Travel Journal: Fés
A person's ability to enjoy Fés is directly correlated to their tolerance for getting lost. Like, profoundly lost. If you're quick to frustration when you can't find the thing you're looking for, or succumb to nerves when you no longer know which way to turn, this labyrinth of a city will frustrate you.
On the other hand, if you're intrigued by rounding a corner into the unknown, or thrill at the idea of aimlessly wandering for entire days, you could very well fall in love. Like, deeply in love.
This is an ancient city, of course. No news there. But being inside the lanes of the old walled city, Fés el Bali, is the rarest kind of glimpse at medieval urban life. Despite the satellite dishes perched on roofs and the power lines snaking along the crumbling brick and plaster walls, the rhythms of life here are closer to those of the Middle Ages than they might be in any other city on earth. And while the city's age sometimes shows in buildings being propped up by jumbles of support beams, in other cases, it is illustrated in sublime artistry, the likes of which can no longer be replicated.
The 9,500 lanes of Fés el Bali simply don't accommodate modern traffic—they are too narrow, too winding, too steep. Donkeys and hand carts bring in everything that's needed, from propane tanks to artichokes. Street cats lounge in the sunbeams of medersas (Islamic schools), slink along rooflines and dart under market tables in search of scraps.
Fés is the center of artistic traditions in Morocco. As home to the oldest degree-granting university in the world and a number of renowned medersas, it's also the chief academic center. But then, it's also the spiritual heart of the country, and its Al-Quaraouiyine mosque is the holiest in the country, and one of the largest on the African continent. Little wonder that Fassis are a particularly proud people.
The human touch is everywhere here—almost everything you see and touch has been conjured into existence by hand, using generations-old skills. Craftsmen inhabit tiny spaces, toiling away on one specific art form. A narrow, fluorescent-lit room might be the workshop of a man who makes silver-and-gold-embroidered saddles quite literally fit for royalty, while a squat cubby of a space holds the all supplies and tools another man needs as one of the country's last makers of traditional wooden hammam buckets.
Part of the enjoyment of getting lost (over and over and over) in Fés lies in the sensory gifts it gives you. You could be walking down a dusty, featureless lane and wander into a cloud of orange blossom perfume that's spilling over the walls of someone's courtyard, or into a fog of baking bread smells emanating from the neighborhood oven. Intricate tile patterns pop up in the most nondescript corners, and seemingly every door boasts some highly photogenic detail. Muezzins of varying vocal talents call five times a day from mosques you can't see as well as those that bowl you over with their exuberant exteriors of carved plaster and wrought metal window grilles.
If you can avoid a visit to Fés' tanneries, your wiliness is going to be the stuff of international legend. Small armies of tour hawkers stationed across the city will charm, cajole or simply bamboozle you into one of the traditional leatherwork centers. Touristy though it is, it's also fascinating. But put on your haggling cap because you will be steered into a shop at the end of your tour. If you can, avoid going until after you've had a chance to price out the leather goods you like best at a variety of stalls in the souks.
The souks hold virtually everything you could dream of buying, divided into different sections that sprawl through the center of the medina. Shop for shoes, caftans, jewelry or simply wander through on the hunt for a bite to eat or an arresting scene to photograph.
Above all, the best thing you can do in Fés is to simply be out in it—even, and perhaps especially, if you get lost. Threaten to exhaust your Fitbit with tens of thousands of steps. Exchange friendly words and smiles with vendors who ask where you're from or offer you glossy olives.
And when you can't find your way home, ask a local who might well go out of their way to help you back (just offer them a few dirhams for their trouble).
Where to Stay in Fés
Morocco will truly ruin you on hotels forever, I'm sorry to tell you. One of the greatest culprits in raising my standards to untenable new heights was our home in Fés, Riad Dar Bensouda. With its soaring columns, intricate mashrabiya (carved wooden screens) and gebs (incised plasterwork) and zellij (tilework), the grandeur of the place is undeniable. But so too is its serenity—it is quiet, elegantly decorated and always perfumed with the scent of orange blossoms. It was once the home of Bensouda, a prominent imam who was later recognized as a saint, and whose tomb is next door to the riad. It's impossible not to feel a bit reverent the moment you walk in the doors.
The riad was painstakingly restored by Abdellatif Aït Ben Abdallah, who has undertaken the restoration of a number of riads in Marrakech as well. On site, you'll find a lovely restaurant, a dip pool set in a tranquil courtyard and a full service hammam.
The staff are wonderful people and will help with anything you need—including providing an guide who'll lead you to any restaurant you want to visit after dark (when navigating the medina becomes even more challenging).
The rooms are as breathtaking as the common areas, featuring fine zellij and carved wooden ceilings, as well as comfortable beds and understated furnishings. We lucked out in getting a two-level room, with the bathing suite ("bathroom" doesn't quite cut it) up a curving stairway done in tadelakt, Morocco's irresistibly tactile method of polished plaster. Double sinks and a huge open shower made it wonderfully spacious, but the lantern-lit lounging area and mashrabiya-covered window peeking out to the courtyard made it feel almost too luxurious to consider leaving.
Where to Eat in Fés
The Ruined Garden has charm enough to knock you back on your heels and a menu filled with Moroccan cuisine that rides the line between tradition and modernity. There's an emphasis on fresh, local produce, including what's harvested from the namesake garden. We visited in February, and the toasty fires in the indoor seating area as well as the open garden kept us warm while notching up the romance factor. Even if you think you've had enough couscous for a lifetime, it's worth placing another order for it here—just be sure to leave room for a dessert, like the chocolate-espresso mousse with Ras el Hanout (a kaleidoscopic spice blend that brings out all the nuanced notes from the chocolate and coffee). And do not—I repeat do not—miss out on the date-orange blossom milk, which is the elixir of the gods.
Another favorite, Restaurant Dar Tajine, is the restaurant run by the Moroccan family you never knew you had. The welcome feels like a homecoming, and the seemingly endless parade of salads that comes out before your mains will feel familiar to anyone with a grandma who expresses love through food. We were served 14 salads—all vegetarian—on our first visit, and we couldn't stop eating until they were gone. Mains (including chicken and prune tajine and a variety of brochettes) and complimentary cookies were every bit as delicious as the starters, if a bit harder to finish.
Of course, should you have trouble finding a particular restaurant, you can head to the souks. There you'll find bread, dates, olives and sweets (always) and, especially around lunchtime, the delicious-though-vaguely-named "snack." Look for vendors grilling meats of all kinds, mixing them together and stuffing them into bread, along with herbs and sauces—and even an egg. If your French is rusty, this is a point-and-nod affair, but the beauty is that you can't really go wrong when everything looks so right. It's filling, cheap and, crucially, portable—the perfect fuel to keep you going as you enjoy getting lost in the heart of Fés.