Some call Fes a living museum. Perhaps, but if this is true, the emphasis needs to be on the word living.
Fes is a beehive of activity and commerce – a thriving, viable city with an enormous medina (ancient quarter). In fact, it is the largest medina in North Africa and that speaks volumes. It has over 9,000 tiny streets and alleys. We like to think of it as the world’s largest (and arguably most challenging) maze.
For over a thousand years, on and off, Fes was the political capital of Morocco, home to powerful – and often colorful – sultans who kept busy issuing edicts from lavish palaces. When the French and Spanish governments forced the Sultan to abdicate in 1912, they recognized the symbolic power of Fes for all Moroccans and set the abdication in Fes.
More than anything, Fes has always been and remains the cultural, religious, and intellectual heart of Morocco. The world’s oldest university is in Fes, older than any in Europe. The libraries of Fes house treasure troves of rare manuscripts. It was Fes that welcomed Jewish and Muslim scientists, doctors and poets expelled from Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492.
Not much has changed in the last 600 years. The 9,000 narrow, cobbled streets are still filled with ancient whitewashed mosques, towering green-glazed minarets and often-crumbling foundouks (hostels for travelers and their donkeys). Arched doorways lead to pristine private worlds, tranquil courtyards filled with carved cedar, brilliantly colored intricate mosaic tiles, and plaster delicately engraved with quotes from the Koran.
In Fes, veiled women hurry through the winding streets. Donkeys, laden with their wares, take their time (and yes, you really are required to move out of their way).
Fes is Morocco at its purest. It is fiercely proud of its status as the guardian of Moroccan tradition and values in the 21st century. Theologians still debate philosophy and religion in the cool-tiled courtyards of historic mosques and students memorize verses of Koran around marble fountains in its ancient medressas.
The French influence was always felt the least in Fes, and even today, the number of foreigners living in the medina remains small. The modern city is at a distance; those who can say “I am a Fassi,” (of Fes) say so with great pride.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Fes is the importance of craftsmanship here and the level of esteem in which fine artisans are held. Palaces and mosques all over Morocco are built, and restored, by craftsmen from Fes (as was a courtyard in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
We can introduce you to some of Fes’ greatest masters in leather, wool, calligraphy, woodcarving, zellij (meticulous tile mosaics), and ornamental plaster. You will learn from them in private workshops if you are a serious student of crafts. If you are more casual, you will enjoy designing your own wool scarf, leather bag or jacket, or traditional Moroccan slippers known as babouches; your designs will then be produced by the master artisans.
A visit to Fes refreshes your spirit. Whether you come for the crafts, the architecture, the extraordinary Sacred Music Festival in June, or to delve into the gastronomy of Morocco – at its finest here – or just for an immersion in a world vastly different from our own, it is in Fes that you’ll find Morocco at its purest.
Meknes, Volubulis and Moulay Idriss are a short drive away as well as the traditional market towns of Sefrou and Azrou.