Unlocking the Secrets of Fes El Bali – Morocco’s Enchanting ‘Blue City’ Imperial Medina jewel Gateway
Nicknamed the “Blue City” thanks to its prolific number of mesmerizing cobalt blue-hued buildings, Morocco’s medieval fortress city of Fes ranks as North Africa’s most alluring intact Islamic metropolis for visitors to explore on foot. By wandering the endlessly winding pedestrian lanes comprising Fes El Bali, the vibrant historic heart dating back 12 centuries slowly reveals its intricate urban fabric one souk at a time.
This comprehensive self-guided walking tour covers the fundamental mosque, madrasa school, market district and museum highlights to hit across two days unlocking the imperial city’s secrets block-by-block. Arm yourself with sturdy shoes, photocopied maps and bottled water for ready adventure plunging into the exotic maze!
Orienting Oneself within Fes El Bali’s Walled Old City
The key to navigating Fes’ labyrinthine medina lanes lies first conceptually grasping the urban layout inside towering 20 kilometer stone ramparts dividing districts.
Fes El Bali forms the oldest walled section, with hundreds of blind alleys that often lead nowhere. These atmospheric walkways stand barely shoulder width across in parts, crossed perpendicularly by open thoroughfares where scooters and donkeys zip linking the main neighborhoods. Fear not getting perpetually lost!
Adjacent Fes El Jdid (New Fes) comprises expansions built in the 13th-14th centuries – still within surrounding fortifications but boasting wider boulevards with occasional French colonial markings from the 1912-1956 protectorate era.
Visitors could happily spend entire trips delving each downtown sub-district, getting repeatedly lost and found again in the process! When frustration sets in, pause any local passerby asking, “Alech Fi Baladiya?” meaning “Where is the Town Hall”. Nine out of ten times you’ll be escorted personally to the nearest landmark reorienting your place in the urban tapestry anew thanks to timeless Moroccan hospitality.
Weaving Through the Urban Wonderland – Key Landmarks
Medina mapping mastery comes only by time and patient exploration. But several mosques provide useful landmarks holding their positions century after century as eras lapse.
When feet need firm direction, visually target the highly visible green tiled pyramidal rooftop of the Bou Jeloud mosque visible rising near Jnane Sboba gardens northwards. From there set sights towards the hulking minaret structure punctuating the Karaouiyne mosque and university dead center – the giant fortress almost due south drawing wayward wanderers towards its spiritual poles.
Now prepare diving into Fes El Bali’s alluring urban marvels in detail…
Day 1 Agendas: Handicrafts & Historic Madrasas
Kickstart days soaking in behind-the-scenes craft making vital to Fes’s mercantile reputation built over 1200 years. Stand rapt within aged buildings observing generations plying traditional trades today via timeless techniques, including:
Ceramics & Tile Factories
Climb crumbling steps peering down over brick-lined rooms filled with artisans glazing signature cobalt zellij tiles destined for fountains, floors and facades citywide. Marvel how chemistry’s magic arises firing technicolor enamel mosaics up to 70 times!
Brush past apprentice weavers shuttling Technicolor threads feverishly within light-filled cooperatives. Watch them operate sturdy wooden looms carving out intricate Berber carpets destined for living rooms nationally and globally.
Brace against the pungent smells wafting over stone vats filled with natural Henna, cow urine and pigeon poop solutions softening animal hides. Follow elevated catwalks to witness men physically stomping through tubs dying leather destined for bags, coats and Morocco’s iconic pointy-toed yellow babouche slippers.
After suitably fortifying stomachs with quick tagine lunches, spend scorching afternoons ducking into Fes’ cool mudbrick madrasa sanctuaries and museums:
Bou Inania Medersa
Crane necks up at the magnificent 14th century cedar lattice screens intricately hand-carved with mesmerizing geometric motifs spanning almost every visible surface. Students once studied Koran recitation within the main courtyard whose ablutions fountain still channels smoothly as visitors sit centered listening to water gently gurgling amidst isolated bliss minutes from the medina mayhem nearby.
Al Quaraouiyine Mosque & University
Founded in 859 CE, Fes’s main mosque overlays one of the world’s oldest continuously operating universities. Non-muslim guests must content themselves wandering past the main prayer hall catching glimpses of towering marble pillars worshipped by dignitaries and scholars over the centuries – before staff curtains draw quickly if stepping too close towards off-limit sections without authorization. Focus instead on admiring the beautiful muted calligraphy dancing across nearly every surface from the intricate entry gates onwards.
Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts & Crafts
This compact yet excellent museum convered a community fountain into exhibitions like “Masterpieces of Wooden Art” displaying intricately painted ceilings, doors and inlaid furniture from design capitals near and far. Find the upstairs mezzanine for closeup photography down onto the atrium courtyard. Marvel at the extensive carved cedar and oak masterworks produced by Fes’s massive (now vanished) carpenter’s souk situated just outside the entrance until the 1950s.
Day 2: Embracing the Happy Accident
Arrive on second mornings with fresh legs, ready achieving new personal bests for total steps walked in a day. Hilarity inevitably unfolds navigating the mazelike 9400+ alleyways (no exaggeration!) twisting steeply at gravity-defying angles.
Just past the Royal Palace golden gates lies the old Jewish Mellah quarter with centuries-old synagogues and the vast ornate cemetery filled with egg-shaped tombstones commemorating great scholars and rabbis. Descend southward into the medina’s market packaging passing loaded donkeys clip clopping laboriously up stone ramps gathering provisions for hundreds of tiny food shops permeating the city.
Make way towards the circular R’cif Square crammed with fruit and vegetable stands where the spiderweb-like ‘Escalier du Souk des Tanneurs’ stairs lead visitors to sublime elevated vantages overlooking the urban views – drawing out the endless tagines and buildings for hours if inspiration flows freely! Such joy comes from losing and finding oneself at every turn amidst the 12th century hand-laid stones and still standing ancient wall ruins crumbling picturesquely where ladies wrapped in vibrantly patterned hijabs whisk playful kittens and bubbly children home forcing myself dizzy just imagining the living history…
Restoring Energy in Restored Riads
When feet finally cease cooperation after aimless ramblings (4-7 suggested medina miles daily), seek sanctuary into Fes El Bali’s converted mansions offering sublime oases:
Museum-quality interiors display antique carvings, tiles and tools complemented by hearty Moroccan meals loosening tired limbs. After steaming in their traditional hammam, summits their open rooftop squeezing in final round of sunset vistas while muezzin sing out from countless minarets enveloping this ancient cityscape.
Sink into luxurious lounge spaces centered around star-patterned patios plus friendly staff happy to guide visitors up the small terrace catching one last round of freshly churned orange juice while admiring fading magic hour glows over the Fes El Bali minarets.
Expanding Explorations Through Multi-Day Desert Tours
Many travelers tack Fes onto beginning or endings of Marrakech journeys, with expanding Morocco desert tours now stretching south to skirt fringes of the Sahara with handy overland routes running 2 to 4 day camel treks featuring stops at:
- Dramatic palmeries and gorges carved out over millennia near Ait Benhaddou ancient fortified kasbah trading post
- Sprawling sand seas outside classic cinema location Ouarzazate gracing films from Lawrence of Arabia onwards
- Night camping nomad-style stargazing spinwards marveling over dreamy star quilt tapestries around flickering bonfires.
- Tangerine toned dunes lording over the medieval caravanserai outpost of Merzouhttps://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merzougaga village watched over by stone Kasbah ruins dating 700+ years into the indigenous Ait Atta Berber kingdom era.
Wherever your feet touch down afterwards, surely Fes sets new hospitality benchmarks through the world it opens effortlessly to receptive visitors ready to plunge in deep. For within the ochre ramparts defending North Africa’s greatest still-beating Islamic heart, the ages collapse as tomorrow embraces yesterday at leisurely camel paces…just as we roll up friendships passing scenic forks in the road all seeking Moroccan adventure!