The Road to Morocco from Malden: The Medieval City of Fez

A rug vendor and his donkey in Fez medina
A leather shop in Fez. Photos by Bonnie Blanchard and fellow traveler Philip Mirvis

By Bonnie Blanchard

Part Two of Five Parts

Our extensive tour of Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca was overwhelming. But the journey was just beginning. We headed to our van for a 5-hour ride into the hinterlands of Morocco towards the medieval city of Fez. (Which is sometimes spelled Fes.)

Along the way we stopped for a traditional Moroccan tagine (a clay cooking utensil with a vented conical top that cooks in the  oven or stove-top) lunch and relaxed into our new home away from home – the van – for the next two weeks. Finally we arrived at our hotel, welcomed by most gracious hoteliers.

A woman in the medina baking her bread cooked over a round top pan

After a refreshing buffet dinner in the hotel, and fresh from a good night’s sleep, our group was ready to explore the ancient city of Fez. Traveling out of the Ville Nouvelle (French for new city) section of Fez, we were dropped back in a time at the large gated entryway, Bab Boujeloud. Bustling cafes and markets quickly turn into narrow streets with children playing and donkeys hard at work carrying supplies up and down narrow, mud brick corridors. This medina (walled city) can feel claustrophobic; it is noisy, sometimes smelly and cluttered with animal and human traffic. With no obvious street signs or markers one must adapt quickly to visual cues like notable squares with street names on the corners of buildings. This Fez medina is the maze of all mazes! The only way to experience it is just jump in and dare to get lost and above all, enjoy! It is an adventure you will not soon forget.

The walkways that wind up and down through the hilly city are far too narrow for cars, and all but the slimmest of carriages and donkeys carrying goods. The medina is much like it was in the 14th century, its old rhythms and practices intact. Each step tells a story. According to there are 9,000 alleys and dead-end roads.

Exploring the medina can be both thrilling and scary as well as exhausting. You really need to hold on to your travel buddies. If you get lost you could end up like that song “Charlie on the MTA.” Starting at the top of the medina at Bab Boujeloud (Blue Gate), walking down is a safer bet on one’s stamina and knees. Mules and donkeys provide much of the product traffic in the main pedestrian arteries and it is an art in congestion. The cacophony of sounds, sights and smells is at once exhilarating and exhausting. Major sensory overload is one of the outcomes of visiting the medina. It is best to travel this labyrinthine world slowly, stopping by the vendors and watching them prepare their stalls, bake bread, and arrange their produce whether it be a fish market or a butcher that carries every animal; no part goes wasted from head to foot.

Butcher shop in Fez

Descending into the bowels of this world, one is met by the smell of the tanneries that dot the medina. Deep vats hold dyes in an array of colors and each manned by a single tanner. We watched all this from the third floor of a leather business where Addi Ouadderrou, our guide,  is friends with one of the sales staff. The tanners take the raw leather into the vat and stomp on the hides until they are soft and pliable; this takes many hours. As our tannery host explained, the main ingredient in these tanning vats is pigeon or chicken droppings that are harvested daily. We were able to view this action from a bank of open windows in the shop that looked down into the pits. People, especially young boys who hope to become tanners one day, bring in their chicken/pigeon droppings daily. The caustic mixture in the vats also contains acids, natural pigments and cow urine. This concoction helps break down the tough leather so that it can absorb the dye.

Tanners in Fez immersed in harsh chemicals drying leathers for shoes, and clothing.

The timely and tedious procedure completed, the leathers are taken to dry on rooftops or out to the fields, and then sold directly to merchants who may turn the leather into goods. The leather is crafted into a myriad of items like babouches (shoes), bags, and clothing. Watching this under the hot Moroccan sun is mesmerizing. Considering the materials in use, the fetid, sharp smells were not surprising. One got used to the smells; it was a simple old existence.

Political map of Morocco

Addi has long established relationships with artisans and businessmen, and our visit to the tannery led us to a shop to see all the leather goods made from the camel.   In Morocco, no part of an animal is wasted. Beautiful, exquisite travel bags, jackets, shoes and the like line the walls. This was a moderately expensive shop, but the quality was evident. Some shops are better than others, as I soon learned. I ended up being measured for an elegant eggplant purple, camel suede jacket that was delivered that night to the restaurant I was at with my friends.

This restaurant is known as a “palace restaurant” as it was turned from a palatial home into a restaurant that offers to tourists dinner and entertainment. It seems to be quite popular with tourists. It was a Moroccan version of a cabaret from another age and thoroughly enjoyable. However, only someone with a GPS could find it. Along with our dinner, we were treated to an array of tapas with breads, pickles, nuts and dips. Our Moroccan meal was finished off with fresh fruit and the ubiquitous mint tea.

The next day we again wandered the dusty medina streets that led us to a dazzling heritage building. Although not open to non-Muslims there was an ablution area in which we were allowed to view intricate cedar wood carvings and traditional handmade “zellij” tile work. The story of Al Karaouin University in Fez dates back to the 9th century when a wealthy family who left their original city Al Kairouan (Tunisia) settled in Fez. After his death, a successful merchant left his massive fortune to his two daughters. It was Fatima who donated the fortune to the construction and development of Al Karaouin. UNESCO considers it to be the oldest university in the world. Its libraries have several extremely valuable documents dating from 780 AD. Originally founded as a mosque, with an associated mosque school (madrasa or medersa) for the purpose of providing a place for the community to practice their religious rituals in comfort, the place of worship soon developed other functions. It became a place of religious instruction and Arabic grammar, mathematics, music, chemistry ( This university/mosque is right in the middle of the medina.

An ablution font in a Medina mosque.

Its design and construction embodied building artistry of the highest order and quality. Zellij tiles and detailed carved wood graced openings and doors had ornate arches that highlight Islamic art forms. Marble floors with ablution fountains at the entry way lead your eye up, down and around. We were glad to get some sleep after our long day, and adjusting our travel brains to head out for the Roman ruins of Volubilis.

No one should leave Fez without spending some time in the ruins of Volubilis, remarkable for its sustainable urban concept, which covers about 103 acres near the city of Meknes about 20 miles from Fez. This city, established before the Christian era, is one of Morocco’s best-preserved Roman ruins; it is set on a fertile plain surrounded by wheat fields located between the imperial cities of Fez and Meknes, In its heyday, it is believed that the walled city was once home to 20,000 residents and where. Roman and indigenous cultures mingled. Over 10 centuries of occupation from pre-Christian to the current Islamic period is represented here.

Roman ruin gate at Volubilis, Morocco

If archaeology interests you, construction materials representing various geological aspects, and its components reflecting a wealth of town facilities are still visible today, even a post office.  Atop the site one can look back into the city of Fez some 20 miles away and imagine the scene from canon turrets aimed at invaders. Stork nests top the columns. Because of its isolation and because it had not been occupied for nearly a thousand years, it is one of the richest archeological sites of this period in North Africa, not only for its ruins but also for the great wealth of artistic material, including mosaics, marble and bronze statuary, and hundreds of inscriptions. Located at the entrance is a museum displaying many of these artifacts.

Artisan blocking clay at Naji Ceramics in Fez.

Heading back to the city we turned into Art Naji, a ceramics factory manufacturing distinctive pottery for residential as well as commercial markets. Art Naji specializes in the ancient tradition of hand-cut tile mosaics and hand-painted ceramics. Every piece is made by hand in one of the many workshops located in its production center. More than 100 master artisans preserve the authenticity of Moroccan crafts. Intricate mosaics decorate fountains and walls of restaurants and riads (private hotel) throughout Morocco. The painstaking attention to detail was evident as we passed through the several stages from the creators, finishers and painters. To watch an artisan create a tagine from a slab of clay on his wheel was spell binding. With rhythmic foot tap he spun the wheel as his hands swooped and caressed the slab, diving and swooping again and again; within minutes something from nothing suddenly took shape. Morocco is filled with such artisans, many who are apprenticed from early youth.

On the way out we stopped at one of the three shops where one can purchase complete serving settings. This was a bit pricey. However, before I left I had a package ready for shipment! Yes, you can purchase similar items around town at lower prices, as I witnessed, but everything I was interested in was in one place, customer service was impeccable and staff was knowledgeable about their product. And shipping was available. Naji enjoys a secure reputation for service. As we passed by the shipping room, I saw a big crate being readied for Massachusetts. Christmas arrived at my door three weeks to the day, and each of the 20 items were individually wrapped, taped and shipped in a custom-made box. This was subject to U.S. customs inspection and acknowledgment by them. Each of the items opened were re-wrapped and labeled that it had been subjected to inspection.

We left the 9th century atmosphere of Volubilis and stepped back into the 20th century and a modern Fez in Ville Nouvelle. Constructed in the first half of the 20th century under the French Protectorate, many travelers ignore this part of the city, which is a shame. Fez is a continuous play between the old busy winding Medina passages and the new quiet reflective places. We headed back to our hotel. We needed our rest because the next day we would make our next adventure through the mid-Atlas mountains through the Dra River Valley down into the gateway of the Sahara – Ouarzazate for our continuing adventure.

To learn more about visiting Morocco, contact Addi Ouadderrou, owner of Moroccan Caravan at 285 Washington Street in Somerville, or call 617-833-1503. Moroccan Caravan is a showroom and gallery of all Moroccan products.

This is Part 2 of a 5-part series. Other articles in this series:

Part 1: The Journey Begins
Part 3: Into the Sahara
Part 4: Marrakesh
Part 5: A Pressing Event

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