Fez is "hoe" in Arabic, and legend says that it was with this golden tool that the walls were marked out which encircle the city-fortress, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. Being here is like going several centuries back in time.
This oldest of four historical capital cities of Morocco (the others being Rabat, Marrakesh and Meknes), it dozes in a fertile, green valley, surrounded by the desert uplands of Southern Rif and the rocky peaks of the Atlas Mountains. The city is an arcadia built in 789 by Idris I, founder of the Idrisid Dynasty, with which the remarkable history of Morocco is entwined.
The city is divided into three neighbourhoods. The most beautiful of these is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the medina Fez El Bali, situated on 300 hectares, surrounded by a tall wall that has been eroded by time. It's possible to immerse oneself for many hours in the maze of narrow alleyways, passing heavily-laden donkeys, observing the local life which has continued in a nearly unchanged rhythm for thousands of years. Among hundreds of mosques, medres, tombs of local saints and mausoleums of religious leaders, merchants of every possible kind have stalls with orange blossoms sold by the kilo, jewellery, fabrics, cones of spices, dried fruits and traditional leather Moroccan slippers known as babouches. The bravest visitors will be enticed by a journey to the Chouara Tannery, a place that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages. From the roof of a riad one can see stone vats filled with colourful liquids in which pieces of leather are dyed with natural substances: cow urine, henna, saffron and squid ink. On nearby roofs colourful pieces of leather are picturesquely laid out to dry, while in the distance loom the outlines of a mosque dating from 859 and the university, Al-Karawijjin, and one can hear a muezzin singing in the local dialect, calling the faithful to prayer five times a day.
The largest part of the medina is taken up by the "suk", an Arab bazaar, which is divided into quarters where one can see artisans working in miniature workshops, exactly like their great-grand-fathers hundreds of years ago. There’s no way anyone can feel bored here! In row after row of little shops we can find cosmetics, copper dishes, bags full of dried herbs and baskets of edible snails. You can hear the noises of beaten metal trays, pots and stone bowls. Above your head thousands of metres of colourful, freshly painted scarves and shawls flutter. It's also worth taking a look at stalls with ceramics and even buying a small tajine, a cone-shaped cooking vessel for preparing the delicious dish of the same name. In the evening, ending your visit here, one must climb up the hill to the tombs of the Marinids, from which stretches a gorgeous panorama of the city, and wait for the setting sun to bathe the medina's walls in gold.
THROUGH THE GATE
Next to the former defensive walls with huge gateways (of which it is best to enter through the Bab Bou Jeloud Gate, known as the Blue Gate or Bab al-Maruk, because of its cobalt tiles), the Marinid Dynasty built another palatial quarter full of priceless monuments - Fez Jdid, with file Mallah Jewish neighbourhood and the unique Ibn Danan Synagogue. It's worth seeing the royal palace, which can only be admired from the outside, hailed as one of the most wonderful secular buildings in Morocco. Romantics should wander into one of the courtyards of a riad - a traditional, richly ornamented Arab house, built on several levels around an interior courtyard, in order to sip some berber whisky - green tea with mint - in the cool shade. Mosques in Morocco can be visited only on the outside, which is why, in order to see some ornamental Moroccan art, it's worth going to the Koranic school Bou Inania Madrasa or Al-Attarine Madrasa. Intricate, open-work, wooden and stone ornamentation and the inner courtyard covered in decorative tiles accentuate the unique atmosphere that has remained unchanged for centuries.
The third neighbourhood, Ville Nouvelle - New Fez - full of calm streets, squares shaded by palm trees, green parks and modernist buildings, was built by the French at the beginning of the 20th century in accordance with European urban models. Buildings were designed in the fashion of the time, art deco, with elements of Moorish style. Venturing into the white alleyways, we reach true gems: an old cinema and fish market reminiscent of those in French cities centuries ago. Many bars and cafes have preserved the atmosphere and charm of the 1920s and 30s, bringing Paris to mind.
FLAVOURS IN THE KITCHEN
Moroccan cuisine relies heavily on spices, which give it its characteristic, unmistakable flavour. For centuries, African, Arab and French cuisine have had an influence on local dishes. The most recognisable spices are saffron and cumin, but the most flavourful dish is rasal-hanut, a mixture of garlic, ginger and coriander. Classic Moroccan dishes are mashwi - lamb spiced with saffron, garlic and paprika, baked in a clay oven, briouats - triangles of pastry with a filling of meat and fish, or with fruit and nuts, or sometimes rice, tajine - a kind of meat or fish goulash with olives and pickled lemon served in a dish with the same name, and harira - a thick, spicy soup with a mutton base containing lentils or chickpeas and tomatoes. A favourite addition to dishes is sharmula, a spicy paste made of blended ginger, chili, garlic, onion, leek, coriander and cumin. Gourmands can plunder desserts to their heart’s content and choose either pancakes with honey and butter (beghrir), a cake of crunchy dough served with honey (rgajf) or decide to try "gazelle's horns" (kab alghzal) - moon-shaped biscuits with almond or fruit filling.
Every year, at the beginning of summer, an international festival of sacred music takes place in Fez. One can hear Berber religious and traditional music that leads listeners into a mysterious trance, as well as sounds of Arab nations, holy hymns from India, sacred music of the Celts and Christian psalms. The concerts are accompanied by exhibitions, seminars and lectures.