Fassi is how locals describe anything (including themselves) that comes from their home town of Fes, Morocco. Nestled amidst the foothills of the Atlas mountains, Fes is a jewel of Andalusian/ Arabic heritage and is a magnet for visitors attracted by its exciting history, fantastic architecture and the incredible opportunity to gain an insight into a lifestyle barely changed since medieval times. The old walled town or medina, is reckoned to be the largest car-free zone in the world and it is here in the medina that the magic of Fes is brought to life. If you have a few or perhaps only one day to spend in this enchanting city, read on. When you can resist the city no more, book your last minute holiday leaving tomorrow to Fes now!
Founded in the 9th century by Idris, a descendent of the prophet Mohammed via his grandson Hassan ibn Ali, Fes started out as the capital of his Islamic kingdom, and has since served at various times as the capital of Morocco and the principal residence of its kings. As your taxi speeds away from the airport towards the Medina, you will see the contrasting mix of new, shiny residential and commercial developments set amidst an urban landscape far older than many can imagine.
Wondering when our hotel would show up, the taxi came to a halt in a small cul-de-sac in the midst of some shabby corner of the old city. The locals looked at us as we unloaded our suitcases. From out of nowhere a stocky, sweaty and burly man wielding a wheelbarrow emerged and began to load our baggage. Clearly, he was the concierge, and we duly followed him.
The Streets of Fes
A sprawling labyrinth of narrow alleys, uneven paths, jam-packed homes that squeeze into every nook and cranny, centuries-old architectural gems and modern rooftop terrace cafes, the medina of Fes is home to donkey carts, artisans, splendid residential riads, mosques, fountains, palaces, a centuries-old fully operational leather tannery and over 150,000 residents. These alleys are the heart of Fes. Explore! As you venture deeper into the walled city, modern Fes will be left behind in time and in space.
We came to a halt outside a large wooden doorway that was set in what can only be described as another dull, flaky-walled narrow alley in some long-forgotten corner of the Medina. But as soon as the doors swung open, we found ourselves within gardens of tranquility, an open roof and soothing French melodies. We had arrived at our hotel, the splendid Riad Laaroussa.
Sites to see in Fes
The Masjid Karaouine of Fes ranks amongst the most important institutions in the Islamic world of cultural significance. It was founded more than a millenium ago in the year 857 and lays claim to being the oldest university in the world (although this is disputed by Al-Azhar Mosque of Cairo).
Another unique site in Fez is the Leather Souq and Chouara, the oldest leather tannery in the world that dates back at least nine centuries. If you are not put off by the smell that drifts around the balcony from where all the activity can be viewed (and believe me, you will be…but you will get used to it), you can see a site that has hardly changed since the 11th century.
The sumptuously decorated interior of the Bu’Inaniyya Masjid features glazed tile dadoes, carved wood and panels of finely carved stucco decorating every surface of the courtyard’s facade. The resemblance to the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra of Granada are obvious but whereas that location is now an exhibit, the Bu’Inaniyya Mosque is well and truly alive and resounds daily to the sound of prayer.
As we waited for dinner in a roof-top cafe, the sound of the evening pray began. The mosque was clearly very near and we could see its minaret was just across the lane. We decided to go and offer a pray before the meal arrived. Once again Fes exceeded our expectations. We had stumbled upon the Bu’Inanniya mosque.
Words cannot describe the beautiful scene. The stucco-faced walls of the mosque shone against the darkness of the open sky above. Rows of worshippers stood in prayer. A pool of water rippled in the middle of the court. Such an extraordinary sight for us to see Islam being lived out in a centuries-old building but so everyday for Fassis.
After the prayer and dining, we ventured into the medina on our own. The streets are packed, the people are friendly and if you drop your guard for just a moment, you may easily miss your turn, walk right by stunning architecture or over-pay for a souvenir you didn’t really want.
It was not long before we were approached by a local. No doubt he wanted to sell us something but through his charming way and friendliness we found ourselves standing outside some kind of perfumery and cosmetic shack/ shop.
In his best classical Arabic, and in our best classical understanding of the language, the store owner began to tell us about the greatness of Argan Oil and its benefit for skin beauty and health. His words ‘Argaan li tajmeel’ still echo in my mind. We bought a bar of soap and skin cream…and it feels kinda good.
After only a few short days, the doors were closed on this magical city as we returned back to our homelands. With its walled-off access, dark and sometimes dingy streets, anywhere else in the world and such a location may easily have degenerated into a denizen of drugs, crime and other underworld activities.
Fes however is a testament to its Islamic spirit and its people who no matter how much they claim to be Fassi, are certainly not fussy, except when it comes to hospitality.