Fez is a city like no other. I arrived not knowing much about the place at all. My intention had been to go to Lebanon or Jordan at the end of the summer but with limited time and not feeling in the mood for connections and stop-overs I chose the considerably easier option of a direct flight from London Gatwick to Fez in Morocco.
The next few days were certainly an experience. Fez is like nowhere I’ve ever been before. I had never had a great interest in visiting Morocco but came away from this trip with a new level of appreciation for this multi-layered, colourful and complex country.
Here are the highlights from my trip:
The Medina – Fez’s ancient core, known as the medina, is a massive web of interconnecting streets and alleyways too narrow for cars to enter. Once inside the walls, you are in a completely different world, there are people everywhere, begging, chatting, selling or working, there are donkeys carrying heavy loads, cats sleeping with their newborn kittens, drums beating at deafening volume and children filing past on their way to school. The Medina is full of little shops, usually selling handmade items such as ceramics, tea pots, traditional Moroccan clothing and wooden flutes.
You can spend days walking around this place and you will inevitably get lost. Trust your intuition and be wary of people who say they will lead you the right way. I trusted one person to show me the way back to the Blue Gate but instead was taken on a twenty minute trip around some of the densest alleys before being asked for 100 dirhams to be shown the way back out. Dubious characters aside, this area is an incredible part of the city full of interesting architecture, ancient trades and a diverse group of people.
The medina is also a great place to try Moroccan food. There are a number of restaurants which do the standard Moroccan dishes of couscous, tagine and pastilla. My favourite place was Made in M on Talaa Kbira where you can try Moroccan pancake mlawi, semolina cake harcha, the sticky, twisted biscuit shabakia and tea made from the leaves of the verbena plant. If you’re in Fez at the right time of year you can easily find street vendors with carts full of prickly pears. These spiky fruits come from a cactus and taste like a mixture of pear, lime and melon. They are cheap and delicious and the sellers will remove the prickly skin for you.
Excursion to Volubilis – Whilst in Fez it is well worth the hour and a half drive to the remains of an ancient Roman and Berber city known as Volubilis. Its origins go back to the 3rd century BC but most of the buildings date from the Roman period. After the Romans were forced out, the city remained inhabited for another 700 years. It’s an interesting place to walk around and there is just so much to see. Trips to Volubilis also normally go to the nearby city of Meknes with a brief stop above the holy town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun.
Meknes – Meknes is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco and the country’s sixth largest city by population. It certainly has an entirely different character to Fez, feeling way more relaxed and calm. Meknes is full of historic monuments, one of the most important is the 18th century Bab Mansour, an impressive gateway that incorporates two Roman pillars taken from Volubilis. There is also a ruined stable, an underground prison and a Royal golf course which you can visit for free when the King is not in town. Like Fez, Meknes also has a historic Jewish quarter known as a mellah which is at least 500 years old. If you are also interested in Berber culture, Meknes is home to a sizeable number of Berber speakers and you can find a few Berber flags hung up around the city.
I’m glad I went to Fez but regret not knowing more about the country I was visiting. Normally I would spend several weeks researching a place before I visit but as this was a last minute trip I didn’t have the opportunity to do this. The city itself was an amazing place to walk around and the day trip to Volubilis and Meknes was well worth the time and money. My biggest regret is not having researched more about the Berber people and their culture because I feel I missed an opportunity to engage with a really interesting side to Morocco that has only recently been given the freedom to assert itself.
I’m not sure I would rush back to Fez but I would definitely like to return to Morocco and see more of its varied cities, landscapes and people.