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Wild and without a map: Getting lost in the labyrinth of Fez

Fez. A truly crazy place. Situated in the mountains and desert of Morocco. It contains the worlds largest Medina, and while it can be very intimidating, it’s also wildly rewarding considering the architecture, the smells, the food, the characters and the colours. Fez is a drug, a stimulant, it’s the volume turned up to 11.

Fez is one of Morocco’s most important cities with former notable families of Fez making up a large part of the country’s current political elite. The Royal Palace is still in use by the current King of Morocco. The city hosts the University of al-Qarawiyyin, the oldest university in the world. Fez’s medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Tanneries are some of the oldest in the world with the produced works being exported all across the globe. And that’s not to mention all the Madrassas, Gates, City Walls, Mausoleums & Mosques.

We’ve just come from Chefchaouen, which we were told was a laid back Morocco, a Morocco unlike the bigger cities, Marrakesh and Fez, where you will be constantly and consistently hassled. Well, that was not our experience, we received our fair share of hassle and fought through various uncomfortable situations so far. All this to say, we’re expecting Fez to be a bit of a nightmare.

Arriving in Fez

From Chefchaouen it’s super easy to get to Fez. Head to the CTM bus station, buy your ticket and hop on one of the four busses a day. Check the schedule on the CTM website (No English). The tickets cost €10.50 as of writing and the journey takes about 4.5-5 hours depending on the bus you take. The busses are comfy, modern and air-conditioned. Better than most bus services in Europe and if you’ve ever had the misfortune of travelling on Flixbus, nightmares on wheels, you will know what we mean.

The bus stops around half way for a little break, there will be time to grab a snack and use the toilet. When you arrive in Fez you will get off at the CTM bus station, here. From the bus station, we take a cab to the Medina, Bab Boujeloud (The Blue Gate) and walk to our hostel, Dar Rabha. You can walk all the way from the bus station but it’s a bit of a trek, at just over 4KM, but most likely fine without huge rucksacks!

Note: You cannot buy the ticket on the bus itself, only inside the CTM office, at the bus station in Chefchaouen. Make sure you buy it beforehand, as they sell out. Preferably, the day before.

Fez: A bit of background

Fez, or Fes, is the second largest city in Morocco. It’s located in the North West Atlas mountains, inland of Morocco. Summers are hot and dry, winters vary, from snow to warm, with highs of 15 degrees. The city is surrounded by hills which are comparatively green, covered with olive trees and orchards. The old city is set in a valley along the banks of the river Fez.

Fez was founded during the Idrisid dynasty in the 8th century. An Arab city with inhabitants from all over North Africa, it became more important over successive empires, peaking in the Marinid era, during the 13th-15th century. It became an important site for religious studies and was the political capital of Morocco. As the Marinid empire came to an end, Fez fizzled in and out of importance, culminating with the capital being transferred to Rabat in 1912. Nonetheless, Fez is still referred to as the country’s cultural and spiritual centre. The city, through the ages, has been described as the Mecca of the West and the Athens of Africa.

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Hostel & Exploring Fez Medina

We arrive at out hostel and claim our beds. The hostel is not very busy, so after a quick chat with the two boys running it, we head out on an adventure to the Medina, mostly, to find some food.

Fez’s Medina was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved urban space conserves the majority of its original functions and attributes.  It not only represents an outstanding architectural, archaeological and urban heritage, but also transmits a life style, skills and a culture that persist and are renewed despite the diverse effects of the evolving modern societies.

The Medina is something else. Sprawling tentacles weaving through the city, kilometres of dark, narrow, winding passages. Climbing and falling, navigating canals and tunnels. To say it resembles a maze is an understatement. Streets abruptly end with no warning. Backtracking leads you to completely new unexplored areas. GPS doesn’t work. Looking even slightly lost summons enterprising youths.

There are no women in the streets. Only men, prying men. It’s a beautiful and fascinating city but it’s testing. You will get lost and you will be hassled. The only piece of advice we can give is to look confident and politely refuse help when you don’t need it.

After exploring for a few hours, exhausted, we resign to our hostel. We were not lucky with food, having only found some dry tasteless bread from a backstreet vendor. We did however, notice many wonderful examples of architecture that we noted down to further explore tomorrow.

Breakfast and back to the Medina

The next day we take a lazy morning, enjoying a delicious breakfast in the hostel, with fresh and dried fruits, jams, incredible thin, crispy Moroccan pancakes (M’smmen), olives and fresh orange juice. Moroccan breakfasts are incredible, probably one of my favourites, just after a Turkish breakfast!

We head back to the Medina, this time with a loose destination of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, more on that later though. We stroll through the incredible fortified Medina gates separating the inner city from outside threats. The putrid smells from the infamous tanneries sometimes linger as we approach, but we decide not to visit, what with the little time we have. Instead we stroll through the more pleasant souks full of herbs and spices.

The area around the University of al-Qarawiyyin has some incredible sights to visit:

Fez from above with mint tea

Before we visit the university, we decide to seek a rooftop café. Rambling through a few side streets we soon find a makeshift sign offering drinks with a view. As we approach a man introduces himself and leads us five or so floors to a wonderful shaded seating area with sublime views over all of Fez. He serves us thirst-quenching mint teas and disappears as we admire the views from all directions. Tombs, wailing minarets, ancient city walls and a guy in a Berber robe lying on a rolled up carpet, watching a video on his mobile phone which is propped up by an orange. If that’s not the epitome of Morocco, I’m not sure what is.

It’s time to marvel at some architecture so we gather out things and await the sting of the bill, for we never agreed on a price. With a straight face he charges us about the same price we are paying for our dorm bed. I try to barter but I don’t exactly have much leverage so we just smile and pay up. So there’s a good tip: Know, or agree on the price before you consume something! We’ll never learn.

University of al-Qarawiyyin

The University of al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest existing and continually operated educational institution in the world. Founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri in 859, it became the heart of spiritual practise and education in the historic Muslim world. Meanwhile the University of Oxford in the UK was not founded for another 250 years, in 1096. The university initially focused on religious teachings, but its subjects of study quickly grew to include medicine, mathematics and astronomy, amongst others. To this day the university still operates and welcomes esteemed students.

Unfortunately it’s not possible for non Muslims to visit the main university buildings, however, it is sometimes possible to enter the front gates. We were allowed to visit some of the rooms upstairs from which you could peek in to the courtyards. It’s absolutely still worth visiting to see the gates and peer inside.

Al-Attarine Madrassa

This beauty is right next to University of al-Qarawiyyin and translates to School of the Perfumers. It takes its name from the nearby spice and perfume Souk/Market. Built in 1323 and 1325 it is considered one of the best examples of Marinid architecture, and rightly so. It’s an oasis within the bustling, dark and overwhelming city. A shining star of beauty, a moment of tranquility. The symmetry, colours and ornately carved patterns are dizzying. It’s a masterpiece of Islamic architecture.

It costs about 2 euros to visit and is open from 8AM to 6PM. You can find it here. It’s quite possibly much busier in the summer months. When we were there in December, we had the place to ourselves apart from a few other quick visits.

Hiking in Ifrane, the so-called Switzerland of Morocco

On our second day in Fez, we are exhausted from the intimidation and scams. We can’t go anywhere without being hassled, we can’t explore a winding street in the Medina, we must be lost, we must need an escort and we must pay. It’s basically forbidden to explore. We’ve had enough of the prying eyes and to be honest, we want to get away from people. We miss the nature, the outdoors, and rightly so, it’s been a while. For months we’ve been travelling and the majority of it has been spent outdoors, hiking in the mountains of Austria, Switzerland, France & Spain. For the last week or two, we’ve been focusing on cities, and whilst it’s been enjoyable – we’ve seen some incredible beauty – we’re yearning for forests, mountains, rivers and a burning sensation in our legs.

We’ve heard about this place called Ifrane, not too far from Fez. There’s mountains and monkeys apparently. Sold. A guy in the hostel dorm from the Belgium called Ken is also interested so he’s going to tag along.

We take a CTM bus to Ifrane from Fez, from the bus station. The bus station in Ifrane is here – next to the Grand Taxi station.

We’ve read that Ifrane is the Switzerland of Morocco, so we’re expecting snow, Chalets, ginormous mountain peaks and all that malarkey. It’s not particularly true. As we walk from the bus station in Ifrane, we’re a bit disappointed. It’s not ugly, but if you’ve been to Switzerland, the architecture doesn’t quite compare. It’s certainly inspired by Swiss chalets, but they’re not particularly pretty. We don’t waste much time in Ifrane and instead, head straight out, onto the trail.

Out on the trail

We pick this trail. You’ll have to add on a few more kilometres because it doesn’t actually begin in town.

The trail navigates out of town and follows a road through some nondescript wooded area. We walk for a good few kilometres without really seeing anything, no snow, no mountains, in fact, it’s quite warm. Regardless, it’s good to be outside, and there’s no one hassling us. After another few kilometres the trail enters the forest, we loop around the outside of a hill, slowly ascending, where we emerge on the backside on a small plateau with some rather boring views over the landscape. Perhaps the views are more impressive in the spring or summer, or winter when there is actually snow.

The day is progressing rapidly and we decide that we should probably begin to head back soon, Ken is looking rather dishevelled and it’s a fair few kilometres back to Ifrane. The trail runs along side the road where I spot two guys on horses, the horses decorated in Moroccan outfits, so naturally I snap a picture. Low and behold the guy spots us, immediately races over and insists that I get on and he take a picture of me riding the horse, the opposite of what I wanted. Yet here I am scrambling on to the horse like a fish out of water.

Barbary Macaque Monkeys

The path joins the road and the road heads into a little forested valley. It passes by a small sort of fenced areas with some cabins inside, they appear to be holiday homes. As we look around, we spot the monkeys. Monkeys are everywhere, they are very cheeky, and quite aggressive. The urge to pet is strong, but even I am discouraged when they begin to shriek.

The Barbary macaque is a monkey of many distinctions. It is the only primate, other than humans, north of the Sahara on the African continent, and it’s the only macaque living outside of Asia. Other macaque species once ranged from East Asia to northwest Africa; only the Barbary macaque weathered ecological changes to hold on in Africa.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/barbary-macaques

Rich Moroccans in fancy cars all queue up to feed the monkeys, It’s all a bit sad really. The monkeys are already endangered and feeding them like this erodes their ability to survive in the wild thus making them easier targets for smugglers. We snap a few pictures, and head off down the road back to Ifrane. We’re running out of time though, so we decide to improvise. After telling Ken about all our hitchhiking adventures, he pipes up, well, why don’t we thumb a lift?

It’ll be the first time in Morocco, but whatever, here it goes. Unbelievably the first car that drives past us stops. Two Moroccans in a huge fancy jeep studying German at the University of Ifrane. They speed down the lanes blasting western music and drop us off in the centre of Ifrane, pretty successful!

A bus not worthy of a scrapyard

It turns out the next CTM bus is not going for another 4 hours. The taxis don’t want to drive with only three passengers and the local bus, if you can even call it that, has broken down. The sun is about to set and we’ve no clue how we’re going to navigate the 74KM’s back to Fez.

Men come and tighten bolts, hit things and quizzically stare at unwieldy mechanics from a bygone era. A hour or so later, the engine begins to stutter and grunt. With a bang a dirty cloud of exhaust fumes fires out of the bus’s behind. It chugs for a few more minutes before settling down to a more comfortable hum. The bus is a go. Kind of.

The bus is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, it’s like a steam punk relic. There’s no accessories in here, it’s just metal, everything else has been stripped back. The seats are metal, the steering wheel is metal, jutting out of the floor at a 90 degree angle on a metal pipe. The gear stick is a meter long metal stick. There are no lights, no windows. The worst part, or the most hilarious part depending on how you look at it, is that the bus requires two people to drive. One to do the actual driving and the other to fix things as the bus navigates the mountains of Morocco.

The mechanic is standing with a toolbox and, no word of a lie, is tightening bolts and fiddling with mechanics, as the bus is moving. Metal pieces rattle and fall off, he fixes them back together. One of the most surreal driving experiences we’ve ever had, pure insanity. Against all odds, we do eventually make it back to Fez.

Crazy travel experiences

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Up next…

Stayed tuned for the next post as we venture in tothe desert, on a 12 hour overnight bus, break into our hotel, and ride camels into the Sahara desert!

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Fez has an international airport so if you’re flying, head there. Check Skyscanner for flights. The airport is about 17KM’s away from the old town. Skip the taxi hassle and take the bus number 16, on the right after leaving the terminal. It leaves every hour with a destination of Fez railway station (Gare de Fès). It takes about 40 minutes.

If coming from Marrakesh, you might want to take the train. It’s a long slog but reportedly quite comfy and simple. It takes about 8 hours, there’s a nice post about getting to Fez on the train.

Once at the train station, it’s still a 3.5KM walk to the old town, you can hail a cab or just walk.

For other domestic travel (e.g. from Chefchaouen) we recommend using buses, they are modern, clean and punctual. CTM & Supratours are the main operators. The CTM bus station in Fez is here. It’s 4KM from the Medina.

Things to do 

There’s a ton of stuff to do in Fez. We barely even scratched the surface. It will entirely depend on what you’re into, but some of the bigger sites/things to do are:

Accommodation

We stayed at Dar Rabha hostel in the Medina, it was okay, and very cheap. We paid about €20 for two people for two nights in a dorm. They have a common area and a kitchen which we used to cook food. The hostel guys were friendly and we also met some nice guests and hung out with them, even going on a hiking expedition in Ifrane.

Pro Tip

  • Develop a thick skin and try to enjoy the beauty of Fez without being intimidated!
  • Stay in a Riad for the stunning architecture and oasis feeling in the middle of the Medina.

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