The Spirit of Fes

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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 Riads
    Riads are boutique hotels converted from traditional medina townhouses. 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. Ranging from the small and cozy to the positively palatial, a riad stay is an essential part of the medina experience. Some of the best experiences can be found at Dar Roumana, Riad Laaroussa, Dar Bensouda, Dar Seffarine, and Riad Idrissy.
    Photo by Vanessa Bonnin
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    Life in the Leather District
    Moroccan leather is one of the softest and most high quality of all leathers, and making it is a tradition that carries on in Fes to this day. The city has a dozen tanneries, most famously the Chouara Tanneries, where laborers load skins into open air vats. Tourists watch the process from several vantage points, most of which conveniently double up as leather shops. The smell is notably pungent, especially on a hot day, and some shops offer sprigs of mint as nosegays to freshen the air. Afterwards, 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. (Note: the tanneries are undergoing renovation until early 2016 but the shops remain open.)
    Photo by Jennifer Kendall
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    The Fine Art of Zellij Mosaics
    Fes is the home of zellij—the fine art of Moroccan mosaics that you see on the walls and floors of the city's riads, medersas, and fountains. Their intricacies are dazzling. Each piece 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 medina 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 hand-painted tajine dish might be easier to pack into your carry-on luggage at the end of your trip.
    Photo by Javier Larrea/age fotostock
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    Museums of Fes
    The Fes medina can sometimes feel like a living museum—such is the strength of traditional life here—but the city also has 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 artifacts reflecting the lives of Fassi craftsmen, religious students, musicians, and merchants. The museum is housed in a restored caravanserai, which is as much an attraction as the exhibits themselves.
    Photo by René Mattes/age fotostock
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    Survey the Lay of 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 the summits is great for clearing the lungs and surveying the lay of the land. 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 there but olive groves and dairy farms. This is beautiful countryside that begs for a day of walking and picnicking; don't worry, you can look out to the smudge of Fes on the horizon.
    Photo by Paul Clammer
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    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 houses and shops, a large triumphal arch, and a basilica whose columns are topped with the nests of storks. Several houses still have fine mosaics in situ, while an ancient olive 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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    Splendid Mosques and Medersas
    Such is the geography of Fes that you'd never guess its narrow streets contain one of the largest mosques in Africa. Behind high walls, the Kairaouine Mosque can hold over 20,000 worshippers at prayer. It is also the site for one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in the ninth 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 Medersa el-Attarine and the Medersa Bou Inania, decorated with intricate zellij mosaic tiling and elaborately carved stucco work.
    Photo by Kay Maeritz/age fotostock
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    Fes, City of Fountains
    Fes is a city of fountains. The medieval rulers of the city were master engineers, building a series of canals to pipe clean water inside the city walls for the growing population. A legacy of sponsorship by rich individuals has left nearly sixty 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
    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 with your own vehicle you can explore the lakes of Dayet Ifrah and Dayet Aoua, which offer fine birdwatching. A little further on 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 area is thickly forested with cedar trees, and if you're lucky you might get to spot a troop of the Barbary macaques that live in the area—the only monkeys found in North Africa.
    Photo by Roger Eritja/age fotostock