If you’re following my blog so far, you’ve noticed that Morocco has many cities or neighborhoods that – once you’re there, everything is the same color. Fes though? Now that is a whole different experience. I have to say it was the most colorful city in all of Morocco. From the souks, to the tanneries, to our Riad itself, there were colors and intricate details everywhere you looked! Although it may seem out of the way to get here, I think it is really worth the visit.
We were heading to Fes from Casablanca and neither of us wanted to rent a car and drive during our trip. This says a lot coming from me – a New Yorker who worked so hard in driver’s education to get her junior driver’s license at 15 years old because she’s obsessed with cars, driving and road trips (and still is). Despite wanting to do a little road trip in Morocco, I realized it would probably easier – given our time restraints – to take the train.
I’m sure to many of you reading this, taking a cross-country train in a developing country might seem a bit scary at first. But you’d be happy to know, that it’s actually really easy to do and the ride is super comfortable! The people working at the ticket window speak English, French and Arabic so it isn’t difficult to buy your tickets. At the time, we had no idea what to expect so my friend drove us to the station and helped us purchase our first class tickets from the Casa-Voyageurs train station in Casablanca.
Here are a few things to remember so you won’t be as lost as we were our first time:
- ONCF is Morocco’s national railway company. They provide service to all the major cities North of the Atlas Mountains. Click on the hyperlink to go to their website. You can actually order tickets online – however I didn’t try it. My Moroccan friends all recommend buying tickets in person.
- Make sure you have some cash on hand to buy tickets at the station because they do not accept credit or debit cards. There are ATMs in the station so you can easily withdraw some dirhams from your debit card – just make sure you’ve let your bank know where you’re traveling to before you leave your country.
- Get to the station at least 20 minutes before your departure incase there are changes to the schedule.
- First class vs Second Class – it’s only a $2-$10 difference between the ticket price but I highly suggest purchasing first class if it’s available. You will still be sitting with other people but there will only be 6 people per cabin. All the first class cabins are in one of the train cars. The second class seats are like your usual metro-north train but probably a bit smaller or closer together.
- All seats are reserved seats regardless of which class you’re in. It’s actually really well organized logistically since our train made a few stops with people joining our cabin without mix-ups.
- Buy your tickets at least a day in advance to ensure a seat if you need to be on a specific train.
Once we arrived in Fes, we left the station and walked over to the street to catch a taxi. Although it is cheaper to take a taxi from the station (about $5-$10), we got a little lost once we got to the Medina. Some guy impersonating a Riad employee showed us the way to our Riad, and then expected money. That’s actually when we learned to be more careful about accepting anyone’s help. Oops!
Where We Stayed:
For anyone new to the term, a Riad is a traditional Moroccan house, with two or more stories around a courtyard that contains a fountain in the middle. Riads were the stately city homes of the wealthiest citizens such as merchants and courtiers. The word riad originates from the Arabian term for garden: ryad – which makes sense since many of the courtyards include gardens.
We stayed at the Riad Laaroussa which is located in the heart of the Medina of Fes. Out of my entire time in Morocco, this Riad was the most beautiful one that I stayed in. It just felt so homey, comfortable, inviting, and any other great adjective you could throw in! haha. The employees were extremely kind and attending from the moment we stepped foot through the doors. When you arrive you’re given tea, juice, water and some really delicious pasteries. They owners are from France and actually live on site with their kids and two labradors. There’s also a resident turtle who was really cute and walked right up to you for some food.
After we had our refreshments, we were led up to our room called the “Yellow Room”. It is located at the highest level of the Riad before reaching the rooftop. There are two other rooms on that level sharing a living room, fireplace and sitting area. There are large windows in the common area over-looking the courtyard below. The room itself was so spacious! There was a huge bed plus sitting areas and a couch. The bathroom was very luxurious with a great open shower, modern toilet/sink, and even a heated towel rack. You get gorgeous robes to wear as well as traditional Moroccan slippers called babouches. I got to keep a pair too! 🙂 They have AC and heating which was really nice to have in the desert climate.
One thing I loved about this Riad was that there weren’t any televisions anywhere. It’s so important to detach yourself from things that will waste your time and take your attention away from the beautiful place you’re in. There were boardgames and books all around the room and common spaces to keep you busy on a night in. On the rooftop there are lounge areas and their kitchen and dining room. On the lower level, there’s a gorgeous outdoor pool with lounge chairs and cabanas. It’s private and only accessible to Riad guests. It’s a perfect way to cool down after a day of exploring or a great way to catch a golden tan under the moroccan sun.
Traveling overseas if always full of surprises but I think the best part is making new friends from all over the world. While walking through the souks in Fes, looking for a specific mosque for my friend Devorah to photograph, we heard a guy say “Miss Walker”. We were like wait what!? Devorah’s last name is Walker so we turned to see who called her name. It was a guy names Hamza who had seen Devorah’s Instagram post from earlier that day which showed that we were in Fes. So this could’ve totally been creepy and dangerous but after questioning him a bit we decided he was harmless and we spent the rest of the day with him! Hamza really helped make our experience in Fes one to remember. He showed us so many places around the Medina and made sure we were safe. The best part of having a guy walking with you in Morocco is that nobody will be cat-calling (which is a huge problem there). After our adventures exploring, we all went to dinner at Clock Cafe for some traditional tagine and he helped us get safely back to our Riad as well.
Fes is the cultural center of Morocco and I can see why. Fes was founded during the 8th-9th century by the Idrisid Dynasty. In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the Medina of Fes a World Cultural Heritage site. The entire Medina is surrounded by tall clay walls which have watchtowers and numerous entry/exit gates. Since cars are not allowed inside the Medina, it is believed to be one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian zones.
There are dozens of mosques in the Medina alone – both big and small. The first University ever created is actually located here in Fes! We found libraries, shops, tanneries, religious tombs and mausoleums, and copper/metal shops. I’m really into historic places and artifacts, and Fes definitely delivers. Walking through the Medina made me feel like I went back in time or into a museum where I was allowed to actually touch everything.
One of the coolest things I discovered was a street called Rainbow Street. It was so colorful and had so many little hole in the wall shops selling all types of art! It was absolutely gorgeous!
University of Al-Quaraouiyine:
There was only one place that I’ve always wanted to go to more than anywhere else in Morocco, and that was the University of Al-Quaraouiyine. This place is not only a historical landmark, but it is something any woman, Muslim, or scholar can appreciate.
The University of Al-Quaraouiyine is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree-awarding educational institution in the world. It was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri, in 859! It was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963. I felt like a kid in a candy store when I was finally able to see it with my own two eyes. I didn’t get to visit any classrooms or check out the library because it was closed by the time I got there, but I did get to see the mosque and walk around.
As a Muslim woman and undercover nerd, this place was special to me. 😛 I hope more people in the world can realize how much women have accomplished in history. We need our younger generation to learn about them and be inspired to dream big!
Zaouia Moulay Idris II:
Our next stop in Hamza’s impromptu walking tour was the resting place of the Idris II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 and is considered the main founders of the city of Fes. His tomb is actually behind a wall and regular passersby cannot go inside. However, any Muslim is allowed to enter the shrine to pay their respects. I walked around and was blown away by the insane amount of detail that was built into the design of the rooms. The marble columns had Arabic calligraphy carved and painted into them. The walls were completely covered in intricate designs and Arabic calligraphy as well. Even if you aren’t religious, you can still appreciate the architecture and art work found in this zaouia (shrine).
One of the main tourist attractions in Fes are the tanneries. The biggest tannery in Fes is the Chouara Tannery which was built in the 11th century. The most notable feature of the tannery is the numerous stone vessels filled with the different colors of dyes or white liquids. Hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels are processed here by soaking into the vessels. At first, they must be washed and cleaned using a huge wheel like contraption so that the fur and hair can be easily removed.
Then they are soaked into the white liquids made of cow urine, pigeon feces, quicklime, salt and water, in order to break down the tough leather. This process takes two to three days, making the leather malleable for absorbing the dye. The hides are then soaked into the dyeing water made of natural vegetables such as poppy for red, indigo for blue and henna for orange. After the dyeing, they are dried under the sun. The hides produce the high quality leather goods such as bags, coats, shoes and slippers. The production process consists of manual labor and involves no modern machinery, and has been retained its method since the medieval era.
We got there when most of the workers went home for the day but one of the old guys who hung around showed me everything and even let me walk over the stone vessels to see the dyes up close an personal. This private tour really helped me understand and appreciate the process so much more! This is hard work but the products that they make are just so gorgeous!
The Big Square:
Every Medina in Morocco seems to have a large open are that everyone can come together to eat, play, sell good, and just hang out. All the little boys who try to show us around love to say, “Big square is that way. Don’t go there, big square is here”. haha I laugh because I don’t know why they think every tourist walking outside has no destination in mind besides the big square.
When we did finally check it out, it was pretty cool. The one in particular that we went to was near one of the larger entrances into the Medina. There were kids playing in a hand pushed “carnival” ride which was so interesting to see. There were people cooking outside and selling delicious foods and juices. There were mats everywhere with things you could buy – ranging from little trinkets and gifts to clothes, shoes and housewares. By this point we were starving so I got myself a freshly roasted corn on the cob before we headed out for a cab back towards the Riad since we walked around so much!
After taking some sunset pictures at our Riad, Hamza picked us up so we could head out for dinner. We met some of his friends there and talked about how he found us thanks to Devorah’s Instagram post. Fes was really lovely and I will definitely come back and spend at least 3-4 days here just to enjoy all it has to offer. There were so many mosques that I wanted to check out as well as the library at the University.
The way that I travel, especially when I travel alone, is to have maybe 1-3 places or things that I really want to see and do but to leave the rest unplanned. Sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we travel to make sure we go to all the “Instagramable” locations to that one perfect shot that we forget why we are traveling in the first place. This post may have a lot of pictures but it’s nothing compared to how much I could’ve taken. But I like it better to actually look around and speak to people, take in all the sights, smells and sounds. Feel the breeze and let it take you to where your heart wants to be – not where social media wants you to be. So I say all that to say this: Go travel and see the world, and once in a while put your phone away. Watch how much that can change your experience. Walk around, get lost, and find yourself. I promise you it will be worth it. From Fes, With Love. – Sultana Aslamkhan ❤