It’s taken distance – in both geography and time – to fully appreciate our late summer visit to Fez, Morocco’s second most populous city and its cultural and spiritual center.
It’s a fascinating place, but I have to admit, I didn’t always enjoy our time there. The heat might have had something to do with it – just shy of 110 degrees every day, with very little reprieve even in the early mornings when I’d scramble up the staircase to our hotel’s rooftop for sunrise, or at night, well after the fiery orb made its exit.
Back in California though, as I went through the hundreds of pictures I snapped during this trip, I found myself itching for another go-around in this other-worldly place. What is it about Fez that makes it so enchanting?
It’s old, really old.
When people talk about Fez, they are usually referring to Fes el Bali, the walled, car-free part of the city that was founded in the late 8thcentury during the Idrisid Dynasty. While there is a more modern section of Fez, Ville Nouvelle, built in the first half of the 1900s by the French, it is Fes el Bali, also referred to as the Medina of Fez, where most visitors flock. Entering the medina through the sparkling Bab Bou Jeloud, or Blue Gate (one of the medina’s 14 portals), you are immediately transported to another time and place.
Electricity, satellite dishes, and Gucci knockoffs may have found their way here, but the twisting, mud brick streets and bustling, old-world markets feel positively medieval. You won’t find a one-stop supermarket in this part of Fez, or noisy garbage trucks making their morning runs. Instead, you’ll see sellers doing business at outdoor stalls, and a crew of tired looking donkeys hauling trash and anything else that needs hauling through the alleys.
Adding to its historic allure is the University Al-Karaouine, considered to be the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world. Founded in 859 AD by a Tunisian woman named Fatima Al-Fihri, this school and mosque is closed to non-Muslims, so a peek inside will have to suffice.
It’s a labyrinth.
When you visit the medina, don’t expect to be awed by wide promenades lined with majestic buildings, or expansive green space with trees and lush gardens. The old city is a maze of alleyways (between 9,000 and 10,000 reportedly), some just the width of a person, and many leading to dead ends.
There are no cars, no sidewalks, no crosswalks. Primary streets may be abuzz with people and commerce, but just a turn or two away, all you’ll hear is the echo of your own footsteps.
One of the advantages of this labyrinth structure is that in the summer the medina stays a tiny bit cooler than the rest of the city because less sunlight gets through. On your first day in Fez, it’s best to hire a guide to show you the way. Then on the next day, try it yourself. Explore, absorb, and delight in getting lost. That’s the magic of Fez.
It’s a feast for the senses.
Fez is a delight – and sometimes an affront – to the senses. One does not go to this ancient city to check landmarks off a bucket list; you go to Fez to absorb its sometimes chaotic, sometimes symphonic assembly of sights, sounds, and yes, smells.
For an intense olfactory experience, follow your nose to the tanners’ quarter to observe barefoot workers tread animal skins in dying vats to make leather goods.
Peruse the bustling souks, or markets, where vendors peddle anything and everything – vegetables, fruits, spices, flip flops, tagine bowls, camel meat, pigeons, you name it.
One of the most visually pleasing aspects of Fez is the exquisite and colorful tile work used to adorn mosques, religious schools, communal fountains, and private residences, as well as the ornate wooden doors found throughout the city. Some examples below:
One of the things I found most intriguing about Fez is that it is devoid of curb appeal in the modern, Western sense. This is not to say that buildings and residences are not beautiful. They are. It’s just not something you observe readily from the exterior, in part because there are no porches, stairways, or adornments to hint at what’s inside; you’re as likely to discover a hole in the wall as a palace fit for a sultan.
Take our hotel, Riad Laaroussa. Its entrance along a dark, quiet alleyway is non-descript, marked with a modest brass sign. As the porter lead us to the door, I could see a look of concern cross my husband and daughters’ faces. Upon entering, that concern dissolved into delight as we discovered that our home for the next four days was a stunningly gorgeous riad, a Moroccan mansion built around an interior courtyard or garden. Each room left us breathless with its tile work, sumptuous woodcraft, and luxurious touches. And so, this is the mystery of Fes. You never know what you’ll find around each corner and behind each door.