There was excitement and trepidation as the train pulled into Fez Station, we grabbed our bags, slid open the door of our first class compartment and stepped onto the platform. For a moment I wondered whether we had made the right choice to book into a locally-run riad in the old walled city of Fez el Bali Medina for an authentic experience. Might we have been better off staying in a five star hotel in the modern part of town?
We looked round for someone holding a sign with our names on, and our driver appeared, he greeted us in English and provided a helpful hand with our luggage. It was less than a ten minute drive through the bustling route to our guest house, Riad Ghita. As we approached the outskirts of the seventh century old walled city known as Fez el Bali, our car stopped on the tarmacked road, and a few paces to our left was the guest house located just inside the boundary of the Medina, the lanes further ahead were far too narrow for vehicles.
A Riad stay: Our concerns were soon allayed as we were greeted by the doorman and then warmly welcomed by Samira, who I’d booked our stay with over the internet. She showed us to our enormous en suite room, Lalla Zineb, decorated with beautiful mosaic tiles (Zelij), hand crafted wood furnishings and lit by coloured glass lanterns. Our large windows opened onto the dining area in the central courtyard below from where we could hear the sound of a gently trickling fountain- here the handful of guests were served freshly prepared meals by the resident cook.
Staying in one of Fez’s riad’s means that there’s a more personal and meaningful interaction with the locals than in a busy hotel. And more importantly, that you know the money from your stay goes into local people’s pockets which help to keep Fez’s traditional houses in a state of continued use, preserving this unique living and working world heritage site.
Potter about in Fez. Fez has been home to the finest artisans practising their creative arts and crafts for over a millennia. Their exquisite work adorns the mosques, palaces, riads, fondouks and fountains. This beautification and expression of spirituality also extends to everyday objects such as mosaic tables, chairs, and food serving dishes including Morocco’s special signature cookware, the Tagine.
So, to fully appreciate the skill of ceramic making, we decided to get our hands dirty and have a go on the potter’s wheel at one of the potteries situated in Fakhkharin on the outskirts of the Medina.
Our guest house arranged a tour guide who introduced us to the potters who patiently encouraged our efforts as we all had a turn on the wheel. This was a new experience for the children, and we were allowed to take our unique ‘designer’ wobbly pots home!
In return we thought it only fair to buy some professionally glazed ceramics for family and friends.
Lose yourself (but not your kids) in the labyrinth of streets. Armed with a guide book we set off on foot to explore the labyrinth of streets in this medieval city past spice stalls, tea shops, vegetable markets, courtyards, fonduks (trader’s inns), small medersa’s (theological schools), and beautiful mosques. The place is so vast and it’s easy to lose yourself, but actually, I think this is precisely the point of visiting Fez – to be lost in this fascinating ancient urban architectural wonderland.
Due to the narrowness of these streets, there’s no space for cars or taxis, so exploration has to be done on foot, which could be difficult for those with very young children. Here the main mode of transporting goods remains as it has for centuries, on that great beast of burden, the donkey. In fact, most accidental deaths are by donkey, so hold onto your children’s hands when wandering through the busy streets!
Find sanctuary in the Medersa Bou Inania. Amongst the everyday hubbub of the Medina lies a sanctuary of stillness in the theological building and Mosque of Medersa Bou Inania. This is a perfect place for quiet contemplation and reflection.
We fell in love with the exquisite plaster work and Cedar wood carvings; every detail from the floor to roof of this astonishing fourteenth century building is in perfect harmony.
Spend some time in the not so new, Fez el Jedid. This ‘new’ part of Fez was built in the thirteenth century outside the old walled city which was becoming overcrowded. We visited three attractions in this part of town in a couple of hours with our guide. First stop, was the entrance to the Royal Palace (Dar el Makhzen) where we stood dwarfed in front of it five huge ornate brass gates. This gateway is as far as tourists can go because the residence is used by the King of Morocco when he’s in town. Nearby, we strolled down the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter known as Mellah, and visited the old Habarim Synagogue which is still open to visitors. From an upstairs window you can just see the arched white tombs in the Jewish cemetery. A few minutes drive from here was the Dar Batha Museum which is worth a visit, our children ran around the large planted courtyards whilst we took in the craft and ceramic exhibits and soaked in the atmosphere of the old palace building.
Our family trip to Fez Medina was an unforgettable experience, and it’s only by walking through this metropolis shaped and decorated over more than ten centuries, that you can fully appreciate the Andalousian, Oriental and African influences of this unique world heritage site.
Getting there: Direct Flights to Fez from the UK are available on the national carrier Royal Air Maroc as well as low cost airlines. Fez is also served by good rail and road links so it’s very easy, safe and relatively inexpensive to travel with family to a variety of destinations once in Morocco. We flew into Marrakesh, stopped over for a few days and then took the train to Fez.
Where to stay: To immerse yourself in this medieval city, stay at a riad guest house or hotel in the old walled medina, there’s a wide choice to suit all budgets.
Give away: We brought back some handmade ceramic twin spice pots, they’re both decorative and useful in the kitchen, and we have this one below to give away. For your chance to win it just: leave a Comment on the blog post below, or like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, or Retweet the give away, or all four. Good luck!