Travel notes on ancient alleys and modern trends in Fez

Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen

Fes, Morocco, has a distinct open-minded vibe. It’s old-fashioned in some respects, and it’s also entirely modern in others.

If the medina in Marrakesh is a gaudy circus on steroids, the medina in Fes is a classy big-top tent affair.

A medina is an old-walled off section of a city – often an Arabic city. It’s a maze of alleys and small walkways where we have gotten lost on more than one occasion. In Marrakesh, there are motorcycles and scooters racing down the pedestrian walkways, most of which are too small for cars. In Fes (also spelled Fez), the walkways are often too small for pedestrians and scooters, so it’s relatively rare to see a two-wheeled contraption race by. I feel safer, and the air has less exhaust.

While all medinas are hundreds of years old, Fes has the oldest medina in the world still in use. Our Airbnb host told us it’s 1,200 years old, which is older than some figures I’ve seen on the internet. In parts, the medina certainly shows its age. A few alleys are blocked off with scaffolding. Some support beams don’t look like they help much – they appear to be coming apart from the buildings. Some alleys have low support beams, making it necessary for taller people to duck down as they pass.

There are fewer restaurants and cafes in Fes, with many concentrated in more open areas by the gates in the old wall. These are great places to get tea and people watch, just like Marrakesh.

While observing people here, I have noticed fewer women wear full veils over their faces. In fact, I believe fewer women wear headscarves here than in Marrakesh. I do not know why there is this difference. Tedly noticed the same.

Outside the medina, we ventured onto the higher grounds of an old fort that protected the city. Out on the hillsides overlooking the lower medina, you might find people drying animal hides in the sun, or shepherds watching flocks of animals graze and roam.

When it’s time for Muslims to pray, the prayer calls from dozens of mosques from the medina echo up to the hillsides. It’s a beautiful event to witness, at least it was for me. It stayed with me. (I recorded a prayer call from Marrakesh’s main square, and that video is here.)

The roadways lead past the hillside graveyards and fort ruins back to the more modern section of the city. One day it was cold and wet so we went to the mall. I joked with Tedly we are retired mall walkers – like anywhere USA – only we happen to be in Morocco. And we’re young.

The mall has stores you’d expect the see in the west – Nike, The Body Shop, a Victoria’s Secret equivalent, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and more. Here again I was struck by how the women dress more like westerners – I don’t think I saw a single full veil the entire afternoon that we spent wandering around the four floors of this shopping mall.

We again are staying at a traditional riad. The concept is like a hotel, with the rooms on the perimeter of a square, usually with a courtyard in the center, and a cool rooftop terrace. Some riads have large gardens in the center. This is traditional housing found all over Morocco.

In our case this time (and also back in Marrakesh), we rented a room in a riad with a private bathroom. And, there is a terrace on the roof with a great view. Our Fes comfortable rental comes with plenty of hot water and a heater, which is a great thing because the temperature in these early February nights has been dropping to the mid-30s, and after years of living away from snow and ice, I certainly feel the cold in some of my slowly aging joints.

I’ll end this diary-like post here, before I digress too much on some of my observations of my changing and aging traveling self. We’ll enjoy Fes for a couple of days and then we’re heading to another city in Morocco where it’s even colder, and where we might find a whisper of snow here and there.


Other Morocco posts:

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1 thought on “Travel notes on ancient alleys and modern trends in Fez”

  1. Hola!
    I haven’t taken time to comment on your posts lately – I LOVE traveling vicariously through you!
    Morocco is a place I would love to visit some day. Thank you for allowing us to see it through your eyes! We miss you both!

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