If you're dreaming of colorful buildings glittering with hand-painted tiles, a marketplace full of rugs and spices, and desert-scapes dotted with camels, don't come to Fez. You're thinking of Marrakesh (and so was I). What initially started as a bit of shock and disappointment (where are the beautiful buildings? Where can I find the big market?) turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Fez, unlike it's sister city to the south, doesn't orient itself around the needs of its visitors. It nods its head at tourism, without bowing down to it. Ochre buildings arranged in an actual maze of over 10,000 streets spread out in an intricate weaving. It becomes abundantly clear that this is no place for the casual tourist; unless you're willing to get fully lost or else throw yourself upon the mercy of the locals (or a paid guide) you will find yourself anxious and discouraged. If, however, you embrace the labyrinth and lose your colorful expectations, Fez will be a remarkably interesting city to visit.
As per Islamic tradition, the buildings in Fez focus their beauty on the inside, rather than the outside. This has created a rather homogenous city of plaster and sandstone alleys. However, what is missing on the exterior is not lacking on the interior. Elaborate tile and carved wooden arches are abundant inside many of the buildings in Fez. Colorful courtyards with fountains and orange trees, embroidered cushions and sequined pillows, and beautiful mosaics are commonplace. The trick is finding buildings that you can actually enter. In our case, we only saw the interior of our own Riad and a few restaurants, but if you're able to visit other Riads and traditional stores, I recommend it.
The list of highlights in Fez is centered around visiting famous madrasas (schools) including the oldest university in the world, a few palaces, the medina, and the leather tannery. We took a three hour guided tour of the medina which led us past some of the well-known madrasas and mosques, but we did not enter any of them. We spent much of our time exploring the medina, which prior to our arrival, I had envisioned as an amalgamation of Istanbul and Cairo's famous souks. If you, like me, expected colorful lanterns, loud music, and tourist shops, you will be disappointed. The medina is clearly focused on meeting the needs of the locals. Most of the "shops" are carts in the street, or very small rooms with a counter facing the street. The goods are primarily foods and housewares, most of which aren't gifts you'd send home to mom and dad. In fact, we buy a magnet in every country we visit for Phil's mom (she's collected them for a very long time), and we didn't see a single shop in the medina with magnets or any items of the like. However, this meant more interesting people-watching (and photos!).
Possibly the most famous (at least on Instagram) destination we visited in Fez was the leather tannery. This is the largest leather tannery in Africa, and produces a good amount of the leather exported worldwide. It is a series of vats of natural chemical compounds and dyes, used to soften and dye the leather. The chemicals used are made from liquified pigeon droppings, which works wonders to create silky-soft leather. However, this results in an incredibly foul stench famous for making visitors gag and even become sick. I myself was anxious prior to entering; would the smell make me sick? Would I faint or vomit or have to leave? With so many horror stories online I could only imagine the worst. I was pleasantly surprised to find the smell quite tolerable, even without the sprig of mint they hand you to hold under your nose. It smelled no worse to me than the piles of garbage that filled the streets outside my home in Cairo (no offense, Cairo).
Fez was our first stop in Morocco, so we experienced all of our Moroccan "firsts" there. Going in, we knew that they speak Arabic and French, and we assumed Arabic would be the dominant language. Phil speaks French from growing up in Switzerland, and I speak [very rusty] Arabic after living in Egypt. When we got to our hotel, our host took us to the courtyard to fill out paperwork and tell us about the city. I spoke a few niceties in Arabic with him and immediately he said "Ah! That sounds like Egyptian!" to which I blushed and said "yes, it is." He said "You know, the interesting thing is that Moroccan Arabic is so unique, but we can understand all the other forms of Arabic. But none of the other Arabic countries can understand us!" And he was correct. Try as I might, I could hardly understand any of the words spoken by passerby's in the street or at the restaurants or shops we visited. Moroccan Arabic sounds like Arabic spoken in a French accent, but it also seemed to use a lot of unique words (and some that were French just sprinkled in!). As it turned out, everyone spoke French, and it was pretty standard sounding. Phil did almost all of the communicating on the trip, and I was too embarrassed to try using my Egyptian Arabic again.
Possibly the most surprising thing about Fez is how peaceful it is. The majority of old Fez is pedestrian only; the streets aren't wide enough for cars and no one seemed to use motorbikes. We didn't notice music playing from houses or stores anywhere in the city, and there wasn't an abundance of people out in the streets either. This resulted in a charming experience in which the dominant sounds are birds chirping and children playing in the streets. The people we encountered were gracious and not pushy; nothing like the experience we've had in all the other North African/Middle Eastern countries we've visited. Nobody followed us or made us feel intimidated. Nobody yelled at us or made inappropriate comments. Every person we met was simply lovely and helpful; even the strangers who walked us to-and-from different places in the city (we used three different forms of maps and still got lost!) asked politely for a tip at the end of our interaction but didn't push us for more money. What Fez lacks in beautiful buildings it certainly makes up for in beautiful people.
To say Fez didn't meet my expectations would be an understatement; but that's not to say that it was a negative experience whatsoever! My disappointment quickly metamorphosed into curiosity and landed somewhere in the realm of pleasantly surprised. Phil and I truly enjoyed our time, and would recommend visiting yourself if you're able.
My recommendations for visiting Fez, Morocco:
- Hire a tour guide at least your first time exploring the city, and be prepared to get lost on your own.
- Stay at a locally owned Riad; they are true to the local culture and beautiful to stay in.
- Practice your French as everyone we encountered spoke it. Modern Arabic is too different from Moroccan Arabic to be of much help. Many people spoke a bit of English but French is the easiest language to use.
- Don't bother eating at any restaurants; have your Riad cook all your meals. All of the best cooks work in the Riads, not the restaurants! (we learned this the hard way)
- Fez has many locally owned co-ops for artisan goods; rather than buy tourist trinkets to take back home, consider investing in the local economy at one of these co-ops (we bought a rug from a women's rug co-op!)
- Bring your camera and a sense of adventure!
Have you visited Fez before? How did your experience compare?