Lose yourself in antiquated winding alleys whilst you crisscross your way along one of Morocco’s vibrant imperial cities, fabulous Fes.
If you are heading by train to Fes (also known as Fez) from Marrakech, then your trip is straight-forward and comfortable.
The train to Fes takes just over seven hours: ONCF train schedules.
Moroccan trains are easy to catch, safe, cheap, and generally run on time. In Marrakech, take a Petite Taxi to the Grand Railway Station.
During your journey to Fes, you traverse through lovely rolling green hills, out-of-town ghettos, and diverse vistas.
Locals eye us up and down whilst in the train. I am not sure whether this is a disapproving glance, boredom, or just intrigue.
Immerse yourself in medieval history as you succumb your way into a Moroccan lifestyle.
Charming Fes does not disappoint, with its towering surrounding walls extending for almost sixteen kilometres (ten miles).
Founded in 789 by Idris, the Arab ruler responsible for founding the Idrisid dynasty, the city comprises two old medina quarters: Fes el Bali and Fes Jdid. Together with its modern Ville Nouvelle urban area, which dates back to only the French Colonial era, visiting Fes feels as if you are in three towns, not one.
The stark contrast between the two alluring medinas and the modern quarter is like stepping between two opposing countries.
Decided to forgo the leather tanneries for which Fes is famous. Not only does controversy surround workers’ conditions at tanneries, but coupled with toxic fumes and quite a touristy tour, are some of the reasons for the forfeit.
I am sure it would be interesting seeing the colourful vats ready for tanning, but there is enough leather transported across town to get my leather fix.
Nevertheless, this underrated city offers much history, incredible architecture, and amazing sight-seeing, so push on we did, for the few days in Fes, exploring everything we could in such a short time.
It is not uncommon to see a vendor set up a tiny table with twenty or so Pastillas (Moroccan pie) out of a cardboard box, or an elderly farmer selling his freshly-picked vegetables, laid out with artistic precision across a brightly coloured blanket.
Everyone is selling something here whether it is around a corner, down an alleyway, a tiny hole in the wall, or along a narrow street.
Listen to the tones of stonemasons and craftsmen chiselling and hammering away endlessly, creating another timeless masterpiece as they work intently in a world, far-removed from any surrounds.
As the oldest walled part of Fes earning a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing, things of note also are that Fes El-Bali has the oldest functioning university in the world, which was founded in 859. And is also renown as the ‘biggest car-free urban area in the world’. Not an exaggeration at all, when you meander amongst this expansive urban pedestrian zone, sharing the space with not only locals but donkeys, mules, and the occasional camel. Don’t be frightened of losing yourself in this dense medina, as I am sure this also happens to locals.
The passage of time has not interrupted the hub of activity that encircles the medina, making this a visual delight and memorable experience in which to linger.
Spend days wandering and getting lost amongst the Medina’s 10,000-plus rustic twisting alleyways and maze of narrow streets, whilst seeking mosques, palaces, and fountains.
You will constantly look up at the beautifully carved wooden or stone ancient buildings hidden around every corner.
This area of Fes is much lovelier and cleaner than outside its walls, where a more modern Fes awaits with noisy cars and fast foods. Inside however, you are constantly hassled with: “Where you from?” – a little tiring after a while. But if you need an English-speaking guide, there are plenty of young locals about, for only a few dirhams.
Tip: If you bargain hard at the Souk, you can pick up a few cheaper items such as a memory cards and camera batteries, for one-third of the cost of what I paid in Australia. The initial starting price is always the tourist price.
Enjoy the striking and gorgeous Moroccan Zellij (mosaic), which uses hand-cut tiles from the hills around Fes to adorn many Riads, mosques, archways, and architecture.
Dating back to the 10th century in North Africa and Andalusia, this antiquated craft is not only distinguished by a complex mathematical geometry, but also an extraordinary use of the colour palette.
Each clay tile is painstakingly cut by hand into small individual pieces, resembling a jigsaw puzzle. Great concentration, artistic ability, but also a sense of order and patience are required to assemble the final design.
Purchase souvenir pieces of Zellij in the many Souk stalls, but I’m not so sure whether these pieces are authentic.
The opulent Kairaouine Mosque also the University of al-Qarawiyyin and reputed as the oldest functioning university in the world, is stunning with intricate carving and elaborate mosaics – a delight to absorb. Such craftsmanship perhaps a dying art in modern Morocco.
This is an immensely peaceful place and as long as you are wearing the correct attire, you can peek inside. Escape the heat during the summer with the internal thick walls of the mosque, although today is anything but warm outside.
The pre-booked first night’s accommodation is with the Ibis Hotel and only 100 metres from the station, as the train arrives later in the evening – if all goes to schedule.
The type of room is just as any Ibis Hotel chain room in the world: clean, comfortable, and small. Adequate for one or two nights.
At night, the train station area seems seedy and grotty with loads of small groups of males walking the streets.
Be prepared to be hassled along the restaurant strip close to the station. Touts vie for your business at the abounding restaurants, which all seem to serve the same meals at the same price.
Checked into Fatima’s Riad within the Medina’s walls, for the next couple of nights.
A lovely huge room awaits with plenty of hot water in a gorgeous royal blue mosaic-tiled bathroom. The icy room however, is marginally warmer than outside.
Fatima (owner) convinced us to have her special dinner one night, which although expensive at MAD$150pp compared to other prices advertised in restaurants, the food is wonderfully scrumptious. You have to splash out sometimes, right?
Make sure you ask for a price anytime you take a taxi, get washing done, or any other services, which saves a lot of frustration and angst. You will get stung here if you forget to ask as after all, you are a tourist.
After a couple of busy days in Fes exploring this beautiful city, it is time to move on, and make our way north.
The next destination to explore is to another imperial city: Meknès.