Marrakech may set the city-break crowd’s hearts aflutter, but Fez, Morocco’s ancient spiritual capital, really makes hearts throb
NEED TO KNOW
Morocco’s capital city has shifted repeatedly over the centuries, according to the whim and power of the dynasty of the day. These days, Rabat might host the embassies and Marrakech the tourists, but the majority of Moroccans will still point to Fez as the country’s spiritual and cultural heart.
Fez was Muslim Morocco’s first capital, and in 2008 the city celebrated its 1,200th birthday with remarkable understatement. But unlike their glitzy Marrakechi rivals to the south, Fassis don’t feel the need to shout about their city. Just one day in the buzzing warren of the old city is all most visitors need to be instantly hooked.
Exploring the Fez medina is undoubtedly one of the Arab world’s greatest travel experiences. Its dusty streets are gloriously alive, and its sights, sounds, and smells have the force of a battering ram on the senses.
The city has changed very little over time, and is today the most complete and unspoiled medieval Islamic settlement in the world. Surrounded by hills on all sides, Fez has been unable to expand much over the centuries and is almost entirely free of motor vehicles. Its bent and narrow lanes are far better suited to mules and donkeys, which still work hard carrying everything from bags of cement to televisions in and out of the medina.
The medieval way of organizing a city also persists in Fez, with each quarter having its own mosque, fountains, and communal bakeries, as well as areas dedicated to particular arts and crafts, such as slipper-making, leatherwork, and the city’s famous fine embroidery.
Ancient though it is, Fez isn’t above learning a few new tricks. Scores of its old townhouses are being turned into the riad guesthouses beloved of foreign visitors, and a UNESCO-supported rehabilitation scheme has provided funding and expertise to help restore threatened and crumbling parts of this World Heritage city. Government plans to boost Moroccan tourist numbers past 10 million mean that there’s not a lot of time left to get here before the crowds do.
MAIN CITY SIGHTS
Talaa Kebira The medina’s main street leads visitors to the heart of the old city, from the Bab Bou Jeloud Gate past mosques, markets, and fountains, and an unending stream of people and pack animals.
Bou Inania Medersa One of the finest buildings in Fez, this 14th-century theological college is a masterclass in Moroccan craftsmanship. Its sumptuous decorations include intricate mosaics, woodcarvings, and decorative plasterwork.
Tanneries Moroccan leather is produced here the old-fashioned – and highly smelly – way, with skins submerged in open-air vats full of dyes made from indigo, poppies, and saffron. The colorful results are on sale throughout the medina.
Batha Museum This museum, housed in a beautiful 19th-century palace with a classical Andalucian garden, holds a fine collection of Moroccan artifacts from the heyday of the great imperial dynasties.
Festival of World Sacred Music This cross-cultural musical festival was founded in response to the first Gulf War and is now a huge international success, attracting world-class performers for grand concerts and intimate recitals. The week-long festival takes place every year in June (see p56).
Timing is all: avoid the hordes at the peak times of Christmas, New Year and Easter, as well as the scorching heat of high summer. Vary your clock once there too, hitting the main Djemaa el-Fna, the central square, late at night when it’s a locals-only scene.
3 MORE ARAB CITIES TO RIVAL MARRAKECH
The center of the Yemeni capital is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its concentration of ancient mud-brick tower houses – tall buildings built for defensive purposes. With traditional dress very much in vogue here – few men would dare be seen lacking their jambiya (dagger) in their belt – Sana’a is a true vision of old Arabia.
Tunis hosts another of north Africa’s great medinas, but the city’s origins far predate the arrival of Islam. The main mosque was built with columns stolen from Roman-era Carthage, which stood at the edge of the modern city. Further ruins add to the blend of ancient, medieval, and modern.
Syria’s second city is home to the country’s greatest souks. Miles of bustling covered bazaars surround the stunning 8th-century Great Mosque and lead to the mound of Aleppo’s imposing citadel, which withstood the armies of both the Crusaders and the Mongols.
Getting There and Around
Fez Saïss airport has direct connections to many major European cities, mainly through budget airlines. Other flights come via Casablanca, which is 54 miles (87 km) southwest of Rabat. Fez has excellent road and rail connections with the rest of Morocco.
Where to Eat
Fez is famous in Morocco for its culinary heritage, and is the home of b’stilla, a sweet-savory dish of filo pastry stuffed with nuts and pigeon. The restaurant at La Maison Bleue hotel offers one of the city’s best dining experiences.
Where to Stay
The boutique hotel riad scene is ever-expanding in Fez, offering visitors an excellent choice of accommodations for different budgets. Riad Lune et Soleil is a charming and eccentrically decorated guesthouse, renowned for its excellent food.
When to Go
Spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit the city weather-wise. Winter is cold and rainy, while summer heat can be uncomfortable.
Budget per Day for Two
From US$90 upwards, depending on accommodations. The best riads charge up to US$160 per room per night.