Tag Archives: Fez

Fes Medina

Traditional Houses in Fez – Riads, Dars, Palaces, and Caravanserai

The Fez Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is filled with more than 3000 traditional houses. Many of these are available for rent or can be viewed by visitors to the Medina.

Here is a full list of hotels and guest houses in Fez, Morocco. The list includes dars, riads, hotels and guesthouses in the medina and in the ville nouvelle.

There are several types of house that visitors typically see and within those styles there is a wide range of architecture that is both beautiful and architecturally interesting.

Fez medina riad, dar

Over the next few months, I will be showcasing several of these incredible houses and introducing readers to this beautiful city that I am fortunate enough to call home. If you would like your property featured, please contact me with the details and I will arrange a time for us to meet so you can show me (and my readers) one more reason why Fez is one of the most interesting tourist spots in the world.

RIADS

 

 

Interiror courtyard in a Fez Riad

The houses in the medina are of several different types. The most well known of these is the Riad. A Riad (also spelled Riyad) is a classic example of the kind of houses that the wealthy once and still do call home. Generally, Riads are composed of several levels with at least two salons surrounding a central courtyard. Fountains made of either plaster or zellij (ornate Moroccan tile work) usually sit centrally in the courtyard and are faced by a central salon for gatherings and visitors.

A large front door containing a smaller door which is used on most occasions leads visitors from often austere exteriors to lavishly ornate interiors that will often overwhelm your senses. These doors are carved and painted on some of the better preserved or restored riads and usually have at least one heavy iron knocker on them.

Inside, fruit trees, decorative plants, carved plaster, and ornate zellij combine to form a decadent and luxurious living or entertaining space designed to awe guests.

On the ground floor, the salons are filled with woven cushions, thick rugs, and comfortable low rise couches which line the walls. At the street level all attention is focused inwards and it’s not until you climb the narrow staircases that you usually find windows. This was for the security of the family since women usually didn’t leave the house without veils but inside would often wear more comfortable clothing to manage the house and relax at home. So the security was for both safety and to protect the harem from prying eyes.

Geometric artwork in compliance with Muslim beliefs which forbid the depiction of anything that might be mistaken for an idol often adorn every surface and the high ceilings and timbered cedar ceilings are often painted in bright reds, greens, blues, and yellows.

In addition to the salons, the kitchen and toilet are usually on the ground floor, though this has been changed in many renovations. The public fountains in Fez exist mainly because running water was not common inside houses of the Medina. Today, most do have water though in the past it was only the wealthiest who could afford the terra cotta plumbing which would bring water indoors.

A very narrow staircase (or sometimes two) would often lead to the second floor. This level was primarily used for storage or entertaining of the women when male visitors from outside of the family were visiting.

The top floors were used for sleeping during the winter months when the natural rise of heat would keep them warmer than those below. The obverse was true in summer.

Fes Rooftop Riad, Dar, Medina, Fez
The roof level, traditionally the domain of women and children offers stunning views from wherever you might be in the Medina. Some rooftops also have a final beautiful salon and a terrace area for eating meals, entertaining, or these days, letting guests be filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the massiveness of the Fes Medina and its architecture. In olden times, it was common to surround the roof with high walls to protect the privacy of those who were there, primarily women engaged in washing, cooking, and preparing the food stuffs of the house.

While Riads are the most well known style of house in Fez, there are several others that visitors should be aware of.

DARS

 

 

Fes, Dar Fez, Riad, tradtional Moroccan architecture

Dars are often smaller versions of Riads, though this is not always true. Typically they contain neither the garden nor the fountain though they do have a central courtyard, albeit oftentimes smaller than that of a Riad, but again, there are always exceptions to the rules. The architecture and layout is similar though usually scaled down to a less palatial magnitude.

Massreiya

 

 

Fes,Massreiya, Riad, Dar, Medina, Fez
When you step into a massreiya, you are often met by stunningly hand carved plaster panels, huge amounts of zellij, ornately decorated cedar architectural pieces, and other sumptuous ornamentation. These houses differ from Dars and Riads in that they usually have neither a ground floor living quarter, nor a courtyard, though as with all medina dwellings there are exceptions.

Most of the massreiya in the Fez Medina were built as either guesthouses for visitors who didn’t get the privilidge of access to the family quarters or to the eldest sons. This is one of the reasons why massreiya are usually attached to dars and riads.

Often the ground floor is composed of a medina shop along one of the many derbs and alleys. An often unnoticeable and unassuming doorway will lead to narrow stairs which lead up to some of the most highly decorated living quarters in the medina.

In times past it was rare for a massreiya to have a kitchen, but today most of them do, though in those that have not been renovated or restored there is frequently still no running water.


CARAVANSERAI

 

Caravanserai, Dar, Fez, House in Fes, Riad in Fes
Caravanserai were used by travelers, often those who were traveling the great Sahara caravan routes to Timbuktu and back to Fes. Since these were not family dwellings and women didn’t travel unaccompanied, these houses were built with men in mind. Often for men with camels, horses, and large amounts of goods that needed storage and protection. Because of the mercantile nature of these dwellings they were sometimes the most ornately decorated in the Medina, though as a place that housed camels and sweaty traders this wasn’t usually the case. These days, medina dwellers often refer to them with the standard arabic term for hotel “fondouk” or even “fundook” depending on who you choose to transliterate the arabic script, though when the caravans still tread through the Sahara sands, they were called the more regionally appropriate caravanserai.

KSAR

 

Dar, Riad, Palace, Caravanserai, Fes, Fez, House in Fes, Royal Palace Fez, Sultan's palace Fes
Finally, for those who were of the ruling classes, of course there were true palaces which were constructed on the same general plan as a Riad but on a far larger scale. These palaces are called Ksar (think ‘castle’) and usually are made up of extensive grounds, several houses, and a level of opulence that literally stunned visiting European royals. One example that is easily visited is the Batha Museum which once belonged to a Moroccan Sultan.

Morocco Guide

Vagobond Guide to Morocco Part 1

Casablanca guide

Here is the Vagobond guide to Morocco. It’s many (but not all) of the  wonderful things you can do in Morocco –  if you see something that looks interesting, just click on the hyperlink to find out more about that aspect of Morocco.

Marrakech guideMost visitors fly into either Marrakech or the Mohammad V International Airport in Casablanca.

While Casablanca is most famous for the film Casablanca, it is also an interesting city architecturally and is filled with art-deco architecture. While you are there – you may want to enjoy some seafood at Port du Peche near the Casa Port railway station.

traditional moroccan musicYou are certain to hear the unique music of Morocco during your visit and if you have an ear for music you will notice the complex rhythms of the various types of music.

While it’s not really my cup of tea, the city of Marrakech is a circus of Moroccan Culture and the famed Jmaa al Fnaa square is filled with snake charmers, story tellers, acrobats, and of course plenty of delicious food.

From Marrakech it is possible to take a daytrip to Essauoira where you can enjoy more seafood and if you time it right the Gnawa music festival – a world renowned event.
Chances are that you will want to stay a few days…be warned!

Nomads in the SaharaA visit to the sahara of Morocco is essential. Camels, dunes, and Berber nomads. Stunningly beautiful.

Many visitors want to buy rugs while they are in Morocco, but you definitely won’t want to buy this one – the ugliest rug in Morocco!

Another thing to definitely take advantage of while you visit Morocco is the traditional Moroccan hammam. Of course you could also do one of the fancy tourist hammams too…

Moroccan transportationWith all this travel, it will be essential that you undestand Moroccan ground transportation – big taxis get very full and the small ones pick up extra passengers as they go!

From the Sahara, it makes sense to head to Fes. Spelled Fez by anglophones – Fes is the home of the oldest inhabited Medieval Islamic medina in the world! It is also the largest car free urban area in the world.

architecture in FesThe thing that is wonderful about Fes though is the traditional Moroccan architecture and that you can stay in a fully restored traditional house in Fez.

If you are planning on flying from the Fes Sais International Airport, make sure that you understand how to arrange transport from Fez to the Airport – it can be very tricky!

If you’re flying out of Casablanca you can take the train from Fez to Casablanca International Airport.

Sunset in TangierOf course you can also take a train to Tangier from Fez. The Tangier Beaches are wonderful.

You might also want to visit the grave of Ibn Battuta – one of the most famous vagabonds in all of history and certainly one of the world’s great travelers.

While there are many other destinations and activities in Morocco – it is definitely worth mentioning in this first guide post that a visit to the Roman Ruins of Volubulis, the Imperial City of Meknes, and the current Royal Capital, Rabat are all worthwhile. And by the way…if you hear Berkane jokes , it’s all in good fun. Moroccans poke a lot of fun at each other.

To learn a bit more about the history of Morocco check out this documentary about Morocco and Europe during the Moorish Andalucian Era.

Fez Tanneries artisanal tour

Meeting Artisans in the Fez Medina

Fez Morocco

Meeting the Artisans of Fez, Morocco was one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. Much has been written about the Fez, Medina – I’ve even written some of it.  In a nutshell, the Fez Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest inhabited car-free urban area in the world, the best example of a living medieval Muslim city and a place where you can stay in some amazing hotels,  guest houses, dars and riads.

The Artisans of Fez, Morocco

I was fortunate in being able to take part in something that hasn’t been so extensively written about.  I joined my friend Jessica Stephens (aka ‘The Jess’) on a medina tour that was focused on not only observing but also interacting with, talking to and getting up close and personal with the artisans who do their work and make their home in the Fez medina.

The usual medina tour goes something like this (and it’s good, don’t get me wrong)

“Here is the medina, here is a potters shop, here is the Quarawine Mosque, here is an old funduq, here is an old medrassa, and here are the famous tanneries from five floors up, now we will go to my uncles rug shop…” 

Depending on how much you’ve paid your guide, you will get various levels of sales, various levels of information, and various levels of bullshit (How do you know when a guide is lying? Their lips are moving!)

This tour was different.  Jess and I met with her clients at a cafe in Bathha which sits on the edge of the Fez medina and is very tourist friendly. They were nice, interesting people from Seattle who have traveled all over the world and lived in Vietnam, India, Malaysia and probably a few other places.  One way to tell if a tour is interesting at a glance is to look at who is going on it.  This one was looking tops from the beginning.

Artisan tour of Fez, MoroccoJess went over the details with a map and asked them about anything in particular they wanted to see.  He wanted to see  the tanning process up close and she wanted to just enjoy the architecture since she’s an architect.  I particularly liked Jess’s warnings at the beginning 1) This isn’t a shopping tour so they shouldn’t buy a bunch of things on the way – the guide could take them back later if they desired 2) Don’t walk into an artisanal and just start snapping photos, instead talk with people, let them explain what they do and then – after all of that – take some photos if they want 3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact with people and 4) Watch out for the donkeys (okay, I added that last one myself)

artisanal tour of Fez, MoroccoOnce the briefing was done we headed down to the not so tourist friendly (but still safe and cool) Bab Rcaif, where we met with the licensed Moroccan medina guide.  Here’s a side note – Jess pays her extra not to take visitors to any of the shops that most guides get commission from when tourists buy things. That’s not only cool for the guests, it’s also cool for the guide because Jess tries to compensate her for the commissions.  There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fair trade these days, but this is the real deal in action.

Our first stop was to the dyeing street inside the medina. This is an entire derb (small street or alleyway) dedicated to the art of dyeing clothing and material.  We were able to stop and ask questions along the way from the dyers and they showed us the process of the vats, using wool and also aloe vera silk harvested from the mountains.

artisanal tour of Morocco, FezThis old man was the shop steward in one of the dyeries…the map of lines on his face speaks of the travels of Ibn Battuta and more. Here’s something else nice, rather than the guide simply telling us everything – she allowed the artisans themselves to speak and then translated. This might seem like a small thing but it made a huge difference in terms of trust and authenticity.

From there we crossed over the river and went through the metal working and mirror shops.  All along the way, Jess was giving the artisans, the workers and the kids copies of the photos she had snapped on previous expeditions. It’s something that brought smiles of delight to the old and young and made all of us welcome guests along the way.

artisanal tour of FesThe metal working area opened up into the Attarine Square – one of the oldest squares in the medina and our lovely guide told us about the history of the migrations from Tunisia and from Andalucia and how they set up on different sides of the river and had a fierce rivalry which caused Fez to become the shining light of the times – home of the first university (The Quarayine University) and also I learned something I hadn’t known – there are 365 mosques in the Fez medina and that is why it is the spiritual capital of Morocco ( of course the guide’s lips were moving as she said it, so you might want to count).

We paused to explore a bit of the square and see the famous library though since it is still a place where students study, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Still, magnificent…

artisanal tours FesDown another narrow winding passageway and we came across a fellow who works exclusively with bone and horn. He showed us how he heats the bone and horn make it flexible and then he is able to cut around it and create beautiful shapes that can be carved and polished.

Now we were heading to the area where a recent scandal shook the medina. I hadn’t been in town for more than a few days and already I’d heard about it from three different sources. Here is the scandal and the very unfair way it turned out:

A fashion magazine of some sort came and booked a tour with their models of the famous Fessi tanneries.  When they got there, they apparently bribed someone to be allowed to go down in the thick of things despite the fact that they were using an illegal guide and technically aren’t supposed to go down there. Once down there, the models stood in the center and stripped nude! Now, this might not seem so scandalous but remember, this is a conservative Muslim country and these guys working there are among the conservative working class – it was shocking! As a result, the models and the photographers were escorted out but the manager of the tanneries and the guide were both jailed and charged 4000 dirham – which is a huge fine here.  Anyway, we had proper permission and we all kept our clothes on.

naked picture in Fes TanneryEven clothed, the tanneries were still amazingly interesting. I’d always wanted to get down into the pits and see the process and it was incredibly fascinating.  The process goes a bit like this – skins are brought, thrown into the limestone pits (filled with pigeon shit and lime) and soaked for a few days. After this they are thrown onto a huge electric wheel that scapes them along the floor and gets the hair loose. Next a man scrapes the hair from the hides. After that, they are thrown in another pit with more chemical agents. Following that they move to the dying vats (the brown ones) and then they go to be dried, scraped and softened, and finally made into your shoes or bag.

Fez Tanneries artisanal tour

I probably don’t need to say this, but the smell is something you can simply not imagine. It is awful throughout. The guys in the pits looked at us suspiciously as we wandered through, probably wondering if we would take our clothes off or at least ‘Why the hell do they want to come down here?” We walked through the entire process and then blissfully, left the tanneries to head to the carpet weaving area. The weavers rooms didn’t smell bad at all, but then, after the tannery, nothing really could!

Fez Medina Artisan tourThe weaver spoke excellent English and gave an demonstration of how to make material. We found out that for silk and cloth, it is generally men who do the weaving but for rugs, that is up to the women (like the women weavers I met in the collective in Rbat al Khair a few months ago).  The scarves and textiles were gorgeous and in a variety of colors but most striking was a deep cobalt blue. The dyes used to be all natural but these days (we had found out on the dyer street- most of them are chemical dyes).

Fez Artisanal SchoolAfter this we took a car from Rceif to the artisanal  school commissioned by the King of Morocco. In the school we met a master zelij (mosaic tile) craftsman, teaching four apprentices his craft with a massive piece.  We also had the chance to meet and talk with a Moroccan slipper maker and to see a number of the workshops where master artisans are teaching their craft to pupils.  Among the skills being passed on are the making of the oud and Moroccan fiddles, stone work, glass, tile, ceramics, wood working, and much more.

Finally, withe the tour of the artisans of the Fes Medina complete, we all sat down for lunch and took a good rest. This was an awesome tour – I hope that more tours like this that  1) respect the local people 2) interact with the culture 3) create an appreciation for the arts and handicrafts of places – continue to show up.

To book this tour for yourself, you can contact Jessica at her site  Artisanal Affairs to arrange it all for you. She also has a lot more information, some videos of the artisans and a whole lot more at http://www.culturevulturesfez.org