It?s ancient; its history dates back to the 700s when it was founded by Moulay Idriss, who lies buried in a shrine deep in the medina (old city).
It?s also Arab; no amount of French colonisation has changed that, despite the modern city lying a few kilometres up the road.
It?s also profoundly spiritual; the cultural heart of the country, with hundreds of mosques dotted about the medina so you?re never out of reach of the muezzin.
Most tourists spend just one day in Fez, perhaps staying in an expensive hotel well out of the medina. But such a short stay won't do Fez justice, so stay a little longer and absorb the atmosphere on offer.
The medina in Fez is daunting, no doubt about it. The first time I came here, I decided to take the advice in the guidebook: 'know that you?ll get lost'. It?s not a problem, because you can always find a gate to the outside world where there?ll be a taxi, or a cafe for mint tea while you try to figure out where you are.
My guidebook says there are 9000 tiny streets in an area of approximately 4.5km?. It?s a maze, a labyrinth. The cobbled streets certainly are tiny, and there is no vehicular access. How many cities do you know that you can?t drive into? Some streets are so narrow that you can?t comfortably pass a donkey laden with goods, or a mule carrying gas tanks or Coca Cola crates.
A medieval medina
Another enigma of Fez is that it remains a medieval city. In these tiny streets, you?ll still see men at work; beating patterns into brass trays, painting pottery, shaping copper basins, carving thuya (cedarwood) or perhaps fashioning musical instruments such as the indigenous oud or lute. In their breaks, they sit in street cafes and make a glass of coffee last hours, and when the muezzin calls, they disappear into the mosques to pray.
There are specific areas for different kinds of goods; the tanneries and surrounding areas for buying leather clothing, bags, pouffes, belts and shoes; the coppersmith areas for trays, teapots, plates and basins; tailoring where you can have a djellaba made (the traditional hooded robe); babouches ? slippers with pointed toes that come in yellow or white leather for men, and a multitude of designs, colours and fabrics for women; ornate yellow gold wedding jewellery, and carpentry, including gorgeous golden thrones for weddings, carved tables and artefacts.
There are excellent craft stalls selling lighting made of metalwork or thin, brightly dyed goatskin stretched over frames and painted, the ceramics (particularly blue and white) which Fez is famous for, carpets both old and new, antique shops featuring jewellery, objets d'art, furniture and fabrics.
Look out too for hendiras, the traditional cloaks of linen and wool (and sometimes silver sequins) that Berber mothers still weave for their marriageable daughters, as well as cushion covers and traditional wedding belts.
Find yourself a fez
Near the Moulay Idriss Shrine, you'll find stalls selling votive offerings such as candles, incense sticks and pieces of frankincense with charcoal to burn it. There are also shops selling gold-embroidered clothes for weddings and circumcisions, and it's here you'll find a real red fez complete with tassel. It makes a good souvenir, and cheap at around R14 each.
Once you?re done with the shopping, take in the monuments. You can hire a guide if you don?t have a lot of time. Don't miss the restored Bouanania Medersa (Qur?anic School) with the entrance on the main street, Tala'a Kebira; the Attarine Medersa further down, the Moulay Idriss Zawiya (shrine) deep down in the medina alongside the Karaouiyne Mosque, the tanneries, Seffarine Square and the Nejjarine Museum. There are other museums such as Batha and Belghazi which are worth a visit too. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside mosques and zawiyas, but it?s fine to peek and take photographs.
Heart soup and fragrant tagines
Morocco is justly famous for its food, and you'll find couscous and tagines (an earthenware dish with a conical lid, much like a casserole) everywhere, on every roadside stall and at every restaurant. Despite the magnificent aromas, don't worry... the food isn?t overly hot; it?s a gentle blend of spices to delight the palate.
The traditional soup of Morocco, harira, can also be found on every street corner in the medina. For just a couple of dirhams per bowl you'll get a hearty tomato soup with meat, chickpeas and coriander, served with a squeeze of lemon. A great cheap way to eat.
So when should you visit Fez? Surprisingly, given the freezing temperatures, Christmas is very popular, although Spring (March and April) and Autumn (September and October) are probably the best times to travel.
There?s accommodation to suit all pockets too, from backpacker hostels to fancy hotels. Perhaps the most intriguing form of accommodation is in the traditional houses in the medina, many of which have been lovingly restored and now function as bed and breakfast establishments. The houses have a central courtyard, often planted with citrus trees, with rooms arranged around it and generally all have modern bathrooms en suite.
They?re not cheap, starting at around R550 per room per night, but will give you an experience not to be missed and a true taste of Morocco. There?s bound to be a roof terrace, usually with fabulous views of the medina and hospitality abounds; Moroccans are proud of their culture, and country, and aim to please.
For more info...
- Visit the Tourism Board of Morocco