Fez: A Survival Guide
If you've been planning a trip to Fez, you'll want to check out this guide to getting around Fez with ease...
Currency: dirham (DH)
Language: Moroccan Arabic, French
Population: Approximately 1 million
Founded: 789 AD
Fez is one of the world's best-preserved medieval cities, and provides Morocco's most challenging and rewarding urban experience. However, for first-timers it can be a confusing place, so we've pulled together some tips on getting around and where to stay, plus other helpful information.
Spend More Than One Day
In their rush to see as much of Morocco as possible, many visitors rush through Fez, spending only one night. This is a mistake, as Fez is not only the root of Moroccan history, tradition, and culture, but becomes more enjoyable the longer you stay. On your first day, the time-capsule medievalism may overwhelm you with its intensity. It'll take another full day of losing yourself in the labyrinth of anonymous derbs (tiny alleyways) to gain the confidence to find the treasures that lie just off the main auto-accessible road.
Stay in a Riad
The reason to come to Fez is to explore the medina, the labyrinthine old section of every Moroccan town. There's no better way to do it than to stay in a riad (a traditional medina house-hotel built around a courtyard). Fez has riad hotels for all budgets and in all styles. Each bedroom usually has an en-suite bath and sitting area, but keep in mind that televisions are rarely found in bedrooms. You can book a room, as you would at a regular hotel, or rent an entire riad and live like pashas of old. Check out some listings at agencies like Marrakech Medina and Terre Maroc. A room in a riad can cost anywhere from 600 dirhams a night (about $60) in a simple place to 5,000 dirhams a night for a sumptuous suite. Make sure to double and triple check your reservations, as it's not uncommon to arrive and be told that your three-room reservation has been changed to two-rooms. Also, call your hotel upon arrival to arrange a pick-up, as riads are often hidden down tiny streets and might be hard to find while dragging your luggage.
Be Sweet to Your Feet
You'll be doing a lot of walking. Wear comfortable, closed-up shoes, especially if you're visiting the tanneries, as there are often mysterious puddles or donkey droppings. When your legs and brain need a break, duck into one of the myriad havens behind the unremarkable medina doors. For example, if all you need is a quick mint tea break, sit at the delightful café on the roof of the Musée Nejjarine, at Place Nejjarine near the center of town. Otherwise, treat yourself to a decadent lunch at Palais Mnebhi, located on Souikt Ben Safi, just steps away from the medina's major sights. The interior is magnificent, and the food -- a multi-course bonanza of chicken tagines, couscous, Moroccan salads and sweet pastries -- is outstanding.
Get a Guide
You can get by without a guide in most parts of Morocco, but a guide on your first day in Fez is indispensable. Although getting lost and finding your way out of the maze of streets is a must-do experience, you still need to see the sights, and there's almost no hope of finding them on your first day alone. Your hotel can arrange to have a guide pick you up from your hotel, or you can hire one through the tourist office (guides are about $35, or 350 dirhams for 7 hours). You can arrange guided walking tours for as long or as short a period as you wish. Expect to pay around 150 dirhams for a long afternoon tour.
To Market to Market...
Fez is basically one enormous, overwhelming market. Learning the rules of the game will keep you from getting fleeced, and help you come away with souvenirs you actually like. First, don't buy anything on your first day; instead, compare prices in different shops and get an idea of what's out there. Secondly, bargaining is everything, and confidence is key. Even if you have no idea what you're doing, knock off about half the quoted price of any object you want and pretend to leave if they don't budge.
The Ensemble Artisanale, on Rue Alla Ben Abdellah, a short taxi-ride away in the Ville Nouvelle, is a great shopping option. It's a government-run cooperative, so prices are set according to actual guidelines (you still have to bargain a bit, though). Each of the major crafts -- pottery, ironwork, woodwork, rugmaking -- is represented by a single workshop with specially trained craftsmen. The lanterns made by Haddadi Ali are especially recommended, as they're of much higher quality than most lanterns you'll find in the medina. Many merchants will wrap items well and ship them home. (You can also arrange for shipping through the DHL office on Avenue des F.A.R. However, it's a good idea to pack an empty bag in your luggage for items you'll buy on the trip.)
"What should I wear?" is one of the most-often asked questions by first-timers to Fez. Fez is probably where you'll see most locals in djellabahs (the traditional long dress worn by men and women), so visitors should dress as conservatively as possible while still being comfortable. Since so many visitors to Morocco are French, the fashion bar is set pretty high. Temperatures are in the 80s for much of the year. However, men should always wear long pants (shorts are strongly frowned upon in Morocco, except at the beach). Women in tank tops can get a lot of stares, so you'll probably feel less conspicuous in a top that has at least short sleeves.
Look around when you hear the word "Balek!" This is roughly Arabic for "Watch out!" Donkeys fill the entire width of the street, and you'll often have to press yourself against a wall to make way for the beasts of burden or for men carrying goods on wheelbarrows.
Make sure you have plenty of small change. Tipping people five or 10 dirhams is expected for almost every small service rendered, from showing you around the tanneries to providing directions.
Drink lots of water. The city streets can get hot and close during the afternoon. When buying bottled water on the street, check that the seals on the lid have not been opened. Sometimes people fill bottles with tap water. The safest thing to do is to drink bubbly water, which can't be faked. Sidi Ali is a good local brand, and you can get a small bottle for about 5 dirhams.
Try Royal Air Maroc. There are no direct flights to Fez from the U.S. The easiest way to get there from the U.S. is to take the nightly Royal Air Maroc flight from JFK to Casablanca and get the short connecting flight to Fez. The flight usually costs between $650 and $900, depending on the season. Spring is high season in Morocco, but fall is also a great time to visit, provided you avoid Ramadan, when the entire population fasts during daylight hours.
Photo Credit: (right) The riad featured is a selection available in Fez through Marrakech Medina.
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