Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fez Medina ~ Morocco's "Must Visit" Destination

Fez has become the Moroccan destination of choice for discerning travellers wanting to avoid the mass tourism in places such as Agadir and Marrakech. The View From Fez took to the streets of the Medina to find out why.

Fez tourists ~ relaxed and happy

On a typical Sunday in Fez the overwhelming majority of people on the Medina streets are Moroccans; either local or visiting from around the country. Overseas tourists are in a minority, which is understandable, given the size and population of the Medina.

Maria, a visitor from Spain, points out that what struck her most about visiting Fez was the fact that it exists primarily for local people. "The shops are selling to Moroccans and not aimed directly at the visiting tourists. Which is probably why we were hassled less in Fez than in other places."

Visitors report that the Medina shopkeepers are friendly and helpful

Gunter, a solo traveller from Hamburg, says that he likes the fact that Fez is so laid back compared to Marrakech. "And there are none of those annoying motorbikes." He adds that what he likes best is people-watching. "Sitting in a café for an hour or two over a mint tea, the whole world goes by. It is like sitting in a documentary film! Everything is so photogenic."

Hamid, a shopkeeper on the Talaa Kbira, says things are very quiet at the moment. "Maybe it was the heatwave, or maybe events in Tunisia and France that have kept tourist numbers down." He gestures up the street, "Humdullilah, it is cooler now and, inshallah, the tourists will come back."

Shopkeepers are "really helpful when you are lost" 

Talking to visitors, one thing that is constantly remarked on is the friendliness of the Medina's shopkeepers. "Yes, there are some who hassle, but not as bad as other places I have been. They are also really helpful when you are lost," says Yvette from France.

Also regularly mentioned is that those who had done a bit of research before coming to Morocco, were opting to stay longer in Fez and using it as a base from which to do either day, or overnight excursions. "There is so much to see in and around Fez, that I regret only booking in for a week," says Charles, from Canada.

Experienced Tour operators such as Plan-it-Fez, based in Fez, now have developed expertise in catering to travellers who would like to experience more than the usual one day itinerary. On offer are everything from mountain excursions, culinary experiences and artisan tours.

"Everything is so photogenic"

Sitting people-watching, one thing that becomes apparent is the small number of large tour groups compared to solo travellers or family groups.  Tour guides say they are working a lot with couples or families. There are also fair number of female travellers.

Another indication of the growing awareness of Fez as a 'must visit' destination, is that the ancient city is becoming more sophisticated in what it offers.

Fez is welcoming an increasing numbers of female travellers

Richard Alleman. in a recent article, wrote,"For more than a decade, Marrakesh has been the Moroccan destination on everyone’s list, with its ever-more-luxurious hotels, nightclubs, and attainable whiff of the exotic. Fez, about 240 miles northeast of Marrakesh, was often an afterthought. Those who went there raved about the medieval medina—still totally inaccessible to cars, still genuinely Moroccan. But with few upscale places to stay, conservative Fez was never more than a quick stopover.

Times are changing. Slowly, quietly, a sophisticated scene is taking root in Fez, much as it did in Marrakesh 15 years ago. It started with expats and locals restoring riads, and continues as hotels, restaurants, and galleries pop up. So far, overdevelopment isn’t an issue. Whether this will last—especially with this year’s debut of an upgraded airport, set to accommodate 2.5 million passengers, five times the current volume—is anyone’s guess. Don’t wait to find out. For those who fell in love with Marrakesh before it became an international party hub, this is the moment to see Fez.

Restaurant No. 7 

On the culinary front, Restaurant No. 7 has been making waves with a rotating series of acclaimed guest chefs, a novel concept for Fez. Set in striking black- and-white-tiled rooms, it is the brainchild of British food writer Tara Stevens and American Stephen Di Renza, who swings between Fez and Marrakesh, where he is the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle.

“Fez is multi-layered, multi-faceted,” Stevens says. “Every time I go out the front door, I discover something. This is a city on the cusp of change—and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

The Ruined Garden

Another success story is the more informal Ruined Garden restaurant which has been very popular for lunch or dinner, right through the hot season. A surprising and welcome addition to the restaurant range has been Maison Moi Annan, a genuine Thai restaurant, offering a welcome change to those who want a break from tagines.

While some Riad owners have seen a downturn over the last couple of months, others report that tourist numbers are on a par with the same time last year.

"Business is steady" - Fred Sola from Riad Laaroussa

Fred Sola, from Riad Laaroussa, says that while he is aware of reports of lower numbers of French tourists, he has maintained steady bookings with a majority of his clientele being American, Australian and British. "However, whenever a budget European airline has a couple of weeks of lower airfares, there is a spike in tourists from those countries," he says.

According to riad owners, bookings are flowing in for the next couple of months. Welcome news for everyone in the Fez Medina.

Fez scores 11th place in Lonely Planet 500

Lonely Planet’s community of staff and writers have ranked the 500 best places to see on the planet, creating the definitive bucket list for every type of traveller. Number 11 out of 500 is the Fez Medina. Fez was also the only African site in the top 20.

1. Temples of Angkor, Cambodia              11. Fez Medina, Morocco
2. Great Barrier Reef, Australia                 12. Twelve Apostles, Australia
3. Machu Picchu, Peru                                13. Petra, Jordan
4. Great Wall of China,                               14. Tikal, Guatemala
5. Taj Mahal, India                                      15. British Museum, England
6. Grand Canyon National Park, USA      16. Sagrada Familia, Spain
7. Colosseum, Italy                                     17. Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
8. Iguazu Falls, Brazil-Argentina              18. Santorini, Greece
9. Alhambra, Spain                                     19. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
10. Aya Sofya, Turkey                                20. Museum of Old & New Art, Australia

Tom Hall, Editorial Director of Lonely Planet, said of the Top 500 “This book has been years in the making and brings together the most compelling places in the world according to our team of globetrotting travel experts. Every traveller has got a list of places they simply have to see – places heard about, read about or dreamed about. Of course, what makes somewhere special is different for everyone and we’d love to hear about other people’s top spots. But this is our definitive list. And one we hope will inspire many other travel wish-lists.”

Lonely Planet describes Morocco as one of the most diverse countries in Africa and given Morocco's array of ancient cities, vast dessert landscapes and rough coastline it placed it in the top 10 countries to visit in 2015. With 9 UNESCO World Heritage listings, the history of Morocco is rich and opportunities for exploration are endless. Thankfully it is also a very secure destination being ranked as safer than France!

This was a good result for tourism in Fez. As one local put it, with a wry smile, "It certainly can't hurt."

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