Where past and
present live together
Until you stand in a narrow alleyway, amid vibrant food stalls and throngs of people, it’s hard to imagine what life is like in the world’s largest pedestrian zone. Laden donkeys amble past, their hooves protected from the rough stone surfaces by pieces of old tyres. Tanned lined hands offer you to taste an olive or inspect a hand-carved comb. And almost all the 10,000 different alleyways look remarkably similar to untrained eyes. This is life as it’s been lived for centuries in Morocco, unvarnished and authentic. Are you ready for it?
Colourful and chaotic, the medina of Fez is a magical maze that’s instantly as beguiling, and more bewildering, than the one in Marrakech.
The challenge: navigating a tangled warren of unnamed alleys. The solution: a clear head and local knowledge. Our private guides have both, so you can safely explore and understand this ancient heart of an imperial city. Guides like Hesham, who grew up in the medina so knows his way round, and seemingly knows everyone you meet along the way. In his hands, you stop to taste prickly pears and succulent figs, then watch flat bread being made the old-fashioned way by a local woman who’s been here since long before Unesco declared the medina to be a world heritage site.
Metalworkers hammering out huge copper pans, tailors concentrating on intricate stitching, sheep’s heads lying bloody on a board, juicy olives piled high. Every corner reveals something new, every alley so crammed with life that it’s almost overwhelming. With our guide, you won’t get lost but will find the perfect route through this lively labyrinth. And possibly be tempted to buy a few goodies along the way.
A great tan?
You smell it long before you see it, a tangy acrid scent that works its way into your nostrils. By the time you reach the entrance, you gladly hold the proffered sprig of mint in front of your nose so you can go closer. And then you forget the smell, because the vision of the tannery sweeps all other senses aside. Countless vats sit crammed into an open square, each one filled with liquid of every hue. Deep indigo and pale rose, coffee brown and sunflower yellow, bright white and slate grey. It’s a giant’s paint pot just waiting for an artist.
Then you look closer and spot the men at work, some waist deep in the vats, others hauling wet skins around. Hard labour in the blazing sun (not forgetting the pungent stink) but leather has been tanned this way here for centuries and the tradition shows no signs of dying out. The Chouara Tannery is the largest in Fez, so attracts a fair few visitors, but our guide will take you to a prime viewing spot with the best leather goods on sale. The countless slippers and bags aren’t just eye-catching, they are probably the softest leather you’ve ever felt.
Beyond the souk
Beyond the souk
As amazing as the markets and tanneries are, there’s more to the medina than these highlights. This ancient walled city is home to historic mosques and universities, which have been comforting and educating people for over twelve centuries. Fez was also the national capital until 1912, so our guided walk includes the opulent gateway to the royal palace.
If you want to sample that luxurious lifestyle, then there’s nothing better than staying overnight in a traditional riad, or townhouse set around a courtyard. Some are quite simple but one of our favourites is Riad Fes, a lavishly decorated 17th-century building on a slight hill overlooking the rest of the medina. It’s quiet yet central, discreet and decadent, with a hammam spa, superb food and excellent service. It really was hard to leave once we were there.