Atlas North: A Tour through Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria
Continuing the trip from Marrakech to Fez by train. Visiting the Mellah, Ibn Danan Synagogue, Dar el-Makhzen, Karaouine Mosque and University, Al-Attarine Madrasa, Nejjarine Museum, Chouwara Tanneries, Merenid Tombs, Borj Nord, and staying at two different riad accommodations.
To get to Fez, we were recommended the train. We had prearranged a car from Riad Zamzam to take us in the early morning to the train station.
Train from Marrakech to Fez
We caught the first train leaving at 4:50 a.m. and had first class tickets for the 7 hour and twenty minute train ride, which meant a cabin with six plush seats. It was comfortable for the most part.
The scenery on the departure was red desert and sandy towns. Eventually this turned to lush countryside and seaside areas as the ride continued and we passed different cities.
There was a food cart that occasionally rolled through offering snacks and drinks.
Passengers got on and off at different stations and most were preoccupied with taking a quick nap than to notice us. One man was especially friendly and made a point to speak with us. He worked at a tannery and had a shop, which meant he was interested in having us visit him… and of course spending some hard earned currency.
Fez is divided into three towns, old, middle, and new. The old city which is the walled in medina is the most fascinating. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered the world’s largest urban area without cars. Transportation options include by foot, mule and carts.
Arriving in the modern Fez train station we hopped into a taxi to the old city. A short ride away and we were dropped off into the sprawling labyrinth of the medina. We eventually found and checked into our hotel, Dar Hafsa.
For the next two days, we would explore the city and visit almost every major site. These are the highlights of Fez in the order that we visited.
On our first day we decided to explore middle town as there was less to see, so we could devote an entire day to the medina tomorrow.
We started with a lunch near the gate consisting of fresh orange juice, olives and bread, moroccan soup, and an egg and meat tangine main followed by creme-caramel dessert.
Bab Boujloud Gate
This is one of the gates to exit the medina, built in 1913 by the French, though the original gate dates back to the 12th-century.
It was a long walk along the main road and we eventually found ourselves in the streets of the Jewish quarter. Wandering around we stumbled upon the old synagogue.
Ibn Danan Synagogue
This synagogue was built by Mimoun Ben Sidan in the 17th century. At the tiny door which looks like a residential entrance was a friendly lady who showed us in and collected our entrance donation (20 MAD). We went down to see the well where women would bathe with prayers and then up to the terrace to view the white tombs in the graveyard below.
Interested in walking through the graveyard, we returned to the gate and found a buzzer to ring. There was a strange sign with instructions to ring the bell three times. After ringing for five minutes, we gave up and left.
Walking around the Jewish area, we went through a market and made our way to Dar el-Makhzen. This is the residence of the sultan when he visits Fez.
From there we jumped into a taxi back to the medina.
Karaouine Mosque and University
Wandering around the old city, we eventually found ourselves at the university in the center. Al Karaouine Univeristy was founded in 859, though only incorporated into the state system in 1963. According to UNESCO and Guinness Book of World Records, it is the oldest in the world.
Unfortunately we weren’t allowed inside because we were not muslim. Nearby we found a viewing platform on the terrace of a building through a carpet shop. It’s “free” to view, but you need to tip the groundkeeper and listen to a hard sales pitch of carpets.
Nearby he we entered this ornate building constructed in 1323 by sultan Uthman II Abu Said.
The single courtyard had a marble fountain in the center and delicate carvings and decorations on the ceilings and walls.
In the evening, we enjoyed a dinner while watching the street scene. It was interesting to notice that we could already recognize certain individuals like the town beggar. I tried a lamb kebab salad with a water since alcohol is prohibited in the medina.
After our meal, we asked around and sure enough, where there is a demand, there is supply. We were directed to some local cafes down random alleys.
Eventually finding one with a terrace, a man mentioned quietly that they had beers and even Moroccan hash. Seems like everything is available. So we spent our evening overlooking the alleyway drinking the local Speciale Flag beer and reminiscing over the day.
The next morning we enjoyed a large moroccan breakfast at our riad before checking into the next hotel, Ryad Alya.
Napo and I set out to see some of the remaining sights.
We walked toward the tanneries and got completely lost. Some teenagers were trying to lead us a certain way which we ignored. We eventually met two girls who gave us directions and advised us not to walk as the area was unsafe. We thanked them and headed to the road they directed us to and heard the guy pestering us start yelling at the girls for giving us the right directions. What gentlemen.
The smell wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be. We found a passage to the ground floor of the tanneries, but men slopping freshly processed skins on the backs of mules blocked our way. When a “groundskeeper” saw us, he quickly asked the men to move aside so we could walk by. Of course, we were obliged to be given a tour for a tip.
We decided to go to the viewing balconies connected to shops instead. The terrace we chose had an impressive view and I even purchased a small leather rucksack from the shop.
Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts
This museum was opened in 1998 housed in one of the most iconic buildings of Fez. On display are handiworks and antiques of tools, instruments, furniture and other crafts. The top is a terrace with obstructed views of the city and a cafe that was closed when we visited.
Going north up the hill, we arrived at the Sofitel run palace that dates back to 1879. It overlooks the entire medina and has a large pool and garden to relax in. We went for a tour of the property that still uses the original palace rooms and furniture in its most luxurious suites.
Back to Bab Boujloud, we found a restaurant to have a late lunch in. I ordered fish tagine and soda. We met two German backpackers who were the only others on the upper terrace. After we struck up a conversation they decided to join us for the remainder of our day’s tour.
We reached the tombs by taxi. These ruins are of a tomb from the ruling Marinid dynasty from the 13th to 15th century. They isn’t much left of the structures but it still stands with a beautiful view over the entire medina.
From the ruins, we walked over to the Musée des Armes traversing the valley and entering by road. This fort was built in 1588 by Sultan Ahmend al-Mansur. In 1963 it was converted to a museum to display weapons.
At the gate, everything seemed closed and the guards said it was closed. When I questioned what time they closed, they just laughed, opened the gate and waved us in.
The museum was well maintained with soft lighting and an interesting display of weapons throughout Morocco’s history. On the terrace of the fort, you can peer down into the medina as hawks are flying around you.
Back in the medina, we organized to have dinner at a different restaurant with a rooftop terrace. The view was great especially as the sun set. The food was quite tasty as well. We ended our evening enjoying Moroccan wine at the top of our hotel’s terrace and chatting about our discoveries of the mysterious city.