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The Spirit of Fes

Romantic <em>Riads</em>
The Spirit of Fes
The twisted streets of the Fes medina hide a hundred surprises, from romantic riads to extraordinary artisans, making every visit a new and unexpected Moroccan adventure.
Photo by Vanessa Bonnin
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    Romantic <em>Riads</em>
    Romantic Riads
    Riads are boutique hotels converted from traditional medina town houses. Rooms cluster around a courtyard, which usually opens to the sky, and reach up several stories to finish with a roof terrace. Fassi riads specialize in the traditional Moroccan style of design, with incredible mosaic floors, carved stucco plaster, and high wooden ceilings. Staying in a riad, which can range from the small and cozy to the positively palatial, is an essential part of the medina experience. Some of the best can be found at Dar Roumana, Riad Laaroussa, Dar Bensouda, Dar Seffarine, and Riad Ahlam.
    Photo by Vanessa Bonnin
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    Life in the Leather District
    Life in the Leather District
    Moroccan leather is one of the softest and highest-quality of all leathers, and making it is a tradition that carries on in Fes to this day. The city has a number of tanneries, most famously the Chouara, where laborers load skins into open-air vats. Tourists watch the process from several vantage points, most of which conveniently do double duty as leather shops. The smell of the tannery is notably pungent, especially on a hot day, and some shops offer sprigs of mint as nosegays to freshen the air. Afterward, you can shop for leather goods, ranging from wallets and bags to jackets. Prices are generally excellent for the quality—but be prepared to haggle hard.
    Photo by Jennifer Kendall
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    The Fine Art of <em>Zellij</em> Mosaics
    The Fine Art of Zellij Mosaics
    Fes is the home of zellij—the fine Moroccan mosaics that you see on the walls and floors of the city's riads, madrassas, and fountains. Their intricacies are dazzling. Each tile is cut by hand, and there are several hundred shapes to learn by heart, so it's no wonder that the art can take years to master. If you want to see zellij being made, visit one of the potteries on the outskirts of the city to watch the elements being patiently chipped out and laid into jigsaw puzzles. You might even want to commission something—a garden tabletop, say—for yourself. Alternatively, that handpainted tagine dish might be easier to pack into your carry-on luggage.
    Photo by Javier Larrea/age fotostock
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    Splendid Mosques and Madrassas
    Splendid Mosques and Madrassas
    Such is the geography of Fes that you'd never guess its narrow streets contain the largest mosque in Africa. Behind high walls, the Qarawiyin Mosque can hold more than 20,000 worshipers at prayer. It is also the site for one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in the 9th century. Restrictions mean that non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the mosque, but it's still easy to get a sense of the splendor of Fes's religious architecture. Other theological colleges lie nearby—the al-Attarine and the Bou Inania madrassas, decorated with intricate zellij mosaic tiling and elaborately carved stucco work.
    Photo by Kay Maeritz/age fotostock
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    Museums of Fes
    Museums of Fes
    The medina of Fes can sometimes feel like a living museum—that's how much tradition dominates life here—but the city also boasts several good museums to help you put Fes's story into a wider historical and cultural context. Most visited is the Dar Batha Museum, a beautiful 19th-century palace packed with ceramics, carpets, and embroidery, as a well as a lovely garden that’s used as an open-air concert space. Deeper in the medina you'll find the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, full of pieces reflecting the lives of Fassi artisans, religious students, musicians, and merchants. The museum is housed in a restored fondouk, or caravansary, which is as much an attraction as the exhibits themselves.
    Photo by René Mattes/age fotostock
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    Survey the Land
    Survey the Land
    Sometimes the best way to appreciate a city is to step back and take a broader view. The medina in Fes sits wedged between two hills, each topped with an old fortress—Borj Nord and Borj Sud. A stop at either of these structures is great for clearing the lungs and surveying the landscape. If you want to get an even better perspective, take a car a few miles out of the city into the countryside at Mount Zalagh, part of a high ridge of hills that sits above the northern edge of the city. There's nothing here but olive groves and dairy farms. This is beautiful countryside that begs for a day of walking and picnicking.
    Photo by Paul Clammer
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    Roman Ruins near Fes
    Roman Ruins near Fes
    Fes isn't the first city to dominate northern Morocco. A day trip away from the medina are the remains of Volubilis, the city the Romans founded to rule over this part of their North African empire, and the grandest ancient ruins in the country. The site is largely open, with many former houses and shops, a large triumphal arch, and a basilica whose columns are topped with the nests of storks. Several floors still have fine mosaics in situ, while an ancient oil press looks out over land that's still used to grow olives. Two miles away is the holy town of Moulay Idriss, worth a visit for its whitewashed buildings and hilltop views over the pretty, rolling countryside.
    Photo by Kirsten Alana
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    Fes, City of Fountains
    Fes, City of Fountains
    Fes is a city of fountains. Its medieval rulers were master engineers, building a series of canals to pipe clean water inside the town walls for the growing population. A legacy of sponsorship by rich individuals has left dozens of fountains throughout the medina, the grandest of which are decorated in a classic Fassi manner with mosaic tiles and stucco. They're usually located near a mosque or public square, and many are still in use today—you'll see people collecting buckets of water, stopping for a drink, or performing their ablutions for prayers. The fountains of Fes still perform an important social function, and they are particularly photogenic for visitors.
    Photo by Grant Rooney/age fotostock
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    Escape to the Mountains
    Escape to the Mountains
    Fes sits at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains, which make for a great day trip to escape the buzz of the city and take in a little nature. The Ifrane National Park has wonderful options for day hikes through rolling alpine meadows, and you can explore the lakes of Dayet Ifrah and Dayet Aoua, which offer fine bird-watching. A little further south is the town of Azrou, home to a Berber market held every Tuesday; it's one of the largest in the region and is particularly good for carpets. The Azrou region is thickly forested with cedar trees, and if you're lucky you might get to spot a troop of the area's Barbary apes—the only monkeys found in North Africa.
    Photo by Roger Eritja/age fotostock