Morocco Travel Guide: Fès
Updated: May 7
Morocco’s third largest city and also known as the former medieval capital of the country, Fès is located in the north between the Rif and Middle-Atlas Mountains. Founded in the Eighth Century when Islam spread across North Africa, Fès is known to be the best-preserved old city in the Arab world. I was fortunate to check out the city for a long weekend break which was made possible now with no-frills airlines from all other Europe to this beautiful city. Here is my guide on what to do and see.
Checking out the Medina
In the heart of the old city is the Medina which is surrounded by fortifications which are well preserved. The sprawling labyrinthine inside is not really prepared for tourism with the lack of signs and lack of English speaking people (however if visitors are French and Arabic they will be fine but wasn’t a problem for me as I have a good understanding of the French language), but the first interesting fact I found out about this area is that it’s the world’s largest car-free urban zone, hence a million donkeys, mules and hard carts going up and down the passageway delivering goods and collecting litter.
To the western end near the Blue Gate (known as Bab Boujloud) there are a few restaurants offering cheap eats and the best place to withdraw cash from ATMs but go eastwards along the Talaa Kbira which is the main shopping street where I felt the hustle and bustle of the medina. It is also here the Kairouine Mosque can be found but not open to visitors. The eastern end of the Medina is where the famous tanneries where leather is dyed in pits as part of the process of making bags which can be found near the small river.
Tips for the Medina I want to pass on: walking around the medina was largely pretty safe and I didn’t get hassled as much as I thought I would when I heard stories before I came to the city. However I found out there are people who look out for tourists and try to offer their services as guides. Unless you book through a company to get a tour guide to take yourselves around the old city, these people are not official tour guides and I heard they will also rip-off the visitors. I would also advise common sense like keep an eye on your belongings etc but seriously, I actually felt safe in the medina and the people I met and spoke to were very friendly and I am not discouraging you from visiting.
Dar Batha Museum
Near all the government buildings and beautiful parks on the southern side of Medina is the Dar Batha Museum. This used to be a palace before the buildings became a museum in the early 20th century but luckily everything is well looked after to this very day. The baths in their marble state outside the buildings are still in one piece (but no one is allowed to walk over them) and in all the rooms there are weapons, crafts, coins and other pieces of wonderful craftsmanship on display. For me it was the walk through the gardens in the heart of the museum which made this short visit a wonderful one with all the green leaves, trees and flowers.
To the north of Medina (crossing the main road and taking a short hike to the hilltop) are the ruins of the tombs. Here is the best place to get panoramic views of the city and looking over the tops of the olive trees. However there are the odd touts trying to get your business here but don’t let that put you off. However next to the tombs (a short five minute) to the west is the Merenid Hotel where views can be had from the bar here (which is also perfect to grab a beer as they do have a beer license and a snack or two whilst hearing the hustle and bustle of the city below and watching the sun slowly pass east to west).
Day trip ideas from Fes
Whilst Fes makes a great city break away for Europeans with the easy-access of no-frill flights coming into the nearby airport, I really wanted to see what the Moroccan countryside would be like. Managing to secure a vehicle with local tour company Mint Tea Tours, I asked the owner if I could see the famous Barbary macaque which live in the nearby Middle-Atlas Mountains. Jamal said it wasn’t a problem and he would also take me to other nearby sights as well to make it a fun-filled action-packed day and one I would never forget. So here are some of the sites I recommend visitors to Morocco’s third largest city to go out and explore.
Sefrou is a small town located south of Fes and is surrounded by beautiful hills and trees. The first stop on my day trip, Jamal took me to the western outskirts of the town to check out the amazing waterfall. To be honest when he told me about it before I arrived at the destination, Jamal down-played it and didn’t want me to be downhearted when seeing it. So before I arrived I was kinda expecting a small waterfall in a barren rocky land but when I approached the falls from the viewpoint, this was totally not what I was expecting. Fast flowing waterfall from the hillside crashing down into the river below, I managed to capture a wonderful natural sight which I didn’t think was possible in Morocco. Throughout the day I was discovering that Morocco wasn’t all sand and rock and that there were lots of green forests and rivers/lakes to check out.
On the way to the next destination, I stopped off quickly to check out the landscape in this area and saw lakes, plenty of turkeys, farms which harvested onions and stored them outside in a unique way and met some local people known as Berbers which are unique to North Africa.
The next town we (Jamal and I) stopped off was Ifrane which is a town in Africa I have never come across before. It was a typical European town based on a Swiss design. It was winter when we came here but there was no snow on the ground but walking around the town, it really did feel like I was walking in a ski resort of Santa-Fees or Zermatt back in Switzerland. This made a great pit stop to buy food, collect some cash and walk along the wide boulevards but the town is also known for the sculpture of the lion in a central park. Sculptured by an Italian prisoner who was banged up in prison many moons ago, he made this lion out of limestone found in the local area. The story behind why this lion was sculptured has a few versions but what we were amazed to find out was that this part of Africa did have lions known as the Atlas Lions (as us British call them) but these days Morocco doesn’t have any wild lions which want to terrorise the streets of Marrakech and Rabat. It is a shame, did they do it? I don’t know for sure but I would have loved to see lions in the wild north of the Sahara.
Finally arriving in the mountains, I saw the amazing Barbary macaque. They were everywhere, running around the nearby car park, jumping up and down from trees, on the ground waiting for food. Jamal taught me some tricks on how to give the macaque water but even better was, before we arrived here we stopped off at a market stall to buy a kilo of bananas (while all the other people were feeding the monkeys peanuts) and when we were feeding them, we had quite a lot of friendly faces trying to grab the bananas out of our hands. Even the godfather (the master of the group) trying to get first priority on eating the bananas. After a while (and seeing a few family feuds between the furry creatures), it was time to move on.
The town of Azrou was our final major stop where we had a late lunch but the views from this mountain side town of the valleys below were amazing and we managed to check out a very pretty mosque. For lunch we had to buy our meat from the nearby butchers and take it to the restaurant to be cooked (which despite paying for the meat made the meal a lot cheaper but we still gave the cook a tip because it tasted mighty dam fine).
On the way back I managed to see another beautiful lake, this time the lake known as Auoa (name after the Spanish word for water) which meant I had a peaceful end to the day trip, just seeing the calm water with blue skies from above. With hardly a soul to be seen and a few birds nearby making a calling, this is what I loved most about Morocco. To get away from the hustle and bustle of the major cities and to check out the local way of life in villages, in the mountains, by the lakeside and see the backbone of the country. I had a truly amazing day out away from Fes and I recommend anyone to check out these sights.
I also managed to do another day trip from Fes, this time to the nearby city of Chefchaouen which is located beautifully high up in the Rif Mountains. There was only one reason I wanted to come here and this was to check out the buildings which are all painted in shades of white and blue which makes it a very popular destination for photographers and those who want to get beautiful shots (i.e. for modeling)
Before my arrival in the city, I managed to get an overview of all the buildings from the outskirts, looking down at a scene of white (couldn’t really see the blue on the buildings from afar). Its location is truly stunning. Sloping small mountains to the south but its tall mountains which overlook the medina gives it a magical feeling. The name of the town ‘Chefchaouen’ is named after these mountains as they look like two goat horns.
On the outskirts of the medina I was lucky to get an official-English speaking guide. There are only six official guides here (as of December 2016) and four of those are Spanish speaking (as the city has a huge influx of Spanish tourists from across the Mediterranean and this part of the country used to be under Spanish rule). Without him (I can’t remember his name but he was the oldest man in the town and has lived here all his life but his knowledge and information was vast despite the broken-English) I would have got lost, wouldn’t know where to go and wouldn’t seen the amazing alleyways, passageways, buildings and other stunning features this city has to offer. As well as the information he was given, all I can remember him saying is ‘Isn’t it pretty’ (whilst pointing to buildings etc) and ‘this is a hotel’. It didn’t occur to me that afterwards, despite the city being small in size and located in the mountains, it has around two hundred hotels to accommodate the growing influx of visitors to the city.
I also learnt that Chefchaouen is a very popular shopping destination where top of the list of items to have is the woolen garments and woven blankets which are only made in this part of the country due to the coldness of the winter months. Goat cheese native to this area is also popular and claims to be the very best in Morocco (and unfortunately when I got to the stall I wanted to try it from, the owner decided to go out for lunch). Chefchaouen and the surrounding area has also got the reputation of producing kief which means there are a lot of drug gangs around here who try to smuggle it out of the region to the rest of the country and nearby Spain via boats. Hence why I always saw a lot of police on the main roads leading out of the area trying to nab the drug lords.
Back to the city and I learnt there were many reasons why the blue walls were painted in this way. The most believable one is that blue keeps mosquitos away (I couldn’t really test this theory out as it was the middle of winter) and the Jews which introduced the blue back in the 1930s when escaping Hitler's rise to power in Germany and is said to symbolise heaven and the sky. When walking around the narrow passageways, I felt calm, relax, it wasn’t too busy and it was great fun to see children playing games on the cobblestones. The battery on my camera was also nearly flat with the amount of shots I took and I just had great fun taking in the beautiful architecture. Every corner I turned, a new amazing view came into focus. This is certainly one of the most beautiful cities in the world I have come across.
MINT TEA TOURS
I traveled to the places of interest mentioned in this post with Mint Tea Tours who are based in Fes, Morocco who provide private tours, excursions and shuttle services. As my trip was booked at the last minute and I really wanted to see the monkeys located in the mid-Atlas mountains, I was really fortunate to be passed on to the tour company run by Jamal and Ellen. Even better was the fact the company has a wide range of vehicles to choose from with comfortable legroom, comfortable seats and air conditioning for the warm weather whilst all their drivers are multilingual. For this trip I had Jamal who got me from A to B very safely and his knowledge of the country, the products, the history of the area is immense, very passionate about his country and his business. After the first day trip, I had to use them again for my trip to Chefchaouen. For me, this has to be one of the best tour companies I have come across, used and would recommend whilst visiting the North African country. Mint Tea Tours also help visitors plan their tours from anywhere in Morocco, not just Fes and can be contacted via their website HERE.
My opinion of Mint Tea Tours is honest and I did not receive any sort of sponsorship. I paid to use their services and I can honestly say they were that good. I had to mention them. Jamal’s honesty and help went a long way to make my visit to Fes a very memorable one.
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