The most notable feature of Fes’ Medina are its walls, which extend for 10km (6 miles) and are pierced in places by grand babs, or gates. The walls served to protect the city but also to provide boundaries between various quarters. Fortresses to the north and south of the city, Borj Nord and Borj Sud, both dating from the 16 C, provided additional protection.
■ Borj Nord [A-1] dates from 1582, the work of sultan Ahmad al Mansour. It’s not particularly grand but does offer good views over the medina as well as an arms museum. Borj Sud is larger and is arguably the best place in the early morning for panaromic photographs of Fez. The ‘Son et Lumière’ spectacle which used to function here has been closed for several years.
■ Bab Boujloud [A-2] (or Bab Bou Jeloud), the ‘Blue Gate’ is considered the main entry to the Medina and is surrounded by a number of popular restaurants and snack bars. This massive gate was constructed during the French Protectorate in 1913 and is decorated with blue zellijs on the outside and green ones inside, representing, some say, the blue eyes of the native Berbers and the green of Islam.
The bolt on the gate is on the outside because during the Protectorate the Fassi (people of Fes) were locked in at night. Next to it is the smaller original gate, with a sidelong entrance designed to deflect battering rams.
■ Fes’ famous Water Clock [A-2] is in a building across from the Medersa Bou Inania called Dar al-Magana (Arabic for “clockhouse”), built by the Merinid sultan Abu Inan Faris in 1357. The clock worked using a system of weights that carried water to the copper bowls sitting in each of the 12 windows. When a bowl was filled, a bell pealed and the door of the corresponding window would open: if one door was open, it was one o’clock; two open windows meant two o’clock, and so on. Apparently the Bou Inania used the clock to signal the call to prayer to the Karaouine mosque. The building has been restored but only six of the twelve bowls have survived.
■ For a great view over the city, hike or drive up to the ruined 14C Merenid Tombs [B-1], or - much more comfortably - have a glass of tea on the terrace of the Sofitel Palais Jamai hotel. The tombs themselves are interesting only for the view. Beware that the area is often deserted and it’s not safe to be there alone. The path to go up is roughly across the street from Bab Guissa, but you might find it easier to take a taxi up and walk back down. On the way you’ll pass cave dwellings occupied by the seriously poor and a fair bit of garbage.
■ The Nejjarine complex [B-2] is comprised of an 18C funduq, a 19C fountain and a souk clustered around a square with the very interesting Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts at its centre. Wood has long been the main theme here, but during the days of the Protectorate French officials tried accused Moroccan nationalists here. The entrance to the funduq is lovely, as is the interior, both heavily decorated with carved plaster and wood as well as tiles. Carved wooden furniture is sold in the souk outside.
■ Moulay Idriss mzara [B-2] is a lovely prayer niche with zellijs and carved plaster. Devotees of Moulay Idriss can make a quick prayer here if they haven’t the time to go to his mausoleum, the Moulay Idriss Zawiya.
■ The Place de l’Independence, better known as Place Batha (pronounced ‘bat-ha’) [B-3], is one of the main entrances to the medina, with parking and taxis. Several of the city’s better known restaurants are here, as wellas Dar Mekaour, the café where Morocco’s Independence Manifesto was signed in 1956.
■ Bab Guissa [C-1] is a 12C gate that opens into a square with a fountain leading to the active the Bab Guissa mosque and medersa. A number of carpentry workshops are in this area and on Friday mornings a bird market is held outside the gate.
■ L’marqtane Square [C-1] was the site of Fes’ slave market, now second-hand clothes are sold there rather than people.
■ The 18C Sagha Funduq [C-1] stands in the square of the same name and is worth a visit for its magnificentmashrabiya (wooden latticework) panels and the covered fountain at its entrance. There is a set of scales in the courtyard which were used for weighing fleeces, and in fact cotton and wool are still sold here.
■ The Chouara Tanneries [C-1/2], a short walk from Kairaouine complex, is one of the most interesting sights in Fez. Here cowhides are tanned and dyed in ranks of clay pits using lime and pigeon dung for tanning, and saffron, poppy, indigo, mint, and antimony for dyeing. The scene is positively medieval, with creaking water wheels and drying pelts covering every available flat surface. You can view the dye pits from above from the terrace of a leather shop, or pay one of the many boys lurking around to take you down the steps for a closer look. It’s a little less smelly in the morning.
■ Nejjarine Square is one of the most picturesque in Fez for its canopied mosaic fountain; on one side is the Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts housed in a former funduq.
■ The tanneries of Sidi Moussa, around the corner from the Funduq Nejjarine [C-2], are smaller and less well known than the Chouara dye pits but quieter and no less interesting.
■ Gates dividing the different neighbourhoods within the medina used to be closed every night. The massive, wooden Attarine Gates [C-2] are the only ones that still are, at around 10:30pm.
■ You can’t miss Seffarine Square [C-2] for the noise: it’s the brass and copper workers’ quarter and the air is full of the sound of their hammering. The place to go if you happen to be in need of a cauldron or samovar. The very large pans and plates are hired out for wedding parties. Interesting that the Karaouine Library, a place for quiet study, is right next door. Still, it’s a shady, picturesque spot for a rest.
■ The 14C Funduq Tsetouanien (or Tastawniyine) [C-2] was reserved for the traders from Tetouan, a Moroccan city near the Strait of Gibraltar, who frequented it. Note the rickety balconies and the scales on the ground floor, now occupied by rug dealers.
■ Cross the shop-lined Terrafine Quantrat (bridge) from the Karaouine district over the Oued Fez and you’ll find yourself in the Andalusian quarter [D-2], or Adwat al Andalus, so named for the wave of Spanish Muslims, mainly from Cordoba, who settled here in the 9C. For centuries this functioned as an entirely separate walled city, and it’s still a different and quieter place than the western side of the river. The bridge is also known as the Sebbaghine, ‘Dyers’ Bridge’.