Fes City Culture

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Fes City Culture
The ancient medina of Fes isn't just a museum piece—it's a living, breathing city, whose inhabitants negotiate the meeting place between tradition and modernity daily.
Photo by Vanessa Bonnin
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    Festivals in Fes
    Fes has a proud reputation as a city of festivals. The crown jewel is the annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. Praised by the United Nations for its promotion of cross-cultural dialogue, the festival brings together musicians from across the world, and features concerts, workshops, and other special events. There's always a publicity-grabbing headline act—Bjork played in 2012. The annual Sufi Cultural Festival is a smaller affair but attracts a growing number of music festival devotees, as well as musicians and Sufi adherents from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
    Photo by Vanessa Bonnin
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    Transport by Mule
    Fes medina is possibly the largest car-free urban space in the world. So what do people do when they need a delivery made? Well, a small number of vehicles can enter, but the surprise that puts a smile on the faces of most visitors is the number of pack animals still working the streets. Horses carry refrigerators, mules transport cooking gas bottles, and donkeys are laden with cement bags. You want to get your camera out to photograph the procession, but always keep an ear open for cries of "balak!" ("look out!"), in case another beast of burden is coming up behind you. Medina lanes can be a tight squeeze, so be prepared to hop out of the way of unexpected hooves.
    Photo by Vanessa Bonnin
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    Recuperate in Medina Squares
    Exploring the Fes medina can be an exhausting experience, so it's good to find somewhere to sit back and take things in over a coffee or mint tea. From time to time the medina surprises you by opening out into a public square that fits that bill perfectly. Best of all is Place Seffarine, a square next to the Kairaouine Mosque, which features a couple of pleasant cafés. The name means "brass-maker's square," and along its edge you can still see huge pots and pans being made for wedding feasts. A good alternative is the equally large Place an-Nejjarine, so named for its place at the center of the carpenters' souk. Take a drink here and admire one of the most beautiful ornate fountains in the city.
    Photo by Gonzalo Azumendi/age fotostock
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    Lose Yourself in the Winding Streets
    "Labyrinthine" barely begins to describe the geography of the Fes medina. It's a city designed for aimless wandering—you never know what discovery lies around the next corner—but it's best to allow a little extra time for getting lost. Better still, embrace the fact that getting lost at least once is inevitable, so you might as well enjoy it. Narrow lanes and tall buildings (often with ramshackle scaffolding that seems to hold the whole affair up) can make it hard to get your bearings. If in doubt, ask at a corner shop, carry a card with your guesthouse or hotel's address on it, and don't be ashamed to take help from the small children who seem to delight in putting disoriented tourists to rights.
    Photo by Raquel Carbonell/age fotostock
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    Jewish Fes
    Modern Fes has a relatively small Jewish population, but in the Middle Ages they made up a large and significant portion of the city's residents. The Jewish quarter was called the Mellah, and it still contains a large cemetery of blinding white tombs stretching down the hill, as well as two synagogues. The larger of the two, the Habarim Synagogue, also holds a small but fascinating collection of documents and photos that trace the history of Fassi Jewry. Those coming to Fes via Casablanca may wish to stop en route to visit Casablanca's Moroccan Jewish Museum—the only one of its kind in the Islamic world—a testament to Morocco's long tradition of religious tolerance.
    Photo by Dallas & John Heaton/age fotostock
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    Hammam Steam Cleaning
    Days of exploring can leave you hot and sticky, and there’s no better way to get clean in Fes than to take a trip to the hammam, or bath house. A dose of steam and scrubbing here will leave you glowing like a newborn. The medina has several public hammams (like the one at Ain Azleten), which offer the most authentic, local experience, but several riads offer in-house hammams, complete with upscale spa and wellness treatments. Well-regarded riad hammams open to non-guests include Riad Laaroussa, Riad Fes, and Palais Amani, which offers a "hammam happy hour" between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
    Photo by Christian Goupi/age fotostock
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    The Refreshing Gardens of Fes
    Every city needs its green spaces. Between the medina and the old Jewish quarter, Fassis enjoy the fresh air of Jnan Sbil, also known as Bou Jeloud Gardens. Gone to seed for years, its 2010 reopening after restoration has brought new life to the district, with families, students, and tourists promenading through its avenues of tall palms and bright flower beds. There’s less greenery inside the medina, but you can find refuge (and a good bite to eat) at the Ruined Garden, a charming bolt-hole densely planted with papyrus and banana trees, or at the Fez Café, a more formal open space, where flowers vie for attention with the herbs and vegetables grown for the eponymous riad's on-site restaurant.
    Photo courtesy of Le Jardin des Biehn
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    Life in the New City
    The medina is, understandably, the focus of most people's trips to Fes. A small but growing number of foreign visitors are even charmed enough to buy into the dream of restoring a crumbling riad. But for most Fassis, life in the city happens outside the medina, in the wide avenues of the Ville Nouvelle. This is the face of modern Morocco, and it's well worth taking a peek. Try the long boulevard of Avenue Hassan II, with its promenading families, trendy teenagers, and young couples taking selfies on their smartphones. Grab an ice cream or visit an upscale coffee shop to see how urban, modern Morocco compares and contrasts to its ancient self.
    Photo by Sandro Luini/age fotostock
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    Rooftops at Sunset
    At the end of the day, it’s a joy to repair to the roof terrace of your guesthouse or riad, where you can take stock of your adventures. Fes's position on a hillside slope means that you’re almost always guaranteed a view. As the sun dips and the sound of a dozen calls to prayer echoes across the sky, flocks of pigeons and swifts swoop to and fro in the early evening light and the city starts to settle down for the night. It's a beautiful and serene experience, and one best experienced with a crisp glass of wine or a cold beer. You're inside the medina but apart from it, and ready to dive back in tomorrow.
    Photo by A. Holesch/age fotostock
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    Artisan Workshops and Tours
    There's a reason this city is called the handcraft capital of Morocco—everywhere you go in the medina there's activity and the sight of someone making something. On the streets, people wind lengths of thread for embroidery, hand-lathes turn wood in the carpenters' souk, leather is cut and shaped into bags, and hammers ring out to make intricately beaten brass work. Most people are happy to stop and show you their work. For a deeper understanding of what they're doing, join a tour such as those offered by Culture Vultures, an outfitter that works directly with local craftsmen to better share their skills. Their Artisanal Affairs tours introduce guests to woodworkers, weavers, tanners, and more.
    Photo by Silwen Randebrock/age fotostock