My eyes first fell on the baskets filled with slithering snails, and when I turned round, the severed head of a camel, hair and all, stared me in the face. I had just entered the food market in the medina of Fez, a rich and exotic world of sights, smells and tastes bursting out of rows of tiny shops lining a narrow street where occasionally the crowds have to part to allow a passing mule through.
Fassis, as the city’s residents are called, pride themselves on their cuisine, and the rich variety of what is on offer in the markets of the medina. My guide led me past shops crammed with mountains of dried fruit, baskets of rose petals, bottles of distilled floral waters, countless varieties of olives, preserved meats in fat-filled jars, sacks of couscous and heaps of every conceivable spice, herb and root used to flavour foods or cure ills. Then there were the pancake stalls, the syrupy pastries, the cheese in woven baskets of palm leaves and the juice sellers. I ordered an almond drink, a delicious combination of cold milk and marzipan whizzed in a blender, at a little shop tucked in a corner.
The medina of Fez, the largest walled medieval Arab city still in existence, has for centuries occupied a central place in Moroccan life. These days it may appear drab and crumbling, and certainly it is no longer the seat of political or economic power, but its craftsmen, builders, cooks and merchants have ensured the survival of many of their country’s quintessential traditions.
Tourism plays a role in keeping some of the activities of the medina ticking over. But the beauty of Fez is that the spectacle of life here is not being staged for the eyes of the tourists; there is little on the streets that is artificial or designed to appeal to visitors seeking an oriental fantasy. Some 350,000 people pursue their lives in the medina, buying their food at its shops, frequenting its vibrant markets and producing its artefacts.
What you see in Fez is those people going about their business. On the dyers street, I came upon two men, energetically dunking what looked like wool in a deep vat of blue dye. In the covered embroiderers’ market, I admired big displays of multicoloured threads used to ornament the traditional dresses worn by Moroccan women of all classes on important family and state occasions.
The city’s famous tanneries, located in foul smelling yards with skins hung out to dry on surrounding terraces, produce fine leather for items sold to tourists but also used by Moroccans such as the famous Fassi yellow babouches, the pointy slippers typically worn by local men.
The medina, known as Fez El Bali (old Fez), was founded on the banks of the Fez river by the Idrissid dynasty towards the end of the 8th century. In 818 it received an influx of 800 Muslim families fleeing a rebellion in Cordoba in what was then Muslim-ruled Andalusia. Forty years later, they were joined by another wave of refugees, this time from the learned and holy city of Kairouan in Tunisia. Within the space of half a century, Fez had become a repository of several cultural traditions, their fusion laying the grounds for its future glory as a centre of learning and refinement.
The most famous mosque in Fez is the Kairaouine mosque established by the Tunisian exiles and revered as the oldest university in the Islamic world. It is big enough to hold a congregation of 20,000 people (at the time of writing, the mosque was closed for restoration). Non-Muslims are not allowed into mosques in Morocco, but when the Kairaouine is open it will be possible to look at the interior through its gates, or to get a view from the roof of the nearby Madrasat Al Attarin, an Islamic school. Parts of the mosque, including two magnificent 16th-century pavilions in the courtyard, are based on the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
Open to visitors and offering a fine example of the splendours of Moroccan artisanship is the Madrasa Bouinania. This school for Islamic scholars dates from the 14th century and is based around a large courtyard, its walls richly decorated with beautifully carved wood, ornate plasterwork and the intricate mosaic of Morocco known as zellige.
Cut by hand from multicoloured glazed ceramic tiles, zellige mosaics are fitted together like interlocking pieces of a puzzle to form complex geometrical and floral patterns. You can see zellige being made in the pottery workshops outside the walls of the medina. The tiles are baked in ovens fuelled by pomace, the solid effluence which remains when olives are pressed for oil.
One of the most venerated places in Morocco is the mosque in old Fez containing the shrine of Moulay Idris, the founder of the city. Tourists can peek through an archway at its rich decorations and bright draperies. A screen partially bars the alley leading to the mosque to indicate that this is a sacred area, off limits to the mules, which remain the sole means of transport in the medina.
There is much more to see within and outside the gates of old Fez such as the tombs of the Merenids, or the Jewish quarter with its beautiful wooden terraces and carved plasterwork. On top of the foothills of the Atlas mountains surrounding the city, there are two small 16th-century fortresses, the Borj Sud and Borj Nord, offering fine panoramic views of the medina.
For accommodation, the walled city has a number of exquisite riads and hotels. I stayed at the stunning Riad Laaroussa, a 17th-century palace that has been restored and converted into a guesthouse by French owner Frederic Sola (see next page). To get there I was met at one of the gates of the old city by a man with a wheelbarrow who took my suitcase and guided me through the maze of small streets.
Riad Laaroussa has five suites and two rooms, all furnished in a luxurious but pared down, almost minimalist style, which allows the Moroccan architectural flourishes to stand out. The suites on the ground floor have fireplaces, double-height painted wood ceilings and magnificent cedar wood doors.
The palace is set around a splendid courtyard with a fountain and orange trees laden with fruit. Meals can be eaten there or in the elegant adjacent salon. Another option is the roof terrace. There is also a large cheerful kitchen where cooks Samira and Fatima are happy to introduce guests to the basics of Moroccan cuisine.
Other places to stay include Riad Fez, a graceful hotel that exudes an atmosphere of palatial elegance and refinement. It has a wonderful traditional hall sumptuously decorated with zellige and carved wood. There is also a beautiful Moorish courtyard that serves as a bar, and a lift takes you up to a roof terrace with excellent views of the medina.
Now that several European airlines fly direct to Fez, the tourism authorities have ambitious plans to develop it as a city-break destination. This entails restoring monuments, upgrading the infrastructure, raising service standards and also promoting activities linked to the heritage of Fez as a cultural and spiritual centre. So, now there is a year-round programme of music festivals, dance, film and other cultural events.