We recently took a last minute weekend trip to Fes, the Moroccan city that is (or should be) on the “must-see” list for every tourist to Morocco. Although Casablanca has name recognition, Fes, the third largest city in Morocco is–well, an experience not to be missed. Our first trip to Fes was last summer, but we spent our time in the new part of the city because Omar was there for work and I tagged along for fun. This time, the Medina (the old city) was our focus.
The Fes Medina is a thriving medieval city, said to be one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world. I hardly noticed that there were no cars, because dodging donkeys, carts, cats, kids, tourists, and the locals takes a lot of concentration. The city was founded in the 8th century and is home to one of the oldest continuously functioning universities in the world. The experience is a total assault on the senses. The smells from the tanneries, spices, donkeys, mint tea, and souks are dizzying. The narrow, winding, brick roads, are worn and shiny, a constant reminder of all the foot steps that have passed on these streets in centuries before us. The construction is a mélange of beautiful, ornate, tile, stucco, wood, and frighteningly unstable buildings. It’s difficult to put the Fes Medina into words or even pictures and even though I won’t give it justice, I’ll share my take, mostly because I want to convince you to visit for yourself!
Stay in a Riad or Dar in the Medina. We spent only two nights at Dar Seffarine at the recommendation of our friends from Indiana who stayed there last winter (Thanks to Lisa and Colin!). The Dar was fully restored in 2005 after 25 years of vacancy. It’s akin to a palace, especially considering there are only five rooms for accommodations. (Check out a pic of our room below). Staying at a riad or dar that is centrally located, but serves as a quiet oasis from the bustling Medina is the way to go. Inside, the tilework at Dar Seffarine is something to marvel at for hours and the peacefulness is shocking given that it sits next to one of the main squares in the Medina. We arrived late on Friday after the 2.5 hour drive from Rabat and were welcomed with a three course dinner. As experienced travelers in Morocco (and total winos) we brought our own wine, since it is difficult to buy alcohol in the Medina.
In Fes, hire a genuine guide for at least half a day. The next morning we set off on our adventures in the Medina with our guide, Idriss. Our Dar helped us to organize the guide and this is the best way to ensure your guide is legitimate and not trying to scam you. While it is possible to navigate the Medina without the guide (others will disagree with me, but Moroccans are very kind to help and with a few landmarks it is possible), we hired Idriss for four hours so we could maximize the sights and minimize our frustration. He was amazing. In four hours we hit souks galore, five of the eight Madersas, Al-Qarawiyyin, the tanneries, mosques, the Nejjarine Wood museum, a public bakery, a silk weaver, the obligatory carpet shop, and one of many residential quarters.
Wear closed toe shoes. Ladies, leave those trendy sandals at home. The Medina (and really, most of Morocco) is not a place for open toe shoes. No flip-flops or sport sandals. The streets are dirty and dusty, and heaven forbid you encounter any rain! Trash, donkey droppings, and wheeled carts are not a place where I want my feet exposed.
Be prepared for chaos. The Medina is not a place for order. At times, it feels like a free for all and it isn’t a relaxing environment. Hold wallets and bags close. Many of the souks are very crowded and shops are filled to the brim with anything and everything you can imagine. I was surprised and disappointed to find cheap Chinese imports, but entertained and in awe of the silk rugs, pirated DVDs, leather jackets, cell phones, hand woven fabrics, socks, coffins, speakers, candy, copper lamps, and just about anything else you can think of–no, really, I mean it. Omar and I bought our first Moroccan carpets on our trip. It was part of the experience. Were we ripped off? Who knows? It’s part of the game we play when we indulge in carpet buying. In the end, I don’t feel bad about the money we spent and we love having the rugs–and for me, that’s enough. Then again, don’t succumb to sales pressure unless you actually want the items, and of course, be prepared to haggle.
Optional, but highly recommended –Try the local food! I try not to be stupid, but I also strive to adopt an Anthony Bourdain attidude when it comes to trying local food. Yes, living in Rabat has probably increased by immunity and tolerance for food bourne bacteria, but we do take some liberties in trying foods.
We enjoyed dinner at Dar Tagine, in the Sidi Moussa quarter of the Medina. We were one of only two tables in the restaurant on a Saturday night, but the food was delicious and the experience itself was amazing. To get there, we were led by the restaurant owner’s son through the Medina to an unassuming building with no sign and frankly, no indication of a restaurant, up steep blue and white tiled steps to a large family room where a five course dinner was served. No menus, just a few options, and more hospitality and sincerity than even the finest of restaurants.
Dinner started with dates, figs, and a collection of sweets. This was followed by a salad course of 8 dishes, included pickled beets, olives, eggplant, cumin spice carrots, haricot vert, tomatoes, and pickled cucumbers.
Our main course of kebabs and lemon chicken and olives followed. The lemon chicken and olives was amazing, far better than the many other versions we’ve had throughout the country. Fall off the bone tender chicken, with savory olives, balanced with preserved lemon.
The main course was followed by a fruit course, and the meal ended with Moroccan tea and cookies. Authentic food, authentic people—this is the reason we travel. Oh and bottled water? Always.
Above all else, soak it in. This is the stuff that expands our horizons.