The medina (walled city) in Fez, the oldest of the Moroccan imperial cities, is the best-preserved ancient locale in the Arab world.
Paul Bowles wrote about Fez in 1984 in a travel article; he thought Fez among the great cities of the world because there a medieval style of life was still functioning. He talked about a local industry which was based primarily on handmade goods. This still exists.
Fez’s fascinating twisting, sometimes dark, up-and-downhill lanes and alleys can be really confusing to newcomers. On our last visit a few years ago, its crowded casbah with narrow streets really flummoxed us. To solve the “where am I?” question, we bought a small Garmin GPS. Not only did it not work in the narrow passageways with no sky view, but Fred’s brandishing it brought unintended attention from a pick-pocket. I suspect the thief was quite surprised when he realized he had scored not a valuable cell phone, but a useless GPS.
This time was different. We found a great riad (B&B) inside the walls of the medina with nearby parking for our huge van. A little study of a pocket-sized city map, coupled with a half-day guided tour to feel out the main routes, made all the difference to our comfort level in wandering the medina. We were able to find exotic restaurants, as well as shops we could (this time) find a second time…not always easy to do.
One reason we liked Fez was the unusual absence of cars–even though the cries of “Balek, balek” (look out) usually meant a mule or some other animal heavily laden with goods was coming and we had to squeeze to the side. Because few roads extend within the city walls, it is the world’s largest car-free urban zone.
Fez has the most complex medina with more ancient monuments, mosques, Koranic schools, souks and riads than any other Moroccan city. Besides those, we saw weaving studios, watched pottery being made, went by wool and silk being dyed, smelled perfumed oils and spices, tasted strange fruits and figs, and listened to musical instruments.
Walking through the alleys off the main walking streets through children playing and neighbors gossiping, largely being ignored even though we were foreigners, we felt like we were really participating in the ancient city’s life.
The most unique and neatest sight to visit in Fez also had the most
unique and un-neatest smell–the tanneries. Watching the dozens of men tanning sheep skins by stomping on the skins in vats of vile-smelling liquid made us wonder if this were the most unhealthy occupation in the world. Still, we managed to score some colorful leather slippers (tarboush) which are now gracing our shop.
A favorite restaurant was one set up inside a building that housed a medieval “water clock” that kept time through water dripping from one box to another.
Apparently only the builder knew how it worked…so after he died…the clock ceased to work. It has now become a notable landmark for everyone…”Let’s meet at the water clock at 6.”
UNESCO designated the Fez medina as a World Heritage Site, and we know why. It is our favorite mysterious, Medieval city.