Heather in our tailor-made team has just returned from a two week recce around Morocco. Below Heather talks about the charms of Fez...
Before flying to Morocco I had been so excited by the prospect of the calm expanse of the desert or the cool peaks of the Atlas Mountains that I had almost underprepared myself for how much I would enjoy the hustle and bustle of cities like Fez and Marrakech.
Whilst Marrakech certainly doesn’t disappoint with the numerous snake charmers, food stalls and musicians on the Jemma el Fna and a beautiful variety of riads to seek refuge in after a day of getting lost in the souks, it was really Fez that won me over.
The Old Medina itself, Fez el Bali, has over 9000 streets and alleyways which can sound a little daunting, but with the help of a guide and an open mind about getting lost you will be sure to encounter an array of brilliant and strange smells and sights. Wasps gather round the Moroccan honey coated pastries, mules carrying goods squeeze down the winding narrow alleyways and past the moving crowds, people shout across to each other in unintelligible bursts of Frarabic and cats lie asleep with their kittens in doorways.
Entering Fez el Bali through the grand blue tiled main archway, Bab Boujloud, one of the first things you’ll notice is the minaret of the Medersa Bou Inania. Built in the 1350s by Sultan Abou Inan and having been restored in the past few years, the Medersa has been decorated with beautifully carved cedar wood and intricate wall mosaics and is one of the few religious buildings that non-Muslims can access – to much appreciation as you’re likely to find yourself teased by the mysteries of the interiors of many of the city’s other sights.
Deeper into the heart of Fez el Bali lies the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II. Whilst non-Muslims can’t enter this holy pilgrimage site, you can certainly poke your head in to gaze at the colourful walls, adorned arched doorways and red carpets, and even try catch a glimpse of the tomb itself if you can crane your neck far enough. Just around the corner (if you don’t manage to get lost…) is one of the oldest universities in the world, dating back to the 9th century. With the University and Mosque of Kairaouine being closed to non-Muslims you’ll once again only manage a small glimpse into the courtyard inside, and from the outside it is really hard to grasp the full size and splendour of this sight. From atop the Borj Sud fortress which overlooks the city you’ll be able to see the green roofs of Kairaouine amongst the grey and white of the surrounding buildings, however even then it is only from afar.
A short while later, I was given one of the strangest gifts I have ever received as I entered a leather shop – a sprig of mint. Climbing the stairs at the back of the shop a pungent and sour smell began to hit me, and I realised I had reached the infamous tanneries and was suddenly very grateful for that sprig of mint I had absentmindedly put in my pocket! The dozens of basins are filled with different coloured dyes, with the hides soaking in them for just under a week. They include yellows made from saffron, greens from mint and reds from rose petals, which are then laid out to dry on the surrounding rooftops. From the viewpoint of the shop’s balcony it is easy to become bewitched by what had been until now a motionless scene in the pictures of guidebooks.
A final and rather unexpected highlight of my time in Fez was a visit to a pottery workshop. Just outside of the Old Town, the pottery and ceramic workshops have now been moved away from the residential areas as the olive stones which are burned to heat the ovens emit a black smoke that can be dangerous when continuously inhaled. Seeing so many mosaics and pottery in what felt like every corner of the country, it was interesting to gain an insight into the moulding, painting and baking process behind them. Not to mention that it’s also a very tempting place to pick up a tajine or two should your luggage allow!
Whilst Fez might feel like a bit of an overwhelming and full-on introduction to Morocco, it’s certainly a worthwhile and authentic one, and you’ll definitely be rewarded for embracing the chaos for a day or two on your trip here.