The oldest of Morocco’s four imperial capitals and the most complete medieval city of the Arab world, FEZ stimulates all the senses: a barrage of haunting and beautiful sounds, infinite visual details and unfiltered odours. It has the French-built Ville Nouvelle of other Moroccan cities – familiar and contemporary in looks and urban life – but a quarter or so of Fez’s one-million-plus inhabitants continue to live in the extraordinary Medina-city of Fez el Bali, which owes little to the West besides electricity and tourists. More than any other city in Morocco, the old town seems suspended in time somewhere between the Middle Ages and the modern world.
Like much of “traditional” Morocco, Fez was “saved” then recreated by the French, under the auspices of General Lyautey, the Protectorate’s first Resident-General. Lyautey took the philanthropic and startling move of declaring the city a historical monument; philanthropic because he certainly saved Fez el Bali from destruction (albeit from less benevolent Frenchmen), and startling because until then Moroccans were under the impression that Fez was still a living city – the imperial capital of the Moroccan empire rather than a preservable part of the nation’s heritage. More conveniently for the French, this paternalistic protection helped to disguise the dismantling of the old culture. By building a new European city nearby – the Ville Nouvelle, now the city’s business and commercial centre – then transferring Fez’s economic and political functions to Rabat and the west coast, Lyautey ensured the city’s eclipse along with its protection.
To appreciate the significance of this demise, you only have to look at the Arab chronicles or old histories of Morocco – in every one, Fez takes centre stage. The city had dominated Moroccan trade, culture and religious life – and usually its politics, too – since the end of the tenth century. It was closely and symbolically linked with the birth of an “Arabic” Moroccan state due to their mutual foundation by Moulay Idriss I, and was regarded as one of the holiest cities of the Islamic world after Mecca and Medina. Medieval European travellers described it with a mixture of awe and respect, as a “citadel of fanaticism” yet the most advanced seat of learning in mathematics, philosophy and medicine.
The decline of the city’s political position notwithstanding, Fassis – the people of Fez – continue to head most government ministries and have a reputation throughout Morocco as successful and sophisticated. What is undeniable is that they have the most developed Moroccan city culture, with an intellectual tradition and their own cuisine, dress and way of life.
When the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss I, died in 791 AD, Fez was little more than a village on the east bank of the Oued Boukhrareb. It was his son, Idriss II, who really began the city’s development, at the beginning of the ninth century, by making it his capital and allowing in refugees from Andalusian Cordoba and from Kairouan in Tunisia – at the time, the two most important cities of western Islam. The impact of these refugees on Fez was immediate and lasting: they established separate, walled towns on either riverbank (still distinct quarters today), and provided the superior craftsmanship and mercantile experience for Fez’s industrial and commercial growth. It was at this time, too, that the city gained its intellectual reputation – the tenth-century Pope Sylvester II studied here at the Kairaouine University, technically the world’s first, where he is said to have learned the Arabic mathematics that he introduced to Europe.
The seat of government – and impetus of patronage – shifted south to Marrakesh under the Berber dynasties of the Almoravids (1062–1145) and Almohads (1145–1248). But with the conquest of Fez by the Merenids in 1248, and their subsequent consolidation of power across Morocco, the city regained its pre-eminence and moved into something of a “golden age”. Alongside the old Medina, the Merenids built a massive royal city – Fez el Jedid or New Fez – which reflected both the wealth and confidence of their rule. Continued expansion, once again facilitated by an influx of refugees, this time from the Spanish reconquest of Andalusia, helped to establish the city’s reputation as “the Baghdad of the West”.
After the fall of the Merenids, Fez became more isolated under the Saadians and Alaouites, and French colonial rule allowed the city little more than a provincial existence. Despite the crucial role the Fassis played in the struggle for independence (a time brought to life in Paul Bowles’ novel The Spider’s House), Mohammed V retained the French capital of Rabat, condemning the city to further decline. If UNESCO had not inscribed it onto their World Heritage list in 1981, it seems likely that much of the old city would have been threatened by extensive physical collapse.Read More
Wandering the lanes of Fez el Bali, you’ll notice whisps of steam swirling around metal cauldrons and carrying with them the tempting aroma of bisara, a thick fava-bean soup; vendors (try those near the start of Talâa Kebira) usually top it with a glug of local olive oil and a sprinkle of cumin. Braver souls may like to tackle the snail stands on the corner of Talâa Seghira and Derb el Horra, where safety pins constitute the cutlery – they’re used for plucking the little critters out of their softened shells. Another street snack worth trying is jben, an acidic white goat’s cheese that’s only vaguely removed from yoghurt; the stall on the corner of Talâa Seghira and Sidi Mohammed Belhaj proudly displays theirs stacked on dark green leaves.
Food fit for a king?
Food fit for a king?
Several of Fez’s finest old mansions have been converted into palace restaurants, popular places, particularly with tour groups, for sampling (relatively) traditional cuisine in sublime surroundings. Some really do provide a Fassi banquet, but you’ll need to choose your “palace” carefully – the more elaborate the decor, the less, it seems, the need to worry about the quality of the cooking, and some menus are positively bland in comparison. The belly-dancing floor shows, musicians and, on occasion, staged “marriages” aren’t to everyone’s taste, especially when you’re paying a substantial surcharge for the privilege, but the whole package (usually around 300dh per person) can make for an entertaining evening
Al Firdaous 10 Derb Zenjifor, near Bab Guissa t 0535 634343. A rich merchant’s house of the 1920s is the setting for darkly atmospheric meals – there’s a choice of several five-course set menus, including pastilla made the original Fassi way, with pigeon (from 310dh, though the pastilla option will set you back 540dh) – and music and a floorshow (featuring mock weddings, fire dancing and belly-dancing) in the evenings. Daily noon–3.30pm & 8–11.30pm.
Laanibra 61 Aïn Lakhail, signed off Zkak Rouah t 0535 741009. A wonderful seventeenth-century palace that’s home to a friendly restaurant, serving a la carte dishes and a choice of menus (from 250dh). More intimate than the grander Palais des Merinides nearby, whose beautifully restored palatial interior is let done by the food on offer. Daily noon–4pm.
Palais Tijani 51–53 Derb Ben Chekroune, east of the Sidi Ahmed Tijani mosque t 0535 741071, e [email protected] Less grandiose than the other palace-style eateries and without the floor show, but better value for money – the range of ten menus starts at 130dh. The emphasis here is on the food (“Fez seen through its cuisine”), and the diners are as likely to be Moroccan as foreign. Daily noon–4pm.
It’s never going to be easy to replicate the rich and resounding flavours of Fassi cuisine in your kitchen back home, but knowing the right blend of spices to put into your tajine will make a real difference to your cooking, while whipping up a sweet pastilla pie should wow even the most discerning of dinner-party guests. Most cookery classes focus on a three-course menu and start with a visit to one of the Medina souks to pick up the necessary (fresh) ingredients. Some, such as Plan-It Fez, also include bread-making and the opportunity to bake your creation in a local farine (oven). Full-day cookery classes cost around 500dh to 600dh.
Clock Kitchen t 0535 637855, w cafeclock.com/clock-kitchen. The cookery school from the team at Café Clock. Learn how to make the classics in their cookery workshop, brush up your pastry skills on a patisserie day course or have a go at making and baking traditional bread.
Lahcen Beqqi t 0615 866144, w fescooking.com. Fez’s original cookery school, run by the amicable Lahcen, a former restaurant chef with intimate knowledge of Berber cooking and Fassi cuisine. Whip up a tajine using produce from your visit to the souks, or head into the Middle Atlas to try your hand at a mechoui BBQ in the cedar forests around Azrou.
Plan-It Fez t 0535 638708, w plan-it-fez.com. Moroccan cookery classes with a twist, held in a Fassi home where you can discover the secrets of a good marinade and learn to cook traditional tajines before tucking in with your hosts.
Hammam a good time
Hammam a good time
With a reputed 250 hammams sprinkled across the city, Fez is one of the best places in Morocco to join the locals in a long, relaxing hot bath, with a rigorous scrub-down thrown in for good measure. If you’re unfamiliar with the routine, it is best, especially for women, to ask someone at your hotel to escort you. Don’t forget to take your towel, soap, shampoo (or ghasoul, the fine-mud alternative) and swimsuit (or change of underwear). Several upscale riads have their own hammams and spas, which are more luxurious and less daunting, but also much pricer and, at the end of the day, not quite the same experience.
Hammam Aïn Azleten Talâa Kebira. In a convenient location between the Medersa Bou Inania and the fondouks on Talâa Kebira, Ain Azleten is one of the cleanest hammams in Fez; a scrub costs just 15dh. Men 6am–12.30pm & 9pm–midnight, women 12.30pm–midnight.
Hammam Sidi Azouz Talâa Seghira, opposite Hôtel Lamrani. Open later than most of the hammams In the Medina, and charging just 10dh (30dh for a massage). Men 6am–1pm & 10pm–2am, women 1–10pm.
Maison Bleue Spa and Hammam Riad Maison Bleue, 33 Derb el Miter, across the Aïn Azleten car park north of Talâa Kebira t 0535 741873, w maisonbleue.com. You know you’re in for a treat when the list of therapies includes a “Thousand Senses” steam bath and an orange-blossom massage. Hammam 400dh, treatments from 800dh.
Nausikaa Spa Av Bahnini, Route Aïn Smen t 0535 610006, w nausikaaspa.com. Marble-clad modern spa in the southern Ville Nouvelle, centred round a hammam, steam rooms and sauna, and offering massages, reflexology and various other treatments.
Spa Laaroussa Fes Riad Laaroussa, 3 Derb Bechara, off Talâa Seghira t 0674 187639, w spalaaroussafez.com. Detox amid the sublime surroundings of a sympathetically restored seventeenth-century bathhouse. Try a hammam and aromatic body scrub followed by a massage with essential oils (both 45min; 330dh).
Putting the Fez in Festivals
Putting the Fez in Festivals
Fez is home to several important festivals and moussems, ranging from annual pilgrimages to week-long celebrations of Fassi cuisine. The focal point of the cultural calendar, though, is the nine-day-long Festival of World Sacred Music, a highly regarded gathering of global musicians that has produced spin-offs in the UK and North America.
Festival of World Sacred Music Since 1994, Fez has hosted the Festival of World Sacred Music (t 0535 740535, w fesfestival.com) each June, which has developed into the country’s most interesting and inspiring cultural festival. Recent years have seen Sufi chanters from Azerbaijan, kathak dancers from India, a Javanese gamelan and a Byzantine choir from Greece. Concerts take place throughout the Medina and in the Ville Nouvelle: at the Musée Batha; by Bab Boujeloud and Bab Makina; at the Institut Français; and sometimes further afield, such as amid the ruins of Volubilis.
Fez Festival of Sufi Culture The Fez Festival of Sufi Culture (w festivalculturesoufie.com) is usually held over a week in April and comprises a number of performances that take place each night in the courtyard of the Musée Batha (organized discussions are held during the day); it’s a rare opportunity to experience the music of the world’s most renowned Sufi musicians and vocalists.
Moussem of Moulay Idriss II The largest moussem held inside a major city, the Moussem of Moulay Idriss II takes place in Fez each September and involves a long procession to the saint’s tomb. The Medina is packed out, however, and you will have a better view from Place Batha or Place Boujeloud, before the procession enters the Medina proper.
Taking the waters of Moulay Yacoub
Taking the waters of Moulay Yacoub
A pleasant day-trip for a swim and a hot bath, the spa village of Moulay Yacoub, 21km northwest of Fez, has been offering cures for the afflicted for centuries. Legend relates that the village was named either after Sultan Moulay Yacoub Ben Mansour – cured after his first bath, they say – or from the corruption of Aquae Juba, the spring of a local Berber king, Juba, who was envious of Roman hot baths. Either way, the hillside village’s fame is founded on its sulphur-rich spa waters, which are pumped from some 1500m below ground and reach temperatures of around 54˚C. Cars and taxis park at the top of the village, leaving you to descend flights of steps past stalls whose bathing goods add a chirpy resort atmosphere; the swimming pool (daily 6am–10pm; separate areas for men and women; 8dh) is near a square halfway down the hill.
Old thermal baths
The old thermal baths (baignoires or anciennes thermes) are a short walk beyond the swimming pool, and have a more medicinal purpose – albeit fairly basic to Western eyes. They’re usually busy, but you can enjoy a hot bath on your own (baignoire individuelle) or with a friend. Massage and jacuzzi are also available, while the masseurs in the thermal baths can put you through your paces with a hammam-style scrub. Beware that both facilities – baths and pool – are only cleaned once a week on Monday evening, so you’re probably best not swimming that afternoon.
Thermes de Moulay Yacoub
Much more upmarket than the old thermal baths, the Thermes de Moulay Yacoub is a spa for serious medical treatment – mostly rheumatism and respiratory problems – and serious self-indulgence that is as exclusive as it gets in Morocco. Not surprisingly, prices rise accordingly, though they do include a bathrobe and towel. The main reason to come, however, is that the main pool is mixed – a rare chance for couples to bathe together.
Staying in Fez used to mean either comfort (and a reliable water supply) in modern Ville Nouvelle hotels or roughing it in the Medina hotels of Fez el Bali and Fez el Jedid. No longer. While the majority of hotels in Fez el Bali are still basic pensions, most of which could do with a makeover and better plumbing, the rise and rise of Fez’s riad scene means that there is plenty of class and character in renovated old-city palaces, if you are prepared to pay for it – though most riads have one smaller room available to suit restricted budgets. The group of backpacker hostels around Bab Boujeloud, though, remain an ideal launchpad from which to explore the old city’s sights and souks. As an alternative, the places in Fez el Jedid are within a 15min walk of Fez el Bali and less frequented by tourists (and hustlers). Space is at a premium in all categories, so be prepared for higher prices than usual and reserve in advance if possible.
Fez is the culinary capital of Morocco, and you should try pastilla, the great Fassi delicacy of pigeon pie, at least once during your stay. Eating options in Fez el Bali and Fez el Jedid have improved greatly in recent years, though outside the riads and the smarter palace-restaurants, they are generally on the basic side; this is a good place, though, to try street-stall snacks such as bisara soup, while the colourful fruit and veg market near Bab er R’cif (9am–1pm & 2–7pm; closed Fri) is worth a visit for its mounds of olives, dates and other nibbles. The Ville Nouvelle is home to most of Fez’s patisseries and modern (licensed) restaurants, and if you want to talk with Fassis on any basis other than guide or tout to tourist, your best chance will be in its numerous modern cafés – as the home of the city’s university, it’s also more likely that the students you meet here will be exactly that.
Fez has a rightful reputation as the centre of Moroccan traditional crafts, but bear in mind that it also sees more tourists than almost anywhere bar Marrakesh. However much you bargain, rugs and carpets will probably be cheaper in Meknes, Azrou or Midelt, and although the brass, leather and cloth here are the best you’ll find, you will need plenty of energy, a good sense of humour and a lot of patience to get them at a reasonable price. Fassi dealers are expert hagglers – making you feel like an idiot for suggesting a ludicrously low price, jumping up out of their seats as if to push you out of the shop, or lulling you with mint tea and elaborate displays.