It’s easy to see why Fes’s walled medina (the oldest in Africa) is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Located in the foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains, it ranks among Morocco’s best preserved cities, complete with dusty streets, faded palaces and candle-lit riad courtyards.
A quarter of a million people live and work in this section of the city, which was built some 1,200 years ago. There are no large-build hotels and resorts, and it’s the world’s largest car-free urban area.
Marrakech may garner more pages in the style magazines but Fes, Morocco’s second city, is historically the centre of learning in the Arab world – and has the oldest university in the world.
It’s got a modern edge too; new shops, bars, cafes and junk souks are springing up on Talaa Kabira, Morocco’s answer to the Champs Elysees. Here, the new Moroccan hipsters mingle effortlessly with the traditional craftspeople.
With a local little knowledge, you can stumble upon quirky cafes and bars tucked down nameless alleyways, and creative restaurants that are cleverly blending old and new.
Here are some of Fes’s best insider secrets.
Buy a pom pom blanket
Homewares and accessories company Anajam Home was set up by British interiors journalist Tara Stevens (who has a house in the medina) to help Morocco’s artisan businesses thrive by supporting traditional skills for a modern market.
The collection includes Atlas wool blankets, cotton and linen throws, hand-blown glass, modern Fes pottery, hand-carved wood and contemporary rugs. Visiting Anajam’s studio is by appointment only, so make sure you call ahead (00212 691 587 751).
Sign up for a storytelling event
Launched at Number 7 Derb El Magana by chef Mike Richardson, formerly of The Ivy, Cafe Clock is a “cross-cultural” arts centre. This 250-year-old courtyard house is home to a cafe, library, bar and cinema. Staff stage regular musical events and performances to help preserve Morocco’s tradition of hikayat (storytelling).
Etch your own brass tray
Rather than buying a souvenir, you can make your own for the same price. Many young craftspeople in the medina are keen to pass on traditional skills to a new audience.
Hamza el Fasiki at Craft Draft runs three-hour workshops where you can learn to etch copper, emboss leather, try Moroccan bookbinding (with Islamic patterns), or learn to play the oud – one of the oldest stringed instruments. Their mantra is “everyone is an artisan”.
Visit concept store Maison Moi Anan
Up a flight of stairs off Derb El Magana you’ll find fashion boutique Moi Anan, located in a traditional Fes house and selling chic clothes in Thai fabrics and Moroccan leather. There’s even a bijoux Thai restaurant. Fashion designer and chef Anan Sorsutham creates genuine Thai dishes to make you feel like a guest in his home in Thailand.
Buy your wedding dress in The Haik Souk
The wedding souk in the medina is the place where you can choose exquisite slippers, embroideries, headdresses, veils, gowns and ornate bridal furniture. Fashion heaven, basically. Palais Amani runs medina walking tours and can also host you a henna party.
Visit an Aladdin’s cave of wonder
Very close to the La Achabine district is a bazaar called Ali’s Art Gallery (00212 5356 33022). It is Tardis-like in its dimensions – once through the doors it goes from floor to floor, room to room, each overflowing with the most incredible works of art, furniture, jewellery, and mirrors.
Go on a photography walk
Charming young Moroccan photographer Omar Chennafi takes tourists around the medina to gain an insight into street culture, and enjoy the beauty of the most ancient parts of the city.
Omar’s images have featured in Time magazine, and he has been chosen as the official photographer of the internationally prestigious Festival de Fes des Musiques Sacrees du Monde (Festival of Sacred Music), which runs 22-30 June.
Have a lunchtime pastilla
Boutique cafe Le Tarbouche on Rue Talaa Kebira is decorated with bold murals. Alongside tabuleh, tagines and the traditional Moroccan pie, pastilla, they also sell earrings made from recycled car tires.
After lunch, you can adjourn for coffee up the street at the Barcelona cafe. Just a few doors down is Mexican joint Nacho Mama, the medina’s first Mexican takeaway, opened by former El Bulli chef Najat Kaanache.
Book a rooftop cookery class
Palais Amani, a restored art deco riad located next to one of the main gates of the Fes medina, offers a three-hour shopping and cookery masterclass. The morning starts with a tour of the food souk, gathering ingredients with the head chef. Back at the hotel it’s time to cook a traditional three-course Moroccan lunch.
Cookery classes including a tour of the souk and lunch after the class; from €77pp.
Relax in a botanical garden
Fes really is a brilliant assault on the senses, but if you need to chill, head to Jnan Sbil Gardens. Created in the 18th century by Sultan Moulay Abdallah, these recently restored gardens, dubbed the “oasis of the medina”, provide greenery and peace.
Liz Hoggard was a guest of at Palais Amani; doubles from €160, B&B.
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