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Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Fez

Its atmospheric medieval medina exerts a powerful pull, but the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco is also conjuring up newly chic riads and cafés. Paul Richardson reports.

August 25 2011
Paul Richardson

There are some cities in the world that, try as they might, will never quite escape the weight of their past. Fez is one of them.

Ryanair may now fly here, there’s a brand-new McDonald’s in the old town, and the donkey drivers have mobile phones. But nothing can alter the fact that the city has been a cultural powerhouse for the past 1,200 years.

Marrakech and Fez might be the two Moroccan cities of the moment, but where one is romantic and hedonistic, the other is classical and sober. Whereas Marrakech got to the “designer riad” concept early and has sold itself as a party town, Fez came to tourism much later. Having spent only a few years sprucing up its act before the financial crisis put the brakes on the boom, Fez’s exotic authenticity remains virtually intact.

The vast old town is still rickety and ruinous in a powerfully atmospheric way. The good news, however, is that thanks to government and international initiatives, the medina (a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981) has been hauled back from the brink of total disrepair.

While the Ville Nouvelle, the administrative quarter invented by the colonial French, has wide avenues lined with jacaranda trees, shiny modern cafeterias, office blocks and ATMs, the soul of the city resides in that gigantic medina – a metropolis as thrilling and unfathomable as Manhattan, though nearly 1,000 years older. At 350 hectares and home to an estimated 300,000 people, it is often described as the largest continuously inhabited medieval city in the world. It’s also the world’s largest car-free urban space, which means that whatever noises there might be during the day (squawking chickens, blaring radios, shrieking hawkers), in the small hours the city is plunged into an eerie silence.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the impact of Fes el-Bali, as the medina is officially known. The sheer density of its sprawl and the intensity of human traffic in its winding alleyways provide a bewitching experience. The impressions come thick and fast: donkeys laden with everything from cement bags to fruit pushing past you; bloody chunks of large animals swinging from shopfronts; shiny heaps of olives and dates; tailors sewing by lamplight outside workshops; spice stalls spilling coloured powders. And a mosque every few hundred metres – the medina is supposed to contain more than 200 of them, plus 60 fountains, 250 hammams and 800 bakeries. For Fez takes its religion, as well as its bread and baths, with the greatest seriousness.

There are certain things here that demand to be seen. The Attarine Medersa (Koranic School) of 1325, the adjacent Kairaouine mosque complex of 859AD and the zaouia (mausoleum) of Moulay Idriss II, founder of Fez and a revered figure more than a millennium after his death (peer inside at the Murano chandelier and the atmosphere of faintly dotty piety), to name but three, are examples of Islamic culture at its most venerable and splendid. Then, from the Batha Museum of artisan objets, an afternoon stroll takes you past the swarming Bab Bou Jeloud gate and into the Jnan Sbil gardens, recently reopened and a delicious respite from the city’s pressure-cooker heat.

But it could be argued that the true experience of Fez lies in the sensory onslaught of the city’s day-to-day life. The thing is to wander, having first found yourself a guide (so the other touts will leave you alone). Salesmen will throw themselves at you as soon as you set foot in the medina but there is nothing like a tailor-made tour from Fez-based New Zealand novelist Sandy McCutcheon, a contributor to The View from Fez blog (riadzany.blogspot.com), one of the most useful resources on the city, or his colleague Helen Ranger to give you the inside track on Fez, while showing you the best places to buy Berber rugs and the rest of Fez’s traditional crafts.

The city divides up, medievally, into trade-based neighbourhoods: metalworking, weaving, spices, woodwork, carpetmaking, and vibrant souks selling all manner of food. Shopping is a permanent pleasure; amid the chaotic retail universe is L’Art Bleu, a weavers’ workshop specialising in gorgeous silk-like fabrics made from the agave cactus, and Talisman Art Gallery, whose top-end Moroccan antiques, including superb Berber jewellery, are housed in a 14th-century mansion. If one should tire of the traditional stuff, Espace 14 gallery in the Ville Nouvelle stocks an interesting line in modern Moroccan painting, sculpture and design.

Fez has long been a specialist in leather goods and the tannery quarter is one of the city’s most infamous sights. Peer from a high terrace at the honeycomb of vats below in which animal skins are first cured in pigeon droppings and quicklime, then dyed in eye-popping natural pigments. Another aspect of Fez for which nothing can quite prepare you is the stench emanating from these vats: thank the person who thought to distribute the sprigs of mint you are given to wave under your nose.

The arrival of tourism, as McCutcheon puts it, was never likely substantially to alter the functioning of a city that still refers to a neighbourhood built in the 13th century as New Fez (Fes al-Jdid). Even so, there are changes in the air. A couple of world-class cultural festivals – the Sufi Festival in April and the World Sacred Music Festival in June – have raised the city’s profile without transgressing its religious convictions. And though nothing like on the scale of what’s happened in Marrakech, lounge bars and restaurants such as Mezzanine and Maison Blanche – a sleek locale of Parisian sophistication, celebrated for the modern Mediterranean cuisine of Thierry Enderlin – are cautiously making their presence felt.

Sure signs of change are the new people moving in. Mike Richardson, a former maitre d’ at London restaurants The Ivy and The Wolseley, pitched up here in 2007 to open Café Clock, an oasis of calm amid the mayhem of the medina. A townhouse patio down a dark alley, the Clock offers everything from ricotta pancakes and camel burgers to Gnaoua fusion music, movies and courses in the fine art of hand-rolling couscous.

Also hosting cultural events, Cecile Houizot-Nanot’s French-colonial-house-cum-café, Fes et Gestes, with its delectable garden, is one of the city’s best places for a long Moroccan lunch.

In terms of places to stay, the outlook is surprisingly good. Of the new generation of medina riads, one of the grandest is Riad Fès, which this summer opened a new patio complete with spa, hamman and pool, plus three junior suites to add to its 26 rooms, a wine bar and a gallery. Riad Fez Yamanda, though much smaller, is also a fine example of the classic riad, with a full complement of zellij tiling, carved wood and a restrainedly elegant design scheme. Palais Amani, around the corner from the copper-beaters of Seffarine Square, opened last year, applying a mutedly modern idiom to the rich Moorish melange.

Meanwhile, Riad Alkantara, another new property, is formed of five renovated houses around lush gardens and – a jewel-like rarity in the medieval medina – a huge swimming pool. I also loved Le Jardin des Biehn, a new maison d’hôtes created by antiques dealer and interior designer Michel Biehn and his wife Catherine. His playful sense of colour, and the oasis-like Andalusian garden at the heart of the house, make for a delightful place to stay – and there’s an excellent café too, with tables outside among the greenery.

A notable tendency, again on a reduced scale from Marrakech, is the riad that favours something altogether funkier. Two examples are the minimalist Dar 47, owned by Brits Emma and Michael Crane, and Riad Numéro 9, with an exquisite “retro Moorish” interior by Stephen di Renza and Bruno Ussel.

If anywhere is truly recommendable, however, it is Riad Laaroussa. Looking for a let-out from his career in high finance, Fred Sola found a 17th-century riad in a state of sad abandonment and set about creating an eight-room guesthouse in terms of 21st-century palatial luxe. From the vantage point of the riad’s many-levelled rooftop, the vastness of the medina sweeps away down the valley in turbulent, sand-coloured waves.

There are few more spine-tingling experiences in world travel, it seems to me, than sitting on Laaroussa’s terrace, sipping on a cold glass of fine Moroccan wine (hard to find in this devout Muslim city, but worth the effort) while the evening call to prayer echoes around the medieval minarets of Fes el-Bali.