Fes overwhelms the senses: it's colourful, noisy, doused in scent and inhabited by a lot of people vying for your attention. Its medieval medina is like nowhere else on earth when it come to shopping: swamped with olive dealers, water sellers and veiled women from the ancient tanneries to the quiet of the madrasas, many of them architectural wonders.
Many travellers have strong preferences when comparing Fes and Marrakech, but if the idea of teeming ancient commerce amongst memorable Islamic architecture excites, then this is the town for you to spend five days in. Well four, once you've allowed for a day trip to Volubilis. This is how to spend those days.
The medina is probably the first place you'll want to visit, it's the oldest part of town founded at the end of the 8h Century and inhabited since the 10th – and it looks like it's had a thousand years worth of permission-less building work done on it as well, the narrow streets are like a maze, ending in covered bazaars, and surrounded by high walls which open suddenly onto courtyards where you can see artisans at work, using many of the traditional methods passed down for centuries.
The best way to plunge yourself into the medina of Fes is with a guide – but they won't necessarily be able to protect you from the action going on around you - and they're likely to have their own arrangements with local shopkeepers and restaurants so that you only visit those they're getting a kick-back from - but the alternative involves excellent map reading skills. The medina has over 90,000 streets and alleyways. Donkeys and mules are the main mode of transport, which only make you feel more like you've walked onto the pages of Aladdin or the Arabian Nights, and people are going to try and sell you things at every corner. Don't be intimidated though, you're here to see it and experience it and this is 'it' – all the colourful scents, sights and characters are included.
The souks are extra rowdy pockets of life and colour within the medina. The Marché Centrale is where people do their main grocery shopping, topping up on specialities in Kaat Smen souk. Achbine Souk was once the place to source your traditional remedies, your chameleons in jars or snakeskins or gazelle's horns, but there are only a few of these left now, most of the stalls along it sell birds, of the live kind: chickens, pigeons, doves, turkeys. There are also lots of food stalls. Some of them probably selling the same birds down the line.
Souk Triba has cosmetic and electronics shops, and an orange tree in the centre of the square. Behind it is Souk Tallis, good for wool, wheat and cloth. Souk Selham and the few surrounding it all sell material and haberdashery, but for a really special outfit you should hop over to Chemmaine Souk, which sells ceremonial garb. For a bargain visit L'marqtane – it used to be the slave market but it's now a second hand clothing market. Hendiras, the hand embroidered shawls women wear on their wedding days are one of the most popular items to bring home from visits to Fes: the best ones to look for are the older ones made in natural colours. They can cost between 200DH and 10,000DH and prices vary not just on quality but by who the buyer and seller are. If you're looking for something special let the seller know, they might have a 'good stash' for people who know what they're looking for.
Ain Nokbi is the place to go for mosaics and other pottery, and for the best carved wood visit the shops and stalls on the street running towards the main entrance of the Karaouine Mosque.
Visitors wondering about the pungent aroma will find the source of it at the tanneries of Fes. Much of the soft leather Morocco is famous for producing comes from Fes, from the tanner's quarter close to the Karaouine Mosque – you can't miss the tannery smell, so approach at the peril of your palate. Visitors can get pretty close to the action on one of the terraces that over look the honeycomb shaped dye and treatment pits of the tanning yards. You might think the leather would be the most toxic scent but it's the bird droppings used in the curing process that really smells the place out. Remember that when you're choosing your soft, hand crafted leather slippers.
Before you go exploring all over the rest of the town it could be a good idea to get an idea of the lay of the land by visiting the ruins of the Merenid tombs. There's not much to see of the tombs, but from this spot there's a fantastic view over the city. Get a cab up and walk down the goat tracks, it's a nice downhill stroll in the evening, before heading back to the medina to find a cafe position from which to watch the action.
As well as commerce, leather and carpets, Fes is a city of learning – this is where the world's first universities began, out of the madrasas, and of religion – Jewish, Islamic and Christian.
The Karaouine Mosque is Morocco's second largest mosque and one of the world's oldest universities: its minaret dates from 956 and is the oldest Islamic monument in Fes. Non-muslims can't come in, but nobody seems to object to visitors popping their heads in though the gates. The Shrine of Moulay Idriss II, another interesting mosque, tomb and mausoleum is not open to non-Muslims, but again it's worth visiting for what you can see though the gates.
The Bou Inania Madrasa is well known not for its teachings, though it does have a teaching tradition dating back to the 14th Century, but for the grace of its Marinid architecture – the Marinids were known as builders and this is the last madrasa they built. It's also the only madrasa in Fes with a minaret. The 14th Century Attarine Madrasa is well known for its gates, inside which there's a lovely courtyard with a memorable fountain, surrounded by unusual square pillars - careful coming out, you're near some of the liveliest souks.
Fes has some interesting non-religious architecture as well, stroll by the Dar al-Magana which was the Fes municipal water powered clock, the Dar Adiyel and Dar Glaoui, homes of the impressively wealthy, and Nejjarine Square: which also houses the Nejjarine Woodwork Museum. The museum is potentially more interesting for the building that it's housed in than for its exhibits. It used to be a fundoq, which is an inn for travelling merchants, and it's been carefully restored and the woodwork, done in a very traditional style, is particularly impressive. The whole square has been restored, the fountain has been particularly well done. Inside, the museum features more woodwork, this time as exhibits. Outside is the carpenter's souk, destined to catch those impressed by what they've just seen in the museum. One of the highlights has to be seeing the wood carvers at work.
The Andalusian quarter has some of the most interesting architecture. The influence of the Spanish exiles on the Islamic designs resulted in numerous palaces covered in intricate mosaics. The ceilings are especially impressive. The el Sehri Madrasa has some particularly interesting tile designs, the Seffarine Madrasa has a minaret with a colourful zellige design, and the Sahrij Madrasa has a courtyard with a lovely pool and 14th Century ornate woodwork that even non-Muslims can visit.
You can't go anywhere without passing though some kind of market or shopping district, but head though to the Dar Batha Museum, housed in a 19th Century summer palace built by Sultan Moulay al-Hassan I, and worth visiting both for the palace and palace gardens, and for the museum's collection, which is made up mostly of 18th Century Fassi pieces, including intricately decorated furniture in wood and wrought iron, embroidered clothing and textiles, musical instruments and jewellery, as well as some fine examples of carpets made by the Berber tribes.
Spend the afternoon wandering Fes's Jewish Mellah, the equivalent of a European Jewish ghetto, a walled area within which the Jewish community was forced to hole up. The one in Fes was Morocco's first. It's quite close to the king's palace, which you could visit first, and was supposed to help protect the inhabitants. One of the most unique features of the houses here are the decorations on their wooden doors, windows and balconies. The Hebrew cemetery is on the eastern edge of the mellah and has around 12,000 named, small white rounded headstones, and the more decorative tombs of people who dies young or community figures. One of the largest tombs is that of an 18th Century Rabbi, you can tell it's his by the green and black tile mosaics that cover it, and the other famous tomb holds Lalla Solika Hatchouel, who was martyred because she refused to convert to Islam to marry a prince. Habanim Synagogue at the far end of the cemetery has a small Jewish museum to help visitors with the history.
Either hire a car for the day or hire a car and driver and head down the N13 road to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town. Volubilis is part excavated and the Basilica, with mosaics, the baths, a Temple to Jupiter and a 3rd Century Triumphal arch are some of the notable ruins that has been exposed and cleared out.
Meknes is another option for a day trip and can be reached by road or train. Visitors go to see the ancient walls of the old city and the buildings within.
After the desert drive it might be nice to visit one of Fes's Hammams – Turkish Baths – for either a relaxing soak or an invigorating gommage scrub, which is the more traditional option. Seffarine Hammam in the medina has a domed and decorated roof which has been nicely restored. It also has segregated men's and women's sections, and is reasonably priced starting from around 40DH.
Your last day should be put aside for any backtracking that's needed where purchases are concerned. Walking away is a powerful bargaining chip but if you really want something you might have to go back and buy it. Most travellers agree that the medina is worth at least two days, and now you're better adjusted you might like to try it without a guide...
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Just pick uo your hire car in Fes, and go on a ten day journey onto the cusp of the Sahara, then head up through the Atlas Mountains before dropping it off in Marrakech.
Marrakech for the busy market culture, the Atlas Mountains for the remote scenery and traditional way of life and Essouira for the laid back atmosphere of this ancient, sandy coastline. You can see it all in ten days.
Marrakech's busy market atmosphere welcomes tourists in, hoping to sell you something as well as charm you with ancient art and the mixing of old cultures. This holiday idea includes a trip to the Atlas Mountains.