Fes el Bali (also known as Medina of Fez), inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1981, is the walled section of the Moroccan city of Fez (also spelled Fes). It is the oldest part of the city and it was founded in the 9th century. It is known for the oldest university in the world, the University of Al Quaraouiyine, which has been continually operating since 859 AD.
It’s believed to be the largest car-free, hence pedestrian, urban area in the world. That’s not only because of some laws, but because there is literally no room for any vehicle. The Medina of Fez is, as a matter of fact, an enormous maze of narrow alleys, small bridges, covered walkways, courtyards, mosques, residences, palaces, markets, fountains, fondouks (the old lodges of the visiting merchants), madrasas (educational institutions) and riads.
Riads are traditional Moroccan houses or palaces. Usually they have a courtyard with a fountain in the centre. Most of the accommodation in the city is offered inside typical riads, making it a very good way to experience some of the local life-style and get a feel of what living in one of those residences for the wealthy citizens could have been in the past.
The best way to explore the Medina is by walking around, trying to make your way through it, which will end up undoubtedly in getting lost. No need to worry, though, as scores of locals will approach you offering to lead you to your destination for a small commission. Keep in mind that they don’t ask for money when they make their offer. They will only ask for a tip after they have shown you the way, and they are not shy about showing their discontent if they think you didn’t give them enough. Be prepared to some serious, hard bargaining. Many will not even accept if you tell them you’re just wandering around: you must have a destination! Others will follow you, or walk slightly ahead of you, and demand a tip as soon as you stop somewhere saying that they have led you there. It sounds annoying, in fact after some time it is, but initially it could be the safest way to really go where you wanna go. It’s just too easy to lose track of your position, even if you have amazing orientation skills.
As an alternative, many guesthouses will offer walking tours of the Medina with (un)official guides, who can also be directly found anywhere near the gates of the Medina. This solution is a bit more expensive but it will guarantee that nobody else approaches you while you are with your guide and it’s a good way to see interesting hidden places and learn a little about the history of the city.
One of the highlights of the Medina of Fez is a visit to the tannery, which is featured in almost every postcard of Fez. It’s the place where animal hides and clothes are dyed to give them desired colour. The alley leading to the tannery is a forest of hanging clothes and pitch black, greasy pavement, due to years of dark dye dripping from the clothes.
The outdoor tannery can be seen from several terraces surrounding it, that can be accessed by shops selling everything that is made by local tanners and weavers. They often exhibit hides painted with fine pictures or beautiful patterns. They are extremely skilled merchants and will try to sell you everything they can. If they realize that you are interested in buying something, they will begin a long negotiation and won’t give up until you purchase it. Often they use the excuse that you are the first customer of the day and it is bad luck when the first customer comes in and doesn’t buy anything. Never ask for a price if you don’t intend to buy the item and aren’t ready to bargain.
From the Blue Gate, on the west side of the Medina, a short walk leads to the peaceful gardens Jnan Sbil and Fes el Jdid, the so-called new Fes.
This area is different from the Medina and feels more monumental with its big, empty squares and the Royal Palace of Fez.
When I was in Fez, I noticed that many people were buying or selling sheep and they were being carried anywhere in the city. Initially I thought it was part of the usual trade but, after asking around, I was told that it was the preparation for the annual celebrations of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holy Festival of the Sacrifice. The traditional way to celebrate this holiday is to sacrifice domestic animals, in Morocco it seemed to be sheep, as a symbol of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Then the meat is eaten and shared with family, neighbors and given to the poor.
Something that, especially in the western world, many could consider disturbing is that the animals are slaughtered on the street or inside the houses, often with the door open, and there are hundreds of men on the streets brandishing big, sharp knives and wearing bloody aprons. The animals are then also cooked on the streets because some believe that lighting a fire inside the house during Eid brings bad luck and finally the skins and the burned heads are proudly shown or even worn in the following days. Unfortunately local people didn’t allow me to take any pictures of the actual celebrations and, because of all those knives getting sharpened, I didn’t feel like complaining.
How long is long enough?
Even though the Medina of Fez is incredibly extended, a couple of full days should be enough to experience what the place has to offer, try delicious local food, like tajine and couscous, and see everything interesting, also considering that entrance to the mosques is forbidden for non-muslims. Moreover, after two days, the insistence of the locals who want to guide you around or sell you something, and often their aggressive approach, could get on the nerves of even the most chilled visitors.
A good day trip to Meknes, Volubilis (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) and the holy town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, can be arranged easily from Fez.
Reasons for being inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List
The Medina of Fez is the biggest and best preserved historic town founded during the Islamization of Morocco. It’s a remarkable example of the culture, the architecture and the urban development of medieval Morocco, that still persists now. It looks like everything is still original from that time: the buildings, the alleys, the pavement, but mostly the life-style of the residents, their skills and, in general, their culture.
The Medina of Fez is a maze where getting lost is actually more fun than looking for the way out.