Sunday supplement and glossy magazine features on Fès usually go overboard on the majesty and mystery of this ancient city. With fulsome superlatives, they bang on about its spectacular architecture, intriguing shopping and tasty food, and how Morocco’s one-time imperial capital (the French relocated it to Rabat in 1912) is an assault on the senses and is the real heart of the country.
All these things are true. But get past the Unesco heritage stuff and you’ll discover that its heart lies not in bricks and mortar, doorways and courtyards, but in the minutiae; in places like an unassuming tea house in the heart of the labyrinthine Medina. There’s no name or sign: it’s up a staircase opposite the crumbling, 18th-century fondouk of Sagha, where out-of-town merchants used to stay overnight and store their wares.
The tea house is tiny and the smell of fresh mint intoxicating. The friendly owner is always busy: lining up glasses, filling them with mint, adding strong tea and topping it up with hot water from a copper urn. If you want sugar – and all Moroccans do – it’s chiselled from huge rocks. Apart from a TV on the wall, little can have changed for a hundred years. Craftsmen, workers and traders come here when they finish work to relax and chat. It’s like the grungy, gorgeous bars you used to find in Barcelona or Granada 20 years ago (although there’s no alcohol here), before they were modernised or turned into retro chic.
Fès is the best-preserved medieval city in the Arab world: an exotic fantasy. The newer Ville Nouvelle houses most of the hotels, but the old town, Fès el-Bali, is the real draw, with Unesco World Heritage status. The Medina is a maze of streets – or, more accurately, alleys. Even the biggest is too narrow for cars, so everything is taken in and out on foot or by donkey. The 9,400 alleys bend this way and that, up and down, and it takes a while to find your way. Most books warn against going without a guide for fear of getting lost. In reality, the Medina slopes down to what’s left of a river in the centre, and most lanes lead to the Kairaouine mosque and the Kissaria market beside it, so navigating isn’t so hard.
But, for newbies, a guide can give you a good sense of the place. They can be arranged at a reasonable price through your hotel or the tourist office, and are best not picked up lurking at the entrance to the Medina unless you want to be dragged into shops in which you have no interest. With IDed official guides, you tell them your interests – carpets, pots, slippers or dried lizard to aid potency – and they’ll take you there, though there’s no guarantee you won’t be pressured to visit some of the other 80,000 shops. Thematic circuits have been charted across the Medina and marked with coloured signs that are fairly easy to follow, such as green (palaces and gardens), dark blue (monuments and souks) and red (traditional crafts).
There’s nowhere like the Medina to see traditional crafts in action. Carpentry and wood-carving are to be found near Bab Guissa and around the fondouk Nejjarine; skin and drum workshops in fondouk Tazi on Talaa Kabira; and metal and brass at Place Seffarine.
Most famous are the tanneries – well worth a bit of hassle and a tip or two. The biggest are the Chouwara tanneries: a honeycomb of vats with concoctions of different colours, in which skins are soaked as part of the leather-making process. It’s back-breaking, nauseous work. You can watch from the nasal safety of a nearby rooftop, but it’s best to take a deep breath and get a guide to take you for a closer look – after which you’ll appreciate the fragrant pleasure of a mint tea.
Fès’s most important architectural buildings are, tantalisingly, the religious ones at its heart, hidden from non-Muslim eyes. The Kairaouine mosque – founded in 857 and an exquisite complex with a beautifully tiled courtyard and green roof – set the pattern for Moroccan mosques. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but you get a decent view of the courtyard from a narrow lane on its northern side. The shrine and tomb of Moulay Idriss II, who made the city his capital, is also off-limits to non-Muslims, but visible from the streets of a clothes market that surrounds it. The architectural masterpieces that are accessible to non-Muslims are the fourteenth-century Merinid medersas (religious schools). The Bou Inania, by the food stalls on Talaa Kabira, the Attarin, next to the Kairaouine mosque, and the Sahrija, in the Andalucian quarter, with a restful pool in its courtyard, are also notable for their zellij (tilework) and wood-carving.
Food in Fès is a treat. Most of the riads in the Medina serve great meals, and tagines are a speciality. There are many eating places aimed at local people, with typical Moroccan food around Bab Boujeloud: the food at Le Kasbah (+212 535 74 15 33), close to the Bab Boujeloud gate, is pretty standard, but the terrace is glorious. Only upmarket places catering for tourists sell alcohol. A good option is the beautiful, if slightly formal, Dar Saada (21 Souk Attarine, +212 535 63 73 70) in the centre of the Medina.
Need to know
Where to stay
Owners Alaa from Iraq and Kate from Norway have achieved something different through a combination of painstaking, authentic restoration with judicious – and stylish – use of salvaged objects. Beautiful. 14 derb Sbaa Louyate, Seffarine, www.darseffarine.com (+212 671 11 35 28)
Where to Eat & drink
Established by Mike Richardson, a former maître d’ at The Ivy, this warm and inviting venue serves bold, eclectic food with influences from Morocco and beyond. You can even try creating some recipes yourself with its first cookbook: Clock Book, by Tara Stevens.
7 derb El-Magana, Talaa Kebira www.cafeclock.com (+212 535 63 78 55)
Fès et Gestes
A traditional medina house with a leafy courtyard garden, which makes a beautiful retreat from the scrum of the city. It’s also a lovely spot for a mint tea, coffee or fresh juice.
39 Arsat El Hamoumi, www.fes-et-gestes.ma (+212 535 63 85 32)
Following the bomb explosion in Marrakech on April 28 2011, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office does not advise against travel to Morocco, but says: ‘Travellers should take sensible precautions for their personal safety and avoid public gatherings and demonstrations’. www.fco.gov.uk