Fez, Morocco - Stein Travel



    • 16+ years

    • 12-15 years

    • 2-11 years

    • 0-23 months


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Welcome to Fez

Fez is the cultural and spiritual centre of Morocco. It was founded in 790 AD by Moulay Idriss II and is the oldest of the three Imperial Cities. The main attraction in this ancient city is the medieval Medina, the old part of the city, which has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century and still bustles with a bewildering throng of colourfully-costumed locals; from olive-dealers and veiled women on their way to the baths, to industrious merchants and traditional bell-ringing water-sellers. The Medina of Fez is the most complete medieval city still in existence, it's preservation having been instigated under French occupation, and it forms a working model of the way life was lived when the world was still young. The more modern part of the city is known as Ville Nouvelle, and has a decidedly French influence.

A guided tour is the easiest way to tackle the buzzing hive that is traditional Fez - but the brave can take on the teeming alleyways, too narrow for motor vehicles, and risk getting lost and having to haggle with a local to be guided back out. Laden donkeys negotiate the steep cobbled lanes, and the buzz of buying and selling is often interrupted by the urgent cries of mule drivers or deliverymen pushing heavy and ungainly carts warning shoppers to flatten themselves against the walls or be flattened themselves. A visit to the souks will undoubtedly lead to a stopover at Fez's famous tanneries, where one of the oldest arts in Morocco (and the world) is practiced, and where tourists can buy premium soft leather products to take home as Moroccan souvenirs.

The best vantage point over the ancient walled city, which lies at the eastern end of the plain of Saiss, bordered by the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, is from the ruined Merenid tombs on a nearby hilltop. From here it is possible to view the skyline with its profusion of satellite dishes, and to pick out some of the magnificent palaces, green-roofed holy places and the Karaouine Mosque, all hemmed in by workshops and tenements, souks and squares, a mass of humanity and the ubiquitous donkeys. Fez might be a secretive and shadowy place, but it is captivating and colourful at the same time, and wonderful destination for those looking to have a real cultural experience during their holiday in Morocco.


Climate

Fez has a continental climate with extreme temperatures. In summer the mercury can reach a sizzling 120°F (45°C) while winters can be freezing, so the best time to visit Fez is during spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November), when the weather is warm and dry.

Getting Around

Fez has a basic public transport system, with trains, buses and taxis. It is easy to get lost in the maze of narrow streets that make up Fez's Medina, the world's largest car-free urban zone. The medina does have colour-coded tourist routes, so it is best to use the accompanying tourist map and ask for directions if lost. In Fez, the petits taxisare small and red and operate between the Medina walls and within the city limits. They tend to be metered and are not too expensive, only carrying three passengers. Grands taxisare bigger and travel fixed routes from the cities to the outlying areas. Both types of taxis are usually shared and drivers often wait until the taxi is full before departing. The train station is situated in the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and operates a route to Tangier and other destinations.

Language
Arabic is the official language, but eight other languages are also spoken including Berber, French and Spanish. English is generally understood in the tourist areas, but French is the most widely spoken.
Money

The unit of currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD), which is divided into 100 centimes. ATMs are available in the larger towns, but can be unreliable; currency can be exchanged at banks or official bureaux de changes, which are also widespread in major towns. Dirhams cannot be obtained or exchanged outside Morocco and receipts must be retained as proof of legal currency exchange, as well as in order to re-exchange money when departing. Major credit cards are accepted in the larger shops, hotels and restaurants. Travellers cheques can be used in tourist areas, but are not prevalent; they are best taken in Euros or Pounds Stirling.

There are several gates allowing entry to the ancient town of Fez: Bab Bou Jeloud, the western gate has bright decorations and hotels and cafes grouped around it; Bab Er Rsif is the central gate, opening onto the square in front of the mosque of the same name; Bab el-Ftouh is the southeast gate giving onto the cemeteries; and Bab Guissa, the north gate, lies on the hillside close to the Merenid tombs vantage point. The principal entrance for tourists is the Bab Bou Jeloud, which was constructed in the modern era in 1913 but appears deceptively older with its tiled facade.

Non-Muslims may not enter this huge mosque, in the heart of the Fes El Bali (Medina), which has been a centre of Islamic learning for more than a thousand years, but often the doors stand open and it is certainly worth taking a look inside. The mosque is surrounded by numerous madrasas (Islamic schools), many of which are open to the public. The most famous of these is the Attarin Madrasa, built in the early 14th century, which features a beautiful bronze door and elegant courtyard with some impressive marble, alabaster and cedar wood decoration.

Meknes, located just 37 miles (60km) from Fez, is the least-visited of Morocco's Imperial Cities - and this is exactly what draws discerning travellers to discover its considerable charms. A city brimming with history but mercifully short on chaos, Meknes is the ideal destination for those looking to explore Morocco's rich imperial past at a reasonable and measured pace. The city of Meknes was the brainchild of Moulay Ismail (ruler of Morocco for an incredible 55 years between 1672 and 1727), who sought to construct a city fine enough to rival any in Europe. Although not the most sympathetic of rulers - most of the construction was done by Christian slaves kidnapped by Moroccan pirates from far afield as Iceland - Ismail's vision was impressively followed through, and modern-day visitors to Meknes can revel in the sights of more than 50 palaces, 20 beautifully-carved gates and a city wall that stretches for 28 miles (45km). Meknes has a wonderfully preserved medina area and a collection of great souks - and these can be navigated independently, without the need for a tour guide. Must-see sights include Bab Mansour, the grand gate of the imperial city, featuring splendid mosaics; and Dar El Makhzen, the historical palace of Moulay Ismail. Tourists to Morocco who want to experience its culture, but are wary of the frenetic nature of its cities, are strongly advised to make Meknes a firm feature of their travel itineraries.

Morocco is famous for producing high quality soft leather. It is recommended that only those with strong stomachs visit the tanner's quarter, close to the Karaouine Mosque, which despite its odorous reputation has become one of Fez's main attractions. You can hire a guide to take you into the leather-dying pits, but will not be allowed to see them unaccompanied. Alternatively, visitors can ascend to any one of the terraces belonging to the surrounding leather shops that look down on the fascinating tanners' yard, honeycombed with vats of dye and piled with skins (it is expected that you will at least look around the shop afterwards, and if nothing is bought a tip to the shop owner is required). The reason for the bad smell is chiefly because guano and pigeon droppings are used as part of the curing process.

The shrine that houses the remains of the founder of the city of Fez, Moulay Idriss II, is one of the holiest buildings in the city, enclosed in the depths of the old city. Non-Muslims may not enter the imposing building, but it is possible to see inside and glimpse the saint's tomb, which is the subject of a constant devotional ritual by a group of women who burn candles and incense and make offerings.


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