Athens of Africa
Continuing our busy trip after leaving Rabat the night before, today we spared for actually visiting 2 cities: Fez and Meknes. The remaining 2 of the 4 Imperial Cities of Morocco after Rabat, and Marrakesh that we visited 3 years back, and both UNESCO World Heritage listed with their astonishing Medina. With it, we complete what was once of our wishes to visit in Morocco, and definitely can openly say how beautiful and wonderful this country is and how much more it has to offer on every corner.
Fez has in fact two Medina! One of them believed to be the largest pedestrian urban zone in the world. Said that as you can imagine, expect plenty of sights all over. It is not only the Medina, but the many ancient riads, palaces and madrasas. And home to the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. With so much packed history, it is no wonder why it become added to the listing of UNESCO. Too much for sparing just a little over half a day since we had to leave to Meknes in the late afternoon to continue with our very busy tour. Luckily (for us), Fez is an easy city to fly into from London and many European cities, with many airlines serving the city, hence there is no doubt we will return and enjoy the city once more with a much better timing.
The city preserves pretty much intact majority of the buildings since its foundation in 789, many of them enlarged and further embellished through the pass of the centuries, to the point of having the best preserved old city in the whole of the Arab world.
But of course, finding those buildings is also not an easy task bearing the obvious such as gates, walls, mosques and main squares. The hidden treasures are hard to even realise they are there behind what might otherwise look “vulgar” houses from the outside. But unfortunately those buildings are either mostly riads, museums or private homes that cannot be visited.
A good side on visiting the city is the easiness of walking through both Medina and the nouvelle ville. Right below in the next section you have the proper guide on what to see, perfectly listed in a sequential order so just simply follow the points one after another to complete the entire circle without missing any important sight.
For more information about Fez check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Morocco’s currency is the Dirham. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Fez
- Fez el Djdid This is the western Medina, one of two in the city. Entirely walled with beautiful gates, it is in turn divided into three with the Jewish Quarter, the Moulay Abdallah Quarter and the massive Royal Palace in the middle of them all.
-Alaouitas Square The largest square in the area dividing the Jewish Quarter at one side and the Royal Palace main gates and gardens at the opposite side.
-Dar El-Makhzen The King’s Palace, one of the most beautiful and largest in the country, although not opened to visitors. Still from outside, the walls and gates are beautiful to admire.
-Lalla Mina Gardens The gardens, originally part of the Royal Palace, are accessible to visitors from where you can grab nice views of the palace.
-Mella The Jewish Quarter was built in 1438 to accommodate in origin Jews from Fes el Bali and soon afterwards Berber Jews from the Atlas range and Jewish immigrants from Al-Andalus. Of small dimensions, it is nice to walk through its main streets towards the entrance gate of Bab Smarine to the Djdid Medina.
-Bab Smarine The largest and most elaborate of the entrance gates to the Medina.
-Grand Rue de Fez Djdid Is the main street running north to south through the Medina. The south is marked by the Bab Smarine and along the way you will find the main landmarks, hence no need to go off-road to the smaller streets.
-Red Mosque Near the south door of the Medina.
-White Mosque Halfway along the Grand Rue.
-Bab Dekaken This gate marks the northern end of the Grand Rue of the Medina. Right after and parallel to it, there are several more gates.
-Bab es-Seba This is the monumental gate at the north end outside the Medina, opens to the Menchuar Square.
-Menchuar Square Impressive square in all senses because its both monumental gates at both ends. Here is where the world famous Music Festival of Fez takes place yearly.
- Fez el Bali This enormous Medina is believed to be the largest pedestrian urban zone in the world. Together with the Medina of Fez el Djdid are listed UNESCO World Heritage Site for being the best preserved old city in the whole of the Arab world. Please take note that once you enter it is very easy to get lost once you walk away from the main streets, so a good map will come handy. If following a route similar to what we did, coming from Menchuar Square after visiting the other area of the city, walk by the Avenue Moulay Hassan where the walls of the Medina are on your right hand side, and continue all the way straight until the most famous entrance gate to the el Bali Medina.
-Bab Boujloud This is the monumental entrance gate to the el Bali Medina.
-Boujloud Mosque Meters away from the Bab Boujloud.
-Bou Inania Madrasa Following straight from the Bab Boujloud along the Rue Talaa Kebira you will find one of the landmarks in Fez. This madrasa was founded in 1351 designed in one of the best examples of Marinid architecture. This is the only madrasa in the city with a minaret. It is accessible to non Muslims visitors.
-Dar al-Magana Arabic for clock-house, is a weight-powered water clock dating from 1357, unique example in the country. Located just opposite the Bou Inania Madrasa.
-University and Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin Continuing along the Rue Talaa Kebira towards its end. This is the oldest existing, continually operating university in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records, dating from 859. It is of superb architectural beauty, not to be missed.
-Al-Attarine Madrasa Built by the Marinid sultan Uthman II Abu Said in 1323, located just across the road from the al-Qarawiyyin.
-Bab Sid L’Aouad and Bab Rcif Both gates grants access to the main square of the Medina, Place Rcif. Follow the road south from the al-Qarawiyyin to get there.
-Place Rcif Main square in the Medina. Very picturesque on every side.
-Mosque Rcif One of the largest in the city. You get great views of it from the square.
-Bab Jdid The southern gate of the Medina, and end of the sightseeing tour. From the Rcif Square, follow the Boulevard Ben Mohammed El Alaoui down to the end. Once here you can get on a bus to the nouvelle ville or back to the very beginning from where you started the tour.
Fez is one of the major tourist spots in Morocco and as such, it is heavily visited either on single trips or as part of a wider tour. The infrastructure, like pretty much the rest of the country and in between the most important cities is extremely well developed with brand new motorways, fast trains and state of the art new airports.
The airport is 15 kilometres from the city centre, and well connected by either a cheap local bus (route number 16), or the airport shuttle bus that runs at a frequency of around every 30 minutes for 20 Dirhams towards the train station. A taxi will set you in 120 Dirhams. We found a great deal with Iberia from London to Casablanca via Madrid, and on the return a direct flight from Rabat to London with Ryanair. In between all the cities we visited in this trip we moved by train.
Within the country, apart of internal flights to farther destinations, it is fast and efficient to move by train and bus. Those are very reliable and frequent, with direct connections to Meknes, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Oujda or Tangier to name a few.
To move around the city, the best option is walking, but bear in mind distances will be big. We finished our tour completely shattered, but it was either that, or skipping sights along the way and taking a taxi instead. Remember that anyway, inside the Medina, there is no transportation other than taxi at the only main street; so after all, not too handy either. If you follow a route as the one I list here below, under the what to see and do section, you will see it traverses a perfect and easy walking route along the major sights which I strongly recommend to do, or at least, on same idea.
Fez is one of the major tourist destinations in Morocco, and also one of the largest cities. With this facts you are guaranteed to find a great deal at one of the countless hotels and riads in the city.
We stayed at the Hotel Volubilis, in Avenue Allal Ben Abdellah, south of the train station and along the main avenue in the “New Ville”. Perfect location once again if you are intending to be taking trains or buses between other cities in Morocco as was our case. Also, a nice walk from the old town with both Medinas, and since it is by the new town, it is a much quieter area not so crowded as in the old town. The room was very nice and modern, clean, with comfortable bed and nicely silence overnight. There is a nice size pool which we did not have time to use anyway, but hey, there it is and it’s a nice plus. The staff was also friendly and nice, but be aware there is a “hotel tax” to be paid upon check-in. Even if your booking confirmation clearly says all taxes and fees have been paid, it seems not to apply for them. This is not the usual “city tax” you can find pretty much around the world nowadays, but something they claim “hotel tax”. Not idea; anyway it is 2.5 Euros per night, or the equivalent in Dirham. The breakfast, oh well. This is the area for what I will not recommend you this hotel, unless you don’t mind about having breakfast or not.