Fes (or Fez) is one of the largest cities in Morocco and is recognized as the cultural capital of the country. Fes holds many world titles: the largest medina in the Arab world, the world’s largest car-free urban zone, and the oldest functioning university in the world. These are among some of the many reasons that Fes is a must visit!
World’s Largest Medina
As mentioned above, Fes is home to the Arab world’s largest old city (medina), which also happens to be the world’s largest pedestrian-only zone.
Which means that once you enter the walls of this massive medina, it only takes moments to get completely lost and turned around in the maze of narrow alleyways. There is no map of the medina, nor is it on Google Maps, so it’s definitely an enter-at-your-own-risk zone. I don’t know how many times we wandered for an hour and were suddenly suprised to find ourselves back in the same spot we started in!
The medina, after years of neglect, also feels like a step back in time. Many of the buildings with their meticulous tilework are faded and crumbling. The streets are full of donkeys or mules carrying goods in and out of the medina. Handmade craftwork fills the streets, with shopkeepers trying to lure you into their shops. The entire scene is an assault on the senses, but charming in its ancient state.
Leather Goods: Follow Your Nose
One of the most interesting things about Fes are the leather tanneries, where you can see the traditional production of leather goods from start to finish.
In attempting to navigate the medina to find the tannery district, we quickly realized all we needed to do was just follow our noses. The tanneries have a pungent odor which is a result of the treatments the hides undergo in their transformation to leather.
What makes these tanneries fascinating to visit is that the process has not at all changed since medieval times; the work is all completed manually by male workers under the hot sun using fairly natural ingredients.
The process begins with the first step: stripping the hides of their fur, which is done with a sharp edging tool. Then the hides are soaked in a mixture of limestone, lye, and pigeon droppings (a surrogate for ammonia, which softens the leather). The workers mix the hides in large vats of these liquids while themselves knee deep in the fluid… not an easy job!
Afterwards, the leather is dried and ready to be dyed. Each day one specific color is chosen at the tannery and all leather goods are painted with this color. Watching from the roof top we watched as men splattered dye over one hide at a time, spreading it by head, and then setting it out in the sun to dry.
Interestingly, the colors are all natural. Yellow is created with saffron, green made with mint, red with poppy flower, etc. Olive oil is used to make the leather shiny.
It’s Just Harassment
The tannery and artisan goods are two things that draw visitors to Fes; and where there are tourists there are always scams and peddlers. Though we had already experienced aggressive sales attempts while in Morocco, it seemed exceptionally bad in Fes.
This detracted a bit from our enjoyment in Fes, as we couldn’t stroll through the streets and stop and enjoy the sites without having someone immediately approach us. People were quick to lead us to their restaurants or shops, or tell us our path was “closed” in an attempt to lead us elsewhere. We felt like we had to be continually on the move.
As mentioned before, this made having a calming riad to come home to that much more of a necessity. This time our suite took up the majority of the the top floor of the riad, whose windows allowed us to talk to each other from across the courtyard and enjoy the colors down below.
A View From Above
Since Fes sits in a valley between the Rif and Atlas mountains, the surrounding hillside is a great place for a view. This allowed us to appreciate how large and intricate the medina truly is.