I thought I knew what to expect from Fes. A long-time fan of Marrakech I’d imagined somewhere equally magical but without the throng of tourists; a little quieter maybe, a touch less brash. But Morocco’s most beloved city is a very different entity; steeped in history, home to the world’s oldest university, the largest and best-preserved medina – a city of superlatives hidden away behind the Zalagh mountains.
It’s not a city for the fainthearted. The medina has over 9,000 alleyways and 350 different neighbourhoods; a slowly-unfolding rabbit warren of houses and mosques, stalls and shops that mesh together to create a mystifying tangle of streets. The only way to discover it is with a guide; I walked the city with Driss, peering into Koranic schools and mosques, sniffing spices and aromatic oils, and gazing down over the sea of rooftops from the Borj Sud, a fort perched high on the hill above the city. It’s a cliché, but the medina is a true assault on the senses; tiny shops stacked with hundreds of bejewelled shoes, donkeys stumbling past loaded with crates, live chickens in the meat market, squawking at passers-by.
But there is always a place to escape to. Fes may have only a fraction of the number of riads you can find in Marrakech, but there are some gorgeous places to stay. I holed up at Riad Fes and Palais Amani; both beautifully restored houses, with spacious roof terraces that lured me up before breakfast and just as the sun began to set, taking hundreds of pictures, trying to capture the city’s unique feel. And when I ventured out into the medina alone – challenging but fun – the sense of leaving the chaos behind as I stepped back through the riad door was wonderfully calming. Why anyone would stay in the Ville Nouvelle remains a mystery to me.
But the palm-lined streets and gleaming shop fronts of the Ville Nouvelle do offer a reassuring hit of 21st century life if the medina gets a little overwhelming. I took a taxi one night up to the Maison Blanc, currently the hippest restaurant in Fes, and it was as if I’d suddenly hopped a flight to Paris; sexy cocktails, sleek décor and the best sea-bass (stuffed with Moroccan spices and gently roasted) I’ve ever eaten. At night, the streets throng with couples and families taking an evening promenade, and it struck me as ironic that while most tourists want only to be in the medina, for many Fassi it is the Ville Nouvelle that draws them in.
Three nights in Fes was not long enough. I wanted to shop more, to drink mint tea in ramshackle cafes and listen to the muezzin call as the sun dropped below the rooftops. I wanted to laze by the chic new pool at the Riad Fes and get up early to go shopping in the food market with the chef at the Palais Amani. But these are the things I’ll do next time I’m in Fes. See? I’m planning my return already.
I thought I knew what to expect from Fes...!