son et Lumiere show takes place on a hill overlooking the southern bastion and the trowel-shaped curve of the Medina. As well as sound and light, the 45-minute show uses lasers, fountains, and projects slides onto the walls of the Borj Sud. At one point, the entire Medina is arc-lit, which alone is worth the price of the ticket, £6. Closed December to March.
Getting around: inside the Medina the only option is walking. Bright red petit taxis are metered and cheap – about £1 between the old and new town. Note that fares increase at night by about 50%.
Where to stay: the Raid Louna has six lovely rooms and a splendid terrace. More conventional is the Hotel Batha, with a good-sized pool and two restaurants. Small rooms, but great value. Ryad Mabrouka is an excellent eight-roomed property, with a delightful little garden, pool, courtyard and terrace, and friendly staff. Riad Zamane occupies an 1860’s house. The courtyard is idyllic, the rooms simply and stylishly decorated, and there’s a nice terrace. The Palaise Jamai is a grand luxury hotel. Formerly a sultan’s palace, it has an excellent pool, superb gardens, and sumptuous decor in the public spaces, restaurants, and old wing rooms.
The most romantic place in town is Raid Maison Bleue, the six roomed sister house of the original La Maison Bleue. The courtyard has tangled greenery and a small pool, the rooms are eclectically decorated and there’s a tranquil rooftop terrace.
Places to eat and drink: the Fassi cuisine speciality is “TFAÏA”, made from lamb and mild spices, onions, eggs and roasted almonds. And finish off your meal with a mint tea and a Moroccan pastry like “corne de gazelle” - a crescent-shaped crimp of pastry dough with an orange water and almond paste filling.
La Kasbah is just outside Bab Bou Jeloud, where there are also a clutch of eateries; either grab a kebab for about 10 from one of the tiny alley stalls, or climb the narrow stairs of La Kasbah for a good meeting place and excellent views, mains from £2. Café Restaurant La Noria (Fes el-jedid) is a quiet spot in the Bou Jeloud Gardens, next to one of the cities original 12 waterwheels, a limited selection of mains, mostly Tagines, from £2.50.
Inside the Medina are many Palace Restaurants in restored houses. Restaurant Asmae (4 Derb Jeniara) is less fussy than most and serves good set menus on two floors. Or try the Restaurant Zagora (5 Blvd Mohammed V) in the ville nouveau, which is a modern French Moroccan place serving a wide variety of dishes. The sautéed veal kidneys are particularly good. Mains from £4.
La Maison Bleue is the place for a romantic fine dining experience. Tables are set into little alcoves in the courtyard and the atmosphere is quite magical. Set menus from £30 and it’s essential to book ahead.
Restaurant Al Fassia occupies a series of sumptuously carved and decorated spaces, dating from 1879. The setting is exquisite and there’s musical accompaniment and belly dancing. Set menu from £25.
One more thing...It's impossible not to buy something when in Fez, as the cottage craft industry here makes some terrific stuff. You'll for sure be enticed into an emporium or two by a sweet smile and a sweet tea. Just relax and enjoy feeling like a king while the wares are displayed for you. Not buying anything won't cause offence, but not bargaining if you do likely will. It's a way of life in these parts - as a rule of thumb make your first offer half of their first sensible asking price, then expect to bargain to reach a price that's about 60%.
If you are in the Medina and want a break from the bustle, head for the Najjerine Museum, where there are seats by a fountain and a quiet rooftop café.
Reasons to be cheerful: Fez is a wonderful assault on the senses. It's romantic, exotic and authentic, and it sees just a small fraction of the tourist numbers that visit Marrakech. There is a good choice of riads in the city, many of them moderately priced, and still with lovely shady courtyards and rooftop areas to watch the sunset from.
You can't always get what you want: the city is uncompromising to tourists, which is one of its draws, but this does mean spending much of your time hopelessly lost in its maze of alleyways, walking past butchers with dripping sheep heads hanging on display, and making way for delivery carts and donkeys often. Plus the touts trying to take you to a carpet emporium can be unpleasantly tenacious. Just be firm, and 'la' is no in Arabic.
Fitting Fez into a holiday: Fez makes about the most exotically different weekend break there is - especially so considering that it's only 2-3 hours flying time from much of Europe. If you are at all nervous about a first trip to the country though, it does represent diving in at the deep end somewhat. It's easy to travel by car or train from Fez, so you could combine it with Tangier and Marrakech say too.
Getting there:Getting there: the small Fez Sais Airport is served by Air Arabia Maroc to Bordeaux, Montpellier, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Toulouse, Barcelona, Brussels, London Gatwick, Lyon, Marrakech, Rome and Strasbourg. Other airlines are Royal Air Maroc, Ryanair, Transavia, TUI fly Belgium, and Vueling.
When to visit: best is Spring (April and May) and Autumn (September and October), when temperatures are in the mid 20’s and the skies are clear. Remember that winter nights can be cold and summer days are regularly over 40 degrees.
More info: for a good upmarket selection of riads and tailor made options there's Lawrence of Morocco. Other good UK based tour operators include Complete Morocco, Fleewinter, and for good touring trips, On the Go Tours. Or Medina Tours is based in Fez. Also see Visit Morocco
Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.