Explore Fes

Explore Fes

Marrakech gets all the celebrity glamour but for a taste of the real Morocco, it's hard to beat the imperial city of Feswith its ancient labyrinthine medina, medieval tanneries and stunning converted riads.

Still the spiritual and cultural core of the country, it's also famous for its pottery and mosaics, intricately tooled metal and some of Morocco's best restaurants. Less hectic and overwhelming than Marrakech, it's the closest you'll get to stepping back to the 13th century until someone invents a time machine.

Forget hotels - you'll be missing out if you don't check into a riad or traditional Fassi homes, set around a central courtyard with a fountain.

For out and out luxury, La Maison Bleue was built as a family palace in 1915. On the edge of the medina, its restaurant is famously good and there's also a roof terrace and hammam, while the bedrooms have beautiful tiled floors and canopy beds in many of the rooms. Four nights costs from £670 per person, based on two sharing, including flights from London with Best of Morocco.

Or foodies should book into Dar el Ghalia in the medina itself, which dates back to the 17th century. The riad has one of the city's best-known restaurants, with traditional home-cooked food overseen by owner Madame Lebbar – especially the bastilla, pigeon in flaky pastry and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar (odd but it works). Four nights costs from £520 per person including flights with Best of Morocco.

And Riad Fes is perfect for some modern chic mixed with old-style Moroccan. The 26 rooms are decorated in three different styles and there's a sleek dark wood bar. Check out the traditional door with its two knockers too – one high for visitors and low for the house's inhabitants. Rooms cost from around £125 per night and you can get three nights for the price of two if you travel between January 10 and February 10, 2011 if you book through i-escape.

Head to the old tanneries, in a corner of the innumerable twisty alleyways making up Fes el-Baliold Fes. Still operating as they did centuries ago, you'll need a bunch of mint (or two) on hot days as they smell the same as back in their medieval days.

Look down on the round clay pits from one of the rooftops, and the tanneries resemble an old-fashioned paint pot – for giants rather than children – filled with the various changing coloured dyes used to transform the basic leather, including red poppy flowers, yellow saffron and blue indigo.

You can see the process from the beginning, when the hides are dropped into more pits filled with noxious white pigeon droppings used to strip and soften the leather, which might put you off purchasing later. While most people wouldn't want to venture any closer, the men working there are often immersed up to the knees as they scrape, beat, clean and dye.

Around half of Morocco's total leather production comes from raw materials produced here. There are plenty of places nearby to pick up the end results, including the babouches or slippers, bags, and belts.

While Fes el-Bali gets most of the attention, don't miss the city's second oldest area of Fes el-Jdid, which is home to the Mellah, the former Jewish quarter as well as the Royal Palace with its stunning gold doors. Wander along the streets past the old balconied houses and stop off at the Ibn Danan Synagogue on Rue de Djaj, including the underground ritual baths – dating back to the mid 17th century, it's one of the few remaining in the city.

Restored after being listed on the World Monument Fund's list of the world's 100 most endangered cultural heritage sites, entrance is free although you'll need to be let in by the caretaker who'll expect a tip. Guided tours of the city can include a visit. It's usually closed on Fridays and Saturdays.

And take 10 minutes to marvel at the intricate golden gates at the Royal Palace, Dar el-Makhzen, although you can't go in.

Make a stop at the Dar Batha Museum, set in a 19th century Moorish summer palace set in beautiful shaded gardens, with collections of art, religious and household objects. Each room has a different theme, so you can head for the jewellery, carpets or carved wood, including a 10th century minbar or pulpit, as well as some of the city's famous ceramics in another section.

Fassis are proud of having invented 'Fes blue' using cobalt and techniques dating back to the 10th century, and you can see pieces showing off the centuries-old skills of local artists. There's a small entry charge and the museum is open every day except Tuesday and during lunchtime. The museum is on Place du Batha and Rue de la Musee, in the medina.

The highlight of any trip is a wander around. Take a stroll along the maze of streets in the medina, the heart of Fes el-Bali. With nearly 10,000 alleyways to get lost in, it's best to arrange a guide through your hotel, tour operator or the tourist office to make sure you see the best of the sights. But don't be put off from exploring on your own as well as there are endless gems to discover – just do be prepared to lose your way at least once and to be the focus of attention.

In some ways, the 8th century old city has barely changed. Cars are banned, although watch out for laden donkeys as they clatter past to the warning cries of 'balek' while men still wear traditional long hooded robes – although take a closer look and you'll see they're brandishing mobile phones, while the donkeys could easily be carrying fridge freezers.

But it's no tourist replica. Next to souvenir shops, stalls sell essentials for the people who live in the atmospheric old medina. Start at the blue and green tiled gate, Bab Bou Jeloud, and stick to the two main streets Tala'a Kebira and Tala'a Seghira. If you do get lost, all the city's thousands of satellite dishes point south so you can navigate by them.

Also helping you to get your bearings is the 9th century Kairaouine mosque at the centre of the medina, dominating all the other buildings. With space for 20,000 worshippers, it's the largest in Africa and lays claim to the title of world's oldest university. Non-Muslims aren't allowed inside but you can peer through the doorway. And stop at the Bou Inania medersa, which you can visit for a small fee. Built in the 14th century, the white marble courtyard is a haven of peace.

With influences from Arab, Mediterranean, Berber and Moorish cuisines, Moroccan food is far more than couscous – as well as tajines, you'll come across sweet pigeon bastilla, spicy salads and harira soup.

As well as La Maison Bleue, Dar Ghalia and Riad Fes for traditional and updated Fassi dishes – including pigeon consommé and carrot soup with orange flower water - head to Riad al Andalous (Derb Bennani, 055 740 700) for Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine, as well as belly dancing. Or venture into the Nouvelle Ville for something fancier, with gourmet French at Le Majestic at the Henri Lecompte Tennis Academy (Route de Zwagha, 035 729 999).

If you fancy whipping up your own three-course meal, try a day course from Lahcen's Moroccan Cooking. Starting with a visit to the market, followed by lessons in how to prepare three dishes plus mint tea, they cost around £35 per person if there's two or more or around £42.50 for one person.

There are cafes aplenty to stop and enjoy an espresso or Moroccan mint tea – ask for it without sugar if you don't have a sweet tooth. But for one of the best views, head to the rooftop terrace at the Fondouk el Nejjarine, or museum of wooden arts and crafts. The building itself is worth a quick look, although you may not want to linger too long over the carvings, but it's worth paying the entrance fee of around £1.50 to sit back and enjoy the views of the medina and Kairaouine mosque. Mint tea costs around £1.

Outside the hotels, there are few bars in Fes but if you're craving a glam night out with some cocktails, head into the new town to the Crown Palace Hotel (85 Ave des FAR, 035 948 000) for the piano bar or the Cigar Club for its leather armchairs and cocktail menu.

Get your haggling hat on. As well as leather products galore, Fes prides itself on its pottery, so take a visit to one of the co-operatives near the city – the tourist office or your hotel can advise. You'll get a quick tour, so you can see the skill of the craftsmen, whipping lumps of clay into a series of perfectly formed tagines on their foot-powered wheels and the age-old methods still used to dry and bake the finished products.

Most astonishing of all is watching the mosaic tables being made, with the tiles laid out face down in complex geometric patterns, all of which the craftsmen has to memorise. Chances are that even if you can resist shipping one of these home, you'll pick up a miniature salt dish.

Back in the medina, you'll find workshops specialising in beaten bronze and silver plates, with artists transforming the plain metal using just a couple of simple tools. And it's almost impossible to leave without visiting at least one carpet shop, many of which also give demonstrations of the weaving and traditional Berber techniques. Kelim Berber, off Tala'a Kebira is a good place to stop at.


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