Fes and Beyond: Apes, Romans and Giant Swimming Pools

by Nick Corble

An amazing city break in its own right, Fes can also act as a base for a week unearthing the mixture of history and landscapes nestling in the foothills of the Middle Atlas

After three days exploring Fes and its souks we fancied venturing further afield and asked our hotel to organise a ‘grand taxi’. When it arrived the taxi was ‘grand’ in size only. A beaten up old Merc of uncertain vintage, the car’s seat belts refused to work, the wing mirrors hung limp from the side of the doors and the bodywork was held together with duct tape.

We’d struck lucky with our driver Ahmed though, a careful driver who we were to get to know well over the following few days. It’s surprising how much of your schoolboy French comes back to you and our conversations with Ahmed on his life in Fes turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of our stay. We also learned that he was not the man responsible for the car’s condition which, incidentally, was typical for a grand taxi. He only rented the car from a ‘Mr Big’ and he eventually admitted he only saw a cut of the official fare.

Not Quite Five Star

We were based at the Jnan Palace in the Ville Nouvelle (Ave Ahmed Chaouki, Fes, Morocco) chosen because we were a family and had been seduced by the giant swimming pool and choice of restaurants. As it turned out the pool was freezing (we went in October) and the only restaurant open was an Italian.

That said, it had a spa and gym and, importantly, a bar; and it provided a refuge from the at times overwhelming sights, sounds and smells of downtown Fes. Billed as five star, we’d probably place it somewhere between three and four, good enough for it to be a favourite for tour parties passing through. Expect to pay around £80-100 a night for a double room, less if part of a package.

Other accommodation options include riads in the Medina, typically superior guesthouses based in old homes in the old city and particularly suitable for couples. www.fez-riads.com offers a selection, with the added incentive of a donation made towards preservation of the Medina from each booking. Prices start at £50 a night for a twin, although this can double for the best ones.

Food and drink revolves around mint tea, olives and dates and of course the ubiquitous tagine! When it comes to formal dining the Dar El Ghalia (13-15 Ras Jnane, Ross Rhi, 0535 63 41 67) offers a pastilla aux pigeonneax, layers of pigeon meat between filo pastry, for around 170 dirhams (£13), with a standard chicken tagine coming in 20 dirhams less. An option in the Medina in the same price range is the Restaurant Asmae (4 Derb Jeniara, Fes Medina, 0535 74 12 10), which is a little touristy but worth it. Here you are whisked away from the hurly burly of the Medina into a tented enclosure and relaxed into soft cushions lining a banquette before ordering. Elsewhere there are pizzas and French-influenced cafes for those on a budget.

From Middle Ages …

The main sight in Fes is without doubt the Medina, usually entered via the Bab Boujeloud or Western Gate. Fes was an ancient imperial capital and the Medina gives you an opportunity to step back to medieval times where people go about their daily lives without regard for tourism and sights, smells and colours are presented in the raw - the first sight to confront us as we entered the souk was a whole camel’s head hung on a butcher’s hook.

You can negotiate the souks on your own, but first time in it’s advisable to employ a guide, which you can do either through your hotel or through the Tourist Office (Place Mohamed V, 0535 62 47 69). Expect to pay upwards of 200 dirhams plus tip (£15+), and be sure to agree how long you will have him for before setting out. You’ll also be taken into a carpet or similar shop owned by a close relative, where it’s polite to show interest even if you don’t buy.

Other Fes highlights include the Dar Batha, a onetime palace and now a museum of arts and crafts (Place du Batha Fez, 0535 63 41 16, www.maroc.net/museums/fez1.html), the mosques and medersas and the tanneries. The latter will inevitably be included on any guide-led visit, where you will be taken through a leather shop to take in the explosion of colour and smells of the dyeing pools below – a must for any photographer. The catch is you have to negotiate your way out of the leather shop afterwards!

… to Middle Atlas

The souks and sights of Fes can easily occupy you for two to three days but it can be pretty full on, and this is where Ahmed came in. Fes sits in the foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains and we enjoyed three excursions out of the city. What you pay is up to you but put it this way, as you aren’t allowed to take cash out of the country we quite happily gave Ahmed all that remained in our wallet at the end of the holiday, such was the bargain he represented.

The first of these excursions was a trip into the mountains themselves to explore the wildlife and scenery around the town of Azrou. Here we saw Barbary Apes in the wild and the waterfalls of Oum er Riba, the source of the country’s largest river. Sweet smelling Cedar forests line the road, as do small piles of stones advertising local honey for sale. Azrou itself is a refreshingly small town where it’s possible to buy rugs and olive wood artifacts without the hassle of the souks in Fes.

Next up were the Roman ruins at Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (whc.unesco.org/pg.cfm?cid=31&id_site=836&l=en) some 40km out of Fes. A large site on an open plateau, Volubilis takes a couple of hours to explore – be sure to get there before noon or after 2:30 as the ticket office closes for a French-style long lunch. Highlights here include the Triumphal Arch, the Capitol and the site’s mosaics, scattered amongst the ruins and remarkable both in their detail and the fact that they are largely exposed.

Our final excursion was to Meknes, also a World Heritage Site (whc.unesco.org/en/list/793), which owes much of its grandeur to the efforts of Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727). Although Meknes also has fine souks, a sort of toned-down Fes, it is the monuments that make the town worthwhile. These include the Sultan’s Mausoleum (free, but avoid Fridays), the magnificently ornate Bab Mansour and the Royal Palace complex. On the edge of the latter is the impressive Agdal Basin, a stone lined reservoir which also doubled up as a swimming pool even larger than our hotel’s!

Thinking Outside the Walls

Basing yourself in Fes for a week can be a good way of seeing more of what Morocco has to offer outside the impressive city walls of its big ticket attractions, perhaps by putting together a two centre trip taking in Tangier, Marrakesh or Casablanca as well as Fes and taking advantage of the country’s good railway system. You can fly direct to Fes with Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) from Stansted, with other carriers such as Royal Air Maroc (www.royalairmaroc.com) touching down in Casablanca, whilst starting elsewhere offers more options.

Nick Corble

The author of 16 books, the majority of which have had a travel focus, Nick has also featured on both BBC TV and radio and has contributed both articles and photographs to a range of websites. Up until now Nick has perhaps best known for his writing on the UK’s inland waterways. His first book chronicled a personal journey down the spine of the canal system on the eve of the millennium and he subsequently followed this up with a series of books on individual waterways published under the banner of the Tempus Towpath guides.  His definitive guide to the UK's Canals 'Britain's Canals: A Handbook' has recently been re-issued in full colour by Amberley Books.

There’s more to Nick than just canals however and he has also written a number of books of walks for Countryside Books as well as over 100 articles for national and regional titles ranging from The Times through county magazines to the consumer press, including Walk Magazine, official journal of the Ramblers Association and Cycle Magazine as well as glossy lifestyle titles.  For more on Nick's output go to www.nickcorble.co.uk.

Five years ago Nick sold his narrow boat and the free time this generated set him free to explore, with North Africa quickly becoming a favourite destination. He is now looking forward to heading a bit deeper into the continent. It’s a poor year when Nick doesn’t add at least two or three new countries to his list of lands visited and he makes it a rule never to go back to the same destination twice – life’s too short and there’s too much to see!