Fez is the cultural and spiritual centre of Morocco. It was founded in 790 AD by Idris I and is the oldest of the three Imperial Cities. The main attraction in this ancient city is the larger medieval Medina, Fes el Bali, which has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century and still bustles with a bewildering throng of colourfully costumed locals: from olive-dealers and veiled women on their way to the baths, to industrious merchants and traditional, bell-ringing water-sellers. This medina is the most complete medieval city still in existence, the preservation of which began under French occupation. The more modern part of the city, like Marrakech, is known as Ville Nouvelle, and has a decidedly French influence.
A guided tour is the easiest way to tackle the buzzing hive that is Fez. A visit to the will undoubtedly lead to a stopover at Fez's famous tanneries where one of the oldest arts in Morocco (and the world) is practiced, and where tourists can buy premium, soft leather products to take home as souvenirs.
The best vantage point over the ancient walled city, which lies at the eastern end of the plain of Saiss. From here visitors can view the skyline with its profusion of satellite dishes, and to pick out some of the magnificent palaces, green-roofed holy places and the Karaouine Mosque, all hemmed in by workshops and tenements, and squares. Fez is a wonderful destination for those looking to have a real, cultural experience during their holiday in Morocco.
The al-Karaouine Mosque, located in the heart of the Fes El Bali (Medina), was founded in 859 with an associated madrassa (school) that subsequently grew to become one of the leading educational and spiritual centres in the Islamic world and is now called the University of al-Karaouine and incorporated into the modern university system of the country. According to UNESCO it is the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world.
The mosque itself is enormous (one of the largest in Morocco) and beautiful, although austere, with many striking features. It is considered the most sacred mosque in the country and the timing of Islamic festivals across Morocco are determined here. Unfortunately for tourists non-Muslims may not enter it, but often the doors stand open and it is certainly worth taking a peek inside to get a sense of the place. The mosque is still surrounded by numerous madrasas, many of which are open to the public, and these are certainly worth exploring. The most famous of these is the Attarin Madrasa, built in the early 14th century, which features a beautiful bronze door and elegant courtyard with some impressive marble, alabaster and cedar wood decoration.
Meknes, located just 37 miles (60km) from Fez, is the least-visited of Morocco's Imperial Cities, and this is exactly what draws discerning travellers to discover its considerable charms. A city brimming with history but mercifully short on chaos, Meknes is the ideal destination for those looking to explore Morocco's rich, imperial past at a reasonable and measured pace.
The city of Meknes was the brainchild of Moulay Ismail (ruler of Morocco for an incredible 55 years, between 1672 and 1727), who sought to construct a city fine enough to rival any in Europe. Although not the most sympathetic of rulers - most of the construction was done by Christian slaves who were kidnapped by Moroccan pirates from as far afield as Iceland - Ismail's vision was impressively followed through, and modern-day visitors to Meknes can revel in the wonders of more than 50 palaces, 20 beautifully-carved gates, and a city wall that stretches for 28 miles (45km).
The city of Meknes has a wonderfully preserved medina area and a collection of great souks which can be navigated independently, without the need for a tour guide. Must-see sights include Bab Mansour, the grand gate of the imperial city, featuring splendid mosaics; and Dar El Makhzen, the historical palace of Moulay Ismail. Tourists to Morocco who want to experience its culture, but are wary of the frenetic nature of its cities, are strongly advised to make Meknes a feature of their travel itineraries.
Fez has a basic public transport system, with trains, buses and taxis, but ultimately it is a city best explored on foot by tourists as the majority of the attractions are in the old quarter. Visitors should beware that it is easy to get lost in the maze of narrow streets that make up Fez's largest medina, one of the world's largest car-free urban zones.
However, to aid visitors, the medina does have colour-coded tourist routes, so it is best to use the accompanying tourist map and ask for directions if lost. Additionally, tourists should note that some locals have a reputation for misdirecting tourists, particularly if they can redirect them into family-owned stores or charge money to guide them along complicated routes instead of giving simple directions.
In Fez, the are small and red and operate between the Medina walls and within the city limits. They tend to be metered and are not too expensive, but only carry three passengers at a time. are bigger and travel fixed routes from the cities to the outlying areas. Both types of taxis are usually shared and drivers often wait until the taxi is full before departing. The train station is situated in the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and operates a route to Tangier, among other destinations.
When you travel to Fez, you not only travel to a busy Moroccan city, but also travel 1,000 years back in time. The modern world has barely intruded into the warren that makes up the medieval medinas (old quarter) of this ancient city. In this old quarter most of the city's main tourist attractions can be found.
There are several gates allowing entry to the ancient town of Fez: Bab Bou Jeloud, the western gate, has bright decorations and hotels and cafes grouped around it; Bab Er Rsif is the central gate, opening onto the square in front of the mosque of the same name; Bab el-Ftouh is the southeast gate giving onto the cemeteries; and Bab Guissa, the north gate, lies on the hillside close to the Merenid tombs vantage point. The principal entrance for tourists is the Bab Bou Jeloud, which was constructed in the modern era in 1913 but appears older because of its tiled facade.
Anyone in love with tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights will be drawn to holiday in Fez, but the reality of the sights, sounds and smells may come as a shock to visitors. However, there is certainly beauty to be found. Travellers willing to plunge into the sensory overload will be richly rewarded, but should emply the services of a tour guide.
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