My journey in Morocco continued with a stop in Fes, the oldest city in the country. While Fes is widely known for its walled medina, Fes El Bali, it’s also considered the cultural and spiritual capital. However, I will remember it for the skilled artisans who produce their wares using time-tested methods. Fes brings unexpected delights and treasures, but is rather chaotic.
The Jewish Quarter
My small group’s guide, Jamal Ghanname, met us in the old Jewish quarter, formerly a thriving community. Before the establishment of Israel, Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community across the Arab-speaking world.
Jamal led us into the Jewish cemetery crammed with semi-cylindrical tombs. We then passed through the streets in the Mellah to stop at the old synagogue Ibn Danan with a traditional ritual bath in the basement. You would never know a temple was behind the ordinary entrance door.
We moved on amidst raindrops to see the exterior of the Royal Palace. Formerly the main residence of the sultan, the Royal Palace of Fes is still used by the King of Morocco when he is in the city. It sits on 195 acres, surrounded by high walls and guarded by security. The façade features seven 80-foot- high bronze doors. Carved cedar wood arches surround each intricately detailed entry. No tours – the palace is not open to the public.
We stopped at the Mosaique Et Poterie De Fes. (Art de Poterie), a co-op providing workspace for many artists. An owner explained and guided us through the ceramic-making process from start to finish. The pottery workshop pieces range from bowls to platters, vases and jugs, and hundreds of tagines- the vessels used to make the traditional Moroccan dish. Hand-crafted mosaics are attached to tables, fountains, and onto framed artworks. I fell in love with many of these gorgeous keepsake treasures but decided on just one blue and white tagine (the colors synonymous with Fes). While my tagine is a decorative piece, I have cooked in it at home, trying to recapture a Moroccan meal.
Inside the Walled Medina
The Medina of Fes (the old walled quarter of town) became the most confusing labyrinth I’ve ever entered. No wonder – there are supposedly 180 miles of alleyways. Thankfully the guide maneuvered our way through, or I’d still be in there. The narrow single-file passageways in the immense maze bottle pedestrian movement, as do the huge crowds and the occasional mule and cart.
We began visiting the many professional artisans who live and work in Fez. Their fine ceramic ware, copper and tin pieces, loom-woven textiles, hand-made rugs, and leather goods become heirloom treasures.
We stopped to learn about hand-knotted rugs, each taking countless hours of painstaking labor. The colors and designs burst from intricate patterns. The persistent shop workers displayed carpet after carpet to our group. We took our shoes off and felt the pleasure of walking on the soft fibers barefoot.
Next came the fabric or loom weavers who created scarfs, tablecloths, wall hangings, pillows, and more. I couldn’t resist a super delicate scarf that feels like cashmere. I have since received compliments when wearing it.
My group learned about copper and brass making from tinsmiths. They demonstrated the tedious task of piercing specific designs for lanterns and lamps. Again, I wanted to bring home many items, but the lack of space in my suitcase stopped me.
At lunchtime, we ate perhaps the most delicious meal of my trip at a restaurant within the medina. I chose chicken tagine with prunes and apricots. Hundreds of stalls and vendors in the medina sell food, but sitting down for lunch makes a good respite.
After lunch, we stopped to watch the plaster workers creating designs in a building under renovation. They work free-hand as they are highly skilled in drawing ornate patterns. The results look like beautiful lace. Simply stunning.
What is a Madrasa?
A madrasa, the Arabic word, is an educational or religious institution where students live and study. The most common is a Muslim school, college, or university that is often part of a mosque.
Jamal took us to Al Quaraouiyine, a university founded as a mosque in 857–859, with the most complex Moroccan and Islamic architecture. It became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the 8th century to 14th centuries. Scholars consider al-Qarawiyyin to have been run as a madrasa until after World War II. Al-Qarawiyyin University is the oldest continuously operating university on Earth.
One of the highlights in the medina is the tannery for leather crafting. Vast pots of colorful acid soak animal hides but hold your nose. They give off odorous fumes. Fortunately, you can pick up springs of mint upon entry. It’s hard to get out of the leather shop without buying something.
Lodging in a Riad
A traditional Moroccan Riad is a former home of the wealthiest residents turned into a hotel. They feature multiple stories centered around an open-air courtyard with a fountain. Riads look like ordinary dwellings from the exterior but open the door, and the interiors beg you to enter. They are calming respites, and no visit to the country is complete without staying in one.
I was given a room on the third floor of the Riad Fez Authentic Palace. I loved looking down on the courtyard, but climbing the stairs was exhausting, especially after all my steps in the medina. We relaxed and enjoyed a meal in the riad, after which I immediately fell into bed.
Bylandersea Travel Tips
Fes provided a most enjoyable visit. The medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you are guaranteed the place remains worthwhile.
Hire a guide.
Leave room in your suitcase for the top of the line handicrafts.