The Ancient Medina of Fes – Morocco
On arriving at Bab Recif, one of the ancient gates of the Fes medina, one is greeted by a scene lifted straight out of biblical times. It’s chaotic and exhilarating. Goats, mules, sheep, camels, donkeys, carts, vendors, men dressed in hooded jellābas, women in long caftans and head scarves, petit cabs (like motorized ants), mud, noise, and a jumble of smells – overwhelm the senses.
Miraculously among the chaos, we spotted Alaa-the owner and host of Dar Seffarine – making his way towards us. We followed him into the heart of the medina across Place el-Seffarine where brass workers and coppersmiths were at work, and within minutes were standing outside a door several stories high.
We stepped into Dar Seffarine – its soaring walls covered in zellij tiles, its inner courtyard, balconies, floors, and iron work, so exquisite that we just stood and stared.
It took three years of painstaking work to restore Dar Seffarine to its beauty of bygone days. Our bedroom on the upper floor in the center of the house was simply and tastefully appointed to enhance the beauty of the floor tiles, the antique Berber rugs, and the massive wooden shutters, which opened to reveal intricate, delicate, ironwork and a view of the inner courtyard below.
In the vast labyrinth of alleys within the medina, there are the souks (specialty markets), the fondouks (an inn built as a rest stop for travelers along the ancient trade routes), madrasas (educational institutions), mosques, tanneries, hammams (public baths), and ancient wells. Without a guide to provide an orientation and lead one to these sites buried within the ancient walls of the medina, it would take research and days to uncover it all on one’s own.
Our guide, Idris, led us on an unforgettable half day walk. We visited the workshops of dyers where all natural dyes from flowers, plants, and vegetables are used; carpet weavers; and the alleys where craftsmen were at work cutting leather, stitching bags, satchels, pouffes, and babouches (colored heelless leather slippers).
Then there’s the street where ornate wedding chairs are hand carved and painted in gold and silver, while next door carpenters carve coffins and decorative wooden objects.
In the fabric, thread, and ribbon street, stalls are stacked to the rafters with merchandise in every color.
At the dried fruit and nut stalls, bowls of plump dried figs, dates, apricots, prunes, pistachios, and almonds beckoned to us, while bees swarmed around the huge bricks of scrumptious nougat, candy, and sweet halva, displayed on candy-carts in the alleys.
We walked along residential alleyways so narrow that we had to walk single file and stopped to admire heavy wooden front doors.
We passed neighborhood wells decorated with intricate patterns of inlaid mosaic.
At the Al Quaraouiyine mosque – the oldest and most illustrious mosque in Morocco – we could only peek inside the main entrance to get a glimpse of the interior.
Madrasa al-Sahrij – built in the early 14th Century where the water basin in the courtyard reflects the entire magnificent structure: its carved wooden panels and friezes, zellij tiles, geometric floral and epigraphic motifs – held us spellbound.
Then there are the tanneries – a medieval sight – which one views from a high platform. The stench, of thousands of pelts of goats, cows, sheep, and camels, being stripped of hair and flesh, before being soaked, rinsed, dried, and dyed – is overwhelming.
Once we had identified a few landmarks, we were able to navigate the alleys of the medina and enjoy uncovering the sights by losing ourselves in the intoxicating magic of Fes.
We caught a petit-taxi to Bab Smarine (Smarine Gate) where we admired the Royal Palace’s seven golden gates, then walked through the Mellah – the ancient Jewish quarter.
When we located the tiny, inconspicuous entrance to the ancient Aben Danan synagogue, we were welcomed by an eighty year old Berber man, who, having worked in the synagogue since the age of fourteen is now its proud caretaker. The Jewish cemetery is just steps away and also worth a visit.
Just within Bab Boujloud, known as the Blue Gate for its facade decorated with blue tiles, we discovered some wonderful restaurants, which also provided a great spot for people-watching while we dined.
Our favorite lunch time restaurant, however, was a tiny cubbyhole not far from Dar Seffarine which could seat five people and served just one dish: a thick, hearty, Moroccan soup, ladled from a humungous gleaming silver pot into ceramic bowls.
Rue Talaa Kebira and Rue Talaa Seghira lead one through the most interesting shopping arteries of the medina. One can spend days just enjoying getting lost in that vibrant, colorful, maze of narrow alleys.
Late afternoons and evenings were for relaxing on the idyllic rooftop of Dar Seffarine, reading, and enjoying a pot of tea, while looking out across the rooftops of Fes where the faint sounds of hammering, a workman’s lathe, and the call to mosque, drifted towards us and a crescent moon rose over Fes.
Note: To travel across Morocco and read more about Fes, go to the Book Page on this site where you can order my book: Morocco – Sights Uncovered in print and on all digital devices.
Disclosure: the photo of the Blue Gate was not taken by me.