For many, the magic of Fez is found in the intoxicating and chaotic daily life of the medina.
Fez, authentically Moroccan

Fez, authentically Moroccan

This ancient, imperial city has one of the Arab world's most remarkable medieval medinas

Andrew Forbes

Friday, 31 August 2018, 16:10


Driving down into the valley I was confronted by the rich texture of the city spreading out before me. Surrounded by fields, and framed by the Middle Atlas mountains beyond, the urban cityscape was a mass of clustered buildings of warm sandstone, with bursts of saffron yellow, punctuated by splashes of green from roof tiles and date palms that towered over secret walled gardens.

I'll never forget the first time I visited Fez. I'd taken the fast ferry over from Tarifa, muddled my way though the border shenanigans at Tangier, then drove down from the foothills of the Riff mountains, past cedar forests and through terracotta-coloured Berber hamlets until reaching the city of Fez.

The few hundred kilometres had been a memorable journey of negotiating unmarked roads and hair-pin bends; avoiding donkeys and residents that would tray into the road without warning; and paying cash fines to elegantly-dressed traffic police who occasionally emerged from seemingly nowhere to tell me I'd been speeding (on a road with no speed signs!).

Yet the real adventure began when I entered the medina. Striking archways through the city walls led into a tightly-packed community of hundreds of thousands of residents living among workshops, bakeries, markets and mosques.

Time travel

That first visit was back in 2006. Returning to Fez more than a decade later (there's now a direct flight from Seville) I was pleased to see that the city had retained its unique atmosphere - and yet it also felt so very different. I hope Fez doesn't become the next Marrakech, a city that now when I visit feels at times more like a European capital than an exotic north African metropolis.

So, head to Fez now, as times are changing fast. The new airport terminal brings many more Europeans seeking a city break with a compelling flavour of authentic Morocco, yet they arrive with an insatiable appetite for chic hotels and stylish restaurants.

Founded back in the eighth century by the Idrisid dynasty, the first royal family to rule over all of Morocco, Fez became the capital of Morocco and evolved into a commercial and cultural hub.

Fez is now a tale of three cities. First there is 'Fès el-Bali' (old Fez), the UNESCO World Heritage medina that thankfully remains a thriving community for thousands. Then there is 'Fès el-Jdid' (New Fez) founded in the 13th century by the Marinids dynasty. Finally, the newest part of Fez, is the 'Ville Nouvelle', the contemporary commercial district, with its wide palm-lined avenues, built at the beginning of the 20th century by the French during the era of the French and Spanish protectorates.

Magical medina

For many, though, the magic is found in the intoxicating and chaotic daily life of the medina. Recent years have seen significant investment in the restoration of this remarkable place, said to be the largest car-free urban area in the world. During my first visit one would see dereliction and dilapidation everywhere. From the rooftop of the hotel I would look down and see neighbouring riads falling apart; their central patios filled with debris. Not so much now.

Following the growth of Marrakech, local and national government have worked to restore Fez. This is a huge task, as throughout Old and New Fez one is confronted by remarkable architecture - the city's legacy from when it was the epicentre for religion, science, the arts and commerce in Morocco. These buildings are a lasting testament to when each imperial dynasty tried to outdo the last with highly-decorated mosques and religious colleges.

Fez was a city that grew over the centuries through immigration, including Jews and Muslims from Tunisia and the east, and refugees from Andalucía, each bringing their cultural and commercial influences.

However, the ongoing restoration work in Fez is not just for commercial gain. Al-Qarawiyyin, said to be the world's longest-running university, has undergone a renewal, and its priceless manuscripts from medieval scholars are being preserved. The city also hosts international cultural events, such as the annual Festival of Sacred Music (in June).

Residents and foreigners have also invested in Fez to recreate the beauty of this ancient city. Traditional riad houses have been carefully renovated; once again used as family homes, or reimagined as guesthouses, boutique hotels, or elegant restaurants.

Fast food

Yet some things can't change. Getting around on foot is the only way in the old quarters, but it obliges you to really experience Fez. You must have your wits about you as residents haven't time to accommodate disorientated tourists. Commercial traffic of laden donkeys, barrows, carts and noisy diesel pickups is a constant element of street life.

So too, is food. While discovering the streets and souks, your senses will be bombarded with sights and smells that will whet your appetite; from the aroma of freshly-baked bread and the spicy smoke from brochette meat skewers cooking over charcoal, to the colours and textures of juicy dates piled high, or sweet pastries made with honey temptingly displayed on streetside stalls. For tasty fast food on the go, try a sandwich made from khobz, the ubiquitous flat, crusty bread. Spilt open and filled with barbequed meat, olives, herbs and a little harissa red pepper sauce, they make a quick, cheap and mouth-watering lunch.

Artisans and ateliers

Lost within the warren of alleyways, it doesn't take long before you find craftspeople working in their cramped studio workshops that open onto the street. Various parts of the medina are dedicated to different trades and guilds including henna and cosmetics, weavers, metal-workers, shoe-makers and leather-workers. The creativity is inspiring.

What's different now, as I return to the city, is that chic galleries and art studios are emerging in Fez, showcasing the world-class quality of the artistic products here. Fez is renowned for its pottery too, but you must head just outside the centre to the potteries on the edge of town, where their wood-burning kilns are allowed. I bought intricately-patterned dishes which I use at home almost every day, reminding me of when the salesman stood on a pile of them to show me just how strong they were!

Riad refuge

With the ongoing refurbishment of the medina has come a renewed respect for the city's few green spaces. The ninth-century Muslim immigrants from Andalucía brought a unique style, aesthetic and interpretation of the Arab art of combining gardens, water and architecture, inspiring designs throughout the city.

Jardin Jnan Sbil, a beautiful city green space, once known as Bou Jeloud Gardens, is found between Old and New Fez, close to the mellah Jewish quarter, and the Blue Gate. The park is a refreshing place to take a break.

That said, the most valuable calm and tranquillity will be within your riad hotel. These traditional palatial homes feel sealed-off from the real world. They have high walls, with few, if any, windows onto the outside street. Instead rooms face inwards, overlooking the central Andalusian-style patio, where a trickling fountain encourages a meditative peace that is the perfect antidote to the pandemonium outside.

Fez is changing fast and who knows what it will be like in another ten years? But one thing seems consistent, and that's the enthralling, captivating ancient medina. This medieval town has retained its soul; it may have been touched by the 21st century but it remains truly connected to its illustrious past.

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