“To walk within its old walls is to witness a city that is heaving and claustrophobic, fascinating and frustrating, decrepit and majestic, inspirational and wondrous, and waiting to be discovered every day” — Frommer’s
Often when I’ve spoken with friends planning to travel to Morocco, Marrakech and Casablanca typically score mentions on their itinerary, but not always the city that I think is the most special: Fez. It should not be missed.
Some quick facts:
- It is an eco-city: Fez el Bali (the medina — the part within the ancient walls) is home to about 200,000 people and thought to be the largest car-free urban area in the world.
- It can mix with the famous: Like Venice and Havana, it’s medina is a UN World Heritage site — the first Islamic city to hold this title (1981). It is also a sister city of Florence and Jerusalem.
- It is a smart city: Established a couple of hundred years before the University of Oxford, the city’s University of al-Karaouine is the oldest in the world (UNESCO says so).
- Like Winchester and Melbourne, it used to be the country’s capital: Fez is one of the four Moroccan Imperial cities — cities that have been capital for one or more dynasties. The others are Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat.
- It has been inspired by war; in a positive way: Fez hosts the annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music which started in 1994 as an ‘interfaith dialogue’ in the wake of the first Gulf War.
- It has two (unofficial) names: Fez or Fes? There is no exact translation of the Arabic to English. Westerners often say Fez, and the French and locals say Fes. This article will use Fez, unless an official term dictates Fes.
In 2009, I travelled around Morocco (one of an eclectic group on an organised tour — I had joined solo), and Fez was easily my, and voted by the tour group, favourite Moroccan city. There was something magnetic and mesmerising about it.
Fez has a much bigger ‘new town’ but the medina in the ‘old town’ is just how people might picture Morocco: winding, narrow pathways echoing the sounds of craftsmen banging hammers, the smell of spices in the air, shopkeepers chatting to each other over mint tea, heavy wooden doors with ornate details; and slow-moving donkeys. We were incredibly lucky to have one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met as our tour guide — Farida — and the group agreed that she was probably the reason we all fell in love with the city. The rarity of a local female city guide made it all the more special. ‘Ask me anything you want — about Moroccan life, being a woman in this country — and I’ll do my best to answer’, Farida told us infront of the gold doors of the Royal Palace. We learnt about Moroccan courtship, her time at univesity, family structures, women in work, and why she chooses to wear a hijab. She responded to our questions in style, we were an audience hanging on every word, and the tour hadn’t even started.
Our first stop was a pottery and mosaic ‘factory’ where we watched young apprentices squat on the ground over large mosaics that would become tables, and established craftsmen create tagines that would eventually end up on a table in Morocco, or somewhere farther away. Farida told us that Fez is considered the home of the traditional Moroccan crafts, that the best craftsmen are from this city. The manager of the factory, with carefully balanced cigarette out the corner of his mouth, explained that the trademark of pottery from Fez is the decorative blue paintwork — so if you have something like that at home, it is likely from Fez.
Next stop was the Chouara Tanneries — arguably the most photographed tannery in the world. Farida made sure we all had our secret weapon in hand when we entered: a sprig of mint. The stench of rotting animal skin was overwhelming but with green leaves firmly against my nose, I soon forgot about it as I stood on the balcony and overlooked a scene, which aside from the satelite dishes in the background, probably has not changed for almost a thousand years. Old and young male workers skipped deftly over the large tubs of dye, and soaking skins and leather, never in fear of falling in. They were either treating skins in a mix of cow urine and ‘pigeon poo’ to get the fat off, or submerging them in the colourful tub of dye, before drying out and then made into shoes and bags. The process takes about 20 days and the dyes are all natural (read more about the process). Proof that the yellow leather was natural was that in the corner of the tannery, a young man sat alone, watching, or rather guarding, patches of yellow leather dry — leather made golden from a long bath in safron.
Farida, who was probably in her mid-30s (and pregnant as she led us through the alleyways like a mother duck with ducklings), had lived in Fez all of her life, and grew up in the medina. As we walked through the maze of pathways, she would frequently smile and speak to people, and they to her, in a way that you didn’t need to understand Arabic to know that she was well-known and well-liked. Farida informed us the medina did not have street names as we would be familiar, but sections — the spice section, the textiles section and so on (and residents with obviously good memories). For this reason we had to stay close as it was so very easy to get lost. When we stepped in the Bou Inania Madrasa, built in 1351, Farida pointed out the intricate carvings and mosaics and said, ‘This is why humans are here, to create beauty’. If it hadn’t happened earlier, this was the moment of a collective group falling-in-love with her.
After a day that included a long lunch, visiting a Koranic school, pharmacy, old Fort that is now a military museum, djellaba shop, and learning about black soap, we said goodbye to Farida. We were all a bit more emotional about doing so than expected, and I think everyone got their photo taken with her; at least once.
The red city of Marrakech is Morocco’s tourist centre, Casablanca the business centre, and Rabat the political centre, but Fez is without doubt the spiritual centre of the kingdom.
So, do not skip Fez.
If you are curious about life in Fez, from an Australian perspective, A House in Fez by Susanna Clarke is a book about the author and her husband’s adventure of purchasing and renovating a property in the Fez media and gives a great insight into life in the city. Susanna also has a well-established blog about her house in Fez — Riad Zany.