a whirlwind tour of fez, morocco

Today, our local guide in Fez was Hashim.We started in Fez el-Jdid (the new medina of Fez), which is only 700 years old.  The paranoid Merenid Sultan Abu Yusuf Yacoub (1258-86) built the quarter as a political and administrative hub and used Syrian mercenary guards to isolate himself from his subjects.

Our first stop was the Royal Palace, Dar el-Makhzen, at the entrance to the grand square.  It wasn’t open to the public so we just looked at the imposing brass doors, surrounded by fine zellij (tilework) and carved cedar wood.  Lemon trees stood daintily off to the side.  The guards posed for pictures.


Dar el-Makhzen (Royal Palace)

We walked next to the palace walls along the outer edge of the Jewish Quarter, or Mellah.  In the 14th century, Fez el-Jdid became a refuge for Jews. Mellah means “salt” and was called this because the Jews sold salt, in addition to jewelry.  This quarter offered the Jews protection and they in turn repaid the sultan with loyalty during conflicts.  The Jewish people were also protected by the sultans for their precious metal trade.  The old houses had open balconies of curved wood and wrought iron looking out over the streets, a contrast to Muslim styles. After the 15th century, Jews were not allowed to leave the mellah without papers, and they weren’t allowed to wear shoes outside the mellah.

Now there are only 200 Jews in the Mellah as most have moved to the Villa Nouvelle, or further afield, to France, Israel or the U.S.





Our guide drove us to a cemetery on a hill where we had a panoramic view of Fez nestled into its hills. People visit the cemetery on Fridays and Holy Days.  We weren’t allowed to enter it.


cemetery overlooking Fez


cemetery overlooking Fez


cemetery overlooking Fez


view of Fez from the cemetery


cemetery overlooking Fez


cemetery overlooking Fez

At a ceramics factory, we watched craftsmen making pottery and tiles.  They did a four-year apprenticeship.  One potter, age 34, had been a potter for 17 years.  He demonstrated how to make different shapes like a tajine and a candlestick. I wanted a beautiful bowl but it was $300 to buy and ship – too much! I was wracked with indecision and didn’t end up buying anything. I liked so much though, and I hoped I’d see cheaper ceramics in the market.  Sadly we didn’t have much free time in Fez for shopping.

When we first went into the old medina, we walked around the residential area, which was very quiet with narrow lanes and mudbrick walls.  This part of Fez was founded in 805 A.D.


residential area of Fez


residential area of Fez


petals in residence

We then walked through the medina, Fès el-Bali, tempted by olives and fruits.  We walked past the fruit and vegetable sellers and the meat sellers.  The Fez medina is full of labyrinthine lanes where it is easy to get lost; I guess that’s why our guide didn’t turn us loose.


olives in the medina


olives in the medina


pears in the medina

Some musicians in colorful dress marched through singing, drumming and playing cymbals.


Entertainers in the medina

We headed for the Chouwara Tanneries, one of Fez’s most iconic sights – and smells. They handed us sprigs of mint to put over our noses, but it barely kept the horrible odor at bay. Strong odors of skin and dye wafted all around the tanneries.  Cow, goat, sheep, and camel are all used to make leather.

The tanning pits are surrounded by leather goods shops.  Each shop has a terrace with an overlook.  I bought an emerald green wallet, a mustard yellow wallet, and a deep green tote with turquoise suede lining.


me with mint over my nose at the tanneries


Chouwara Tanneries in Fez


Chouwara Tanneries in Fez


leather bags in Fez


Chouwara Tanneries in Fez


Chouwara Tanneries in Fez

We had a look through the doors of Qaraouiyine Mosque and University, one of Africa’s largest mosques and possibly the oldest university in the world.  This mosque complex is the spiritual heart of Fez and Morocco.  Established in 857 by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a Tunisian refugee, and expanded by the Almoravids in the 12th century, it can accommodate 22,000 at prayer.  We observed it from the gates on Talaa Kebira and Place as-Seffarine.  Non Muslims are forbidden to enter.


Kairaouine Mosque and University


Kairaouine Mosque and University

Fès el-Bali is a crazy place to walk, because mule drivers and motorized vehicles push their way through the narrow walkways.  Mule drivers yell “balak” or “look out,” which is barely enough warning to avoid getting run down.


dried figs in the medina


dried fruits in the medina


brass plates in the medina


slippers in the medina


slippers in the medina

We dipped into the Islamic college: Medersa el-Attarine, founded by Abu Said in 1325 in the heart of the medina.  It’s a separate annex to the Kairaouine Mosque.  Halls for teaching and a modest masjid (mosque) flank the central courtyard. Multiple floors with dormitories surrounded the courtyard.  It showcases traditional Merenid artisanship: zellij (tilework) base, stuccowork, and cedar wood at the tops of walls and on ceilings.

We then went to lunch on a terrace overlooking the town. We were served up salad, aubergine, green beans, beets, carrots, anise, lentils, and bread – all in little individual dishes. Susan and I shared a Kafta tajine.  I drank fresh orange juice, always a welcome treat in Arab countries. For dessert we had orange and banana slices sprinkled with cinnamon.  It was delicious.

We stopped into a weaving shop where I bought three scarves: 1) a pink and black striped one; 2) a purple crinkled one; and 3) a blue-gray crinkled one. 🙂 We stopped in another shop selling jewelry, ceramics inlaid with silver, paintings, and lots of other stuff, but I didn’t buy anything.


Door in Fez


wedding party in Fez


street art in the medina




two types of transport

Nicknamed the “Blue Gate” because of the blue zellij tile work on the outside, Bab Boujeloud is one of the newest gates of the medina.  It was built in 1913, and its color reflects the blue color of the city of Fez.


the blue gate of Bab Boujeloud in Fez

I felt like we didn’t do Fez justice.  The tour was mostly a waste, taking us to various shops to entice us to spend money.

When we got back to the hotel, Susan went out for a walk and coffee with the young clique, and I went for an hour-long hot stone massage at Hôtel Mounia.  Two Moroccan women massaged me simultaneously with warm oil, using hot smooth stones to rub over my body.  I wore tiny paper bikini underpants and nothing else, so I felt rather exposed! When I turned over on my back, one of the ladies grabbed my chubby belly and said in French “graisse.”  I said in English, yes, I know it is “fat,” but it’s not nice (“harram” – which actually means “sinful” but I didn’t know the proper word to use) to tell a woman that.  After the massage, I was covered in oil, so I had to go up and soak in a hot bath to wash the oil from my hair and body.

Later, I was sitting in the lobby trying to decide what to do, and Susan came back and suggested we go out for a pizza, which we did at a small hole-in-the-wall just down from our hotel. During dinner she told me how her grandfather was a butcher and their family lived for some time above the butcher shop.

*Steps: 11,340, or 4.81 miles*

*Friday, April 12, 2019*


On Sundays, I post about hikes or walks that I have taken in my travels; I may also post on other unrelated subjects. I will use these posts to participate in Jo’s Monday Walks or any other challenges that catch my fancy.

This post is in response to Jo’s Monday Walk: Vaqueiros in Spring.