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Fantastic Fes Morocco

by Ruth Murdoch  |  February 2019  |  Morocco, Africa

Fantastic Fes

Reading about the famous medina in Fes and learning all it had to offer was enough to get me excited to actually be here and anticipating a full on day.  We were not disappointed.  Today we headed into the medina of the fantastic Fes, one of nine UNESCO sites in Morocco.

The guide had introduced himself to us yesterday and told us we could join the other two couples from the UK.  You’ll be home by 3pm, maybe 4pm at the latest he told us!  As he dropped us back at the camping ground after 7pm I was thinking that he really knows how to provide value for money.

We woke at 7am in anticipation and excitement of the day to come.  By 8.30pm I was back in bed with stomach pains unsure if we would ever make it on the tour, and thinking we may have to bow out.  A couple of Panadol and rest took the edge off the pain and I was determined not to let this opportunity pass us by.

We met our guide Elouafi, pronounced Wafi, at 9.30am and waited for our driver with the eight-seater van. We were in for a treat visiting thirteen different sites, nine inside the medina and four outside. Our first stop was on our way to the medina where we came across the Royal Palace and Jewish Quarter.

1. Royal Palace

Fes Royal Palace, or the Dar el-Makhzen, is located at Place des Alaouites, in the center of the Fes el Jadid quarter and was built in the thirteenth century under the reign of Mérinides Dynasty.  Formerly the main residence of the sultan, the Royal Palace is still used by the King of Morocco when he is in the city of Fes.

Surrounded by high walls that we cannot look over it spans an area of 195 acres (80 hectares).  We hear that a drone once crossed over the boundaries, daring to take a look inside the mystical palace grounds, resulting in 14 days in jail for the owner.  Perhaps that’s why drones are now banned from entering Morocco!  Our guide tells of multiple spectacular gardens being created to represent different corners of the world, inside the walls, however without anyone ever seeing inside, this information is handed down through a trust and belief system and cannot be verified.

There are seven brass doors of different sizes with matching knockers and intricate geometric patterns, surrounded by fine zellige (mosaic tile work) and carved cedar wood.  Although this is the only thing to be seen here, it was well worth the visit and we were grateful to be allowed an up close and personal view of the doors.  At times, there is a 100 metre exclusion zone barrier, preventing the perfect photo opportunity.

Talking about photos, around the corner on our way to the Jewish Quarter there were guards wearing three different kinds of uniforms.  Apparently, in Morocco there are many different branches of armed forces, guards and police and each has their own uniform.  Permission must be asked before taking photos of these guys, and one of our party asked and was refused.  We learn that guards can lose their jobs if a photo is taken which is then displayed on the internet.  In a country where employment is difficult to find, this request must be highly respected.  I read that your camera will be confiscated if you were seen taking their photos and given I take photos on my iPhone I didn’t want to risk having this taken from me.

Kaz & Nik in front of the centre doors of the Royal Palace

Outer doors of the Royal Palace

2. The Jewish Quarter

Located just around the corner from the Royal Palace is the Jewish Quarter or Mellah. Although most of the Jewish population has left the distinctive architecture of the buildings and charming antique shops remain for our viewing pleasure.

Next, we arrived at the medina where the driver drops us off and it’s on foot from now on.  First here’s some background information about the medina to set the scene of this unique location.

Architecture of the Jewish Quarter

Famous road in the Jewish Quarter

About The Medina

The word ‘medina‘ is used to describe the old walled part of a North African town. This is the second one we have come across and is by all accounts rather impressive.

The medina, dating back to the 9th Century, encloses 89 kilometres! (according to our guide) of narrow passages, some no more than shoulder width apart.  It houses 220,000 people and umpteen shops of all descriptions including many that defy description in Western terms.

Research indicates there are some 9,000 – 9,500 alleyways here but how would you know?  Perhaps that’s one of those urban myths that has turned into fact by repetition.

Donkeys are used to transport goods in and out of the medina just as we would typically use vehicles for transporting goods to and from our businesses and homes.  They are strong but small animals and appear to just plod along placidly, often also carrying the weight of the rider, sitting sidesaddle with his goods.

Camel and goat heads are hanging in the market, their meat for sale.  Wafi tells us that the going rate for a camel is €2,800-3,000 so I wonder what price the meat sells for?

During summer, up to 60 degree temperatures are reported in Fes, however, the medina itself with its narrow paths and tall walls stays much cooler.  We enjoyed 18-20C in the sun on our February visit into the medina, however, with such narrow tall buildings the sun had little opportunity to kiss us or the ground.

The first floors of the medina houses have no windows.  The reason for this is privacy for the women as traditionally it is forbidden to see a woman without her head covered.

The alleyways between the homes are so narrow I’d hate to think how one would get new furniture or move house.

The walls are shored up with timber bracing to stop them from falling inwards.  Although parts of the medina have been rebuilt due to earthquakes and fires, the mainstay buildings dating back from the 9th Century still remain original.

Our guide gave us some basic rules about walking through these narrow streets.  If someone calls out beware (obviously not in English), then you must stand aside so they and their trollies or donkeys can safely pass you by.  These are workers going from A to B and don’t want to be held up by meandering souls.  The second was that photographing individuals is out of the question, unless you ask permission first.  Taking general photos of the produce was okay but we are told to be respectful of taking photos of people alone.  Just think how you might feel if someone took your photo without your permission?

The Road Leading To The Medina

So Many Choices Here

Donkeys Carry Payloads To The Many Shops

The Narrow Alleyways

Camel For Dinner?

A Feast For The Eyes

3. Al Qarawiyyin University

Also known as the University of Al Quaraouiyine, this institution nestled in the medina dates back to 859AD and as such is the oldest university in the world.  It is still operational today.  

Whilst we couldn’t enter, I did manage to snap a photo of its impressive front gates and then, later on, we got a quick look at the mosque that sits inside the university boasting some of the stunning mosaics ceilings.

This historic university is actually recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world.  

The Doors To The Oldest University In The World!

A Wee Glimpse Into The University

Through A Side Door Into The University

Check Out This Mosiac Display

4. Bou Inania Madrasa (School)

We visited this school, located near the Mosque of Al-Quaraouin which is the most famous school in Fes, built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris ibn Abi-Hassan Marini between 1350-1355.

It is considered the last of the great schools of Morocco in terms of the unique and vast area, building decoration, and its planning.

The school consists of a large courtyard and two classes of teaching.  Students would live for 18 years here learning the Quran and sleeping in tiny windowless rooms on the second and third floors.  

Today the school is a museum displaying the stunning mosaic tiles and intricate woodwork throughout.  The wood is typically cedar and was treated so it would last thousands of years.  This involved drying it out completely then soaking it in a mixture of fats, oils, and garlic (to stop insects from eating it).  This was a one-off process and seems to have done the job because most of the wood is in excellent condition.

School Courtyard

5. Mosques

We poked our head into several Mosques that are centuries old.  Wafi joked that if I, as a non-Muslim, were to enter one of these then Alan would be circumcised.  Enough said.

Mosque For Prayer

6. Carpet Weaving and Sales

The widows of Fes are often left without any form of income after their husband dies. 

If they are able to work, there is a cooperative that provides an opportunity to learn the art of carpet weaving, thereby providing an income. 

The cooperative handles the materials supply and the sale of the carpets and ensures that the widows receive a fair price for their efforts, 80% of the sale proceeds.  It’s painstakingly intricate and skilled work taking months to complete just one carpet.

We are shown a young looking lady weaving a carpet and were astounded to learn that the pattern is memorised.  She kindly slows down to show us how the knots are tied and I noticed the bandage on her finger.  After weaving the thread through two pieces of vertically strung yarn, she then ties the knot over and back on itself and physically yanks at the wool to break the thread and then starts again.  The speed at which she works is incredible and I found myself wanting to purchase her work just to give her some money.

From here we were taken into a room and served mint tea (make sure you say yes to a little sugar in your tea otherwise it can be bitter).  The sales pitch starts and we are shown a number of different carpets made from sheep wool, camel wool, agave silk, silk, and cotton.  Some had half a million knots per square meter and were stunning displays of craftsmanship (or should that be craftwomanship?) 

One of our party purchased a large blue rug for her bedroom floor, making the time they spent with us worthwhile.  As is always the case though in this type of transaction, the final price was much lower than the first asking price because haggling is normal and expected.

A Small Room Housing Three Weavers

7. Restaurant Palais Tijani

Immediately underneath the rug shop was Restaurant Palais Tijani, a delightfully decorated ‘safe’ place to eat.  The typical format for dining out is a three-course meal, starting with salad, then hot tagine for the main followed by fruit for dessert.  A word to the wise, the salad alone was plenty for lunch and we were rather thankful that Alan and I shared a vegetarian couscous main dish. The salad consisted of several hot and cold dishes and fresh bread.  Lunch, including a bottle of water between us, and a ten percent service fee, came to 180 Dirham (€16.50 or $27NZD). 

It was the first time we had come across a service fee and felt that lunch was expensive when compared to a three course evening meal we had in Chefchaouen a few nights earlier for $45 Dirham (€4.10 or $NZ6.80). Unfortunately, according to our guide, safe choices for tourists inside the medina are somewhat limited and no one wants to be sick for a couple of days while on holiday. 

We are left to eat without the companionship of our Guide, Wafi, who went off to pray.  As a devout Muslim, this happens five times a day, every day!

A Moroccan Salad!

8. Herboriste Diwan Pharmacy

We were treated to a pharmacy tour and shown how argan oil is made.  The argan tree (Argania Spinosa) is endemic to Morocco and is ecologically indispensable.  Its deep roots are the most important stabilising element in the arid ecosystem, providing the final barrier against the encroaching deserts. Despite its uniqueness and indispensability, the argan tree sadly faces a variety of serious threats.

Nearly half of the argan forest disappeared during the 20th century – and average density dropped from 100 to less than 30 trees per hectare. This historical pressure on the forest was driven by demand for high quality charcoal (especially important during the world wars) and, more recently, by conversion to agricultural production of export crops such as tomatoes.

In recognition of its ecological value and local economic importance, the argan forest region was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Argan oil, derived from the seeds of the argan tree fruit, has been an important resource for Morocco’s Berber people for centuries. The oil came to the attention of the outside world in the 1990s and is now highly sought for culinary, cosmetic and medicinal purposes.

Goats are one of the primary threats to the argan forests because they climb the trees to graze their leaves.  The goats, as well as aggressive fruit harvesting techniques from some locals, can damage branches and dislodge buds for the next year’s production.

What is interesting, however, is that goats used to be an important part of the oil making process.  The nuts are incredibly difficult to crack open, so enterprising people poked through goat poop to pick out the valuable argan nuts. Through the magic of goat digestion, the shells of the nuts became easier to open, and processing went from there. These days, most of the argan oil used in cosmetics is harvested without the help of goats, but in some places, the traditional goat-poo process is still in place.

The process, without the help of the goats, is painstakingly tedious.  First, the ladies harvest the pods, which look like small pebbles.  To crack open the pods they use sharpened stones and bang them against a block of wood.  Each nut is opened individually in what is a very manual and labour intensive process.  The kernel is then removed, and it looks somewhat like a flat almond only smaller.  Beware of eating them however as they start off tasting sweet before turning bitter in your mouth.

From here the seeds are placed in a grinder, separating the oil from the residual brown tacky substance left behind.  Nothing goes to waste; the brown substance is turned into soap.

We purchased a 75ml bottle of this ‘liquid gold’ at a cost of 120 Dirham (€12), making this a whopping €160 per litre.  I have seen reports where the price is as high as €263 per litre!  Compare this to the cost of a one litre bottle of olive oil and you get the feeling for the price.

For more information about the wonderful Argan oil, click here.

Painstakingly Cracking Open The Kernels

9. Antiquities Shop

Our next spot was an antiquities shop and my eyes bulged.  It was difficult to take everything in and there were so many goodies that I could have easily purchased.  One was a table that pulled out to reveal a chequers board, backgammon board and a felt card table.

The displays were separated into different ethnicities/origins, for example there was an area for Sephardic Jewish antiquities and another for Berber artifacts.  The prices were a little eyewatering but probably reasonable given the quality, age and generally excellent condition of what we were looking at.

The detail was stunning and sadly we were unable to take photos of individual pieces.  Here are a couple of photos of the broader views that we were allowed to take.

This shop was one of the oldest houses in Fes and had been beautifully restored.  It was apparently unique in that it had balconies on the third floor at each of the internal corners of the courtyard.

The shop is on three stories, each one jammed packed with stunning ancient furniture, weapons, and household goods, each of which no doubt had their own history to reveal.  The owner asked Alan how many camels he wanted for his wife, and when Alan said a random 500, the owner said I was worth more than that, even much more than 600, although he didn’t give the exact figure.  At the going price of €3,000 for a camel, the price tag on my head exceeded €1.8 million and counting!  Hmm, I’m not sure whether to be flattered or worried!

Antiques Glore!

Stunning Building

What Can We Fit Into Betsy?

Looking Down From The Third Story

10. Clothing and Weavers Cooperative

Our next treat was to see a weaver making scarfs.  This is the second time we had seen this (the first being in Chefchaouen) and both times the weaver was a male.  I was keen to take some of these beauties home and really had to restrain myself due to space and costs.  I did, however, find two gorgeous scarfs, one from agave silk and the other made from traditional silk.

Many of the shops are traditional 15th century Fes houses, which have been restored using UNESCO money.  Behind the multitudes of scarves and other weavings, the detailed mosaics, plasterwork, and intricate architectural features can be spotted and appreciated.

A Weaver Hard At Work

Our Guide Waiting Patiently

11. Chouara Tannery

Morocco is famous for its leather goods and no visit to this city is complete without a visit to the tannery.  The tanning industry here is considered one of the main tourist attractions.

Upon arrival, we were handed a fresh mint sprig to disguise the smell of the tannery.  It wasn’t that bad, although I could imagine on a forty plus degree day it would be another story.

The tannery is eleven centuries old and the entire manual process hasn’t changed since medieval times.   They work with lamb, cow, goat, and camel hides and the process takes a staggering three months from whoa to go.

Initially the hides soak for three days in large vessels made from limestone which allows the fur and hair to fall off.  Next, the hides soak in a white liquid for three weeks, which we are told is made using pigeon feces that they collect from the markets below.  Further research indicated it might also be mixed with cow urine, lime, salt, and water.  This soaking cleans and softens the tough skins and we watch as men, wearing waders, tread on the hides in the large round stone vessels.  Next, the hides sit for one month in the coloured dyes.  These chemical-free colourants are made from natural products, such as henna for orange, poppy for red, indigo for blue and cedar wood for brown.

After dying, the hides soak in vinegar for one week, which fixes the colour.  From here they are left out in the sun for drying.

We were taken into the large display rooms where every kind of leather goods imaginable are displayed.  High-quality bags and purses of all shapes and sizes are for sale, as are beautifully crafted coats and jackets, shoes including slippers and belts.  Apparently, camel skin is best for bags because it is lighter but flexible and extremely tough while goatskin is best for leather jackets because it stretches so is more comfortable.

I was impressed to learn that they would take your measurements and make a jacket of your colour choice and style, then deliver it to your hotel in just two hours!  

12. Borg Nord Ruins

We left the medina late in the afternoon and visited the ancient ruins on the mountain overlooking the medina and the old historic city.  From here our guide pointed out that during our eight hours of walking we only managed to explore a small part of the medina.

The ruins of Borg Nord, reminded us of the Greek ruins, and in a similar state of disrepair, although for me that it all part of the attraction.  Below the ruins sit the Marinid Tombs, also known as the Merenid Tombs, which were not part of our tour today.

13. Ceramic Workshop

As the evening light started to fade, the last stop on our packed tour was to the ceramic workshop called Art D’Argile.  Here we were treated to a demonstration of how to make tagines on a potters wheel – so simple, it only took a few seconds.  It’s funny how one can make something look so easy after twenty five years of practice.

Next we watched as a skilled artist carefully chiseled away at the surface of a plate, removing the unwanted ceramic to create his carefully crafted pattern.  The same craftsman then demonstrated how each tile for a mosaic is cut out using exact strokes with a hammer and chisel.  You start to gain an appreciation of how much skilled labour goes into producing the stunning mosaics we have seen today and the goods on display around us.

The following artist was hand painting a detailed pattern onto a dinner service for an Australian client.  The paint he used was a dull purple colour that becomes a brilliant vibrant blue following glazing and firing in the kiln.  How he could paint such a perfect pattern and reproduce it over and over again defied belief.

Out in the courtyard we were led to a mosaic surfaced table and told it contained an error.  If we could find the error we were welcome to the table.  After a clue about which area and colour to look for I found the offending piece, see if you can pick it.  Here’s the clue, one piece was supposed to be red but wasn’t.  (I didn’t take the table because I couldn’t lift it and anyway, it wouldn’t fit into Betsy, lol).

Can you find the offending piece?

Our Purchases in the Medina

I’d been hanging out to buy dates and finally saw them.  Our guide organised the sale for half a kilo (sweet tasting and yummy) @40MAD (€3.68) per kilo

Small orange leather coin purse 10 MAD (€0.92).  The seller had been waiting patiently for me to complete our rug visit and then lunch.

Two scarfs, a rich orange colour made from the agave plant, they call the product agave silk and the other a pink one with many colours and patterns made from silk.  I paid $400 MAD (€37) for the two.

Argan oil 75mls ($120 MAD, €11) and massage oil 100mls ($150 MAD, €13.80)

Tanned coloured soft leather belt $170MAD (€15.60)

The Many Doors of the Medina

The architecture here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and some of the doors take your breath away.  I snapped all manner of doors and must show you some of these splendors here.  Click on the images below to enlarge and look at the details.

Guides & The Medina

A guide isn’t just a good idea in this labyrinth, it’s a must, in my humble opinion.  Without a guide, we would have been wondering the whole time how we would find our way out.  When people say you would get lost, they really mean it.  The alleyways don’t follow any logical pattern or flow and as great as Google is, there is no such thing as using Google maps here.  I read that even a compass won’t help to find your way back.

I would also recommend visiting the medina with other people for a few reasons.  One, others often see things that you may have missed and can point these out to you.  Two, you get to share the experience and learn about the travel plans of others and pick up on their top tips.  And three, if you’re not in the market to make expensive purchases (eg a new carpet), then maybe someone else will, which takes the pressure and focus away from you.

So if you are interested in finding a professional certified guide (please ensure they are certified as some are knock-offs), then please contact Wafi, the guide we used.  He charges $400MAD for a couple (€37), for a full day tour.  Here are his details.

Elouafi Hanaf (pronounced Wafi)
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 00212672040156
Works for the Office of Tourism Morocco

Please let him know you found him through us Ruth & Alan from New Zealand, cheers.

Fantastic Fes

Week 4

Week 1

Week 5

Week 2

Week 6

Week 3

How To Use Argan Oil