Losing yourself in the bustling heart of Fez, Morocco

Deep inside the historic centre of Fez, you lose your sense of time. Not just the hours - it's hard to guess how long you've been wandering through the maze of loud and aromatic shops - but also the centuries. There are few indications in this old Moroccan city that life has changed much since it was founded in the 9th century or since it grew to about this size in the 13th century.

Carpets and other souvenirs for sale in the Medina of Fez. Picture: Michael Turtle

Carpets and other souvenirs for sale in the Medina of Fez. Picture: Michael Turtle

The Medina of Fez still has the madrasas, the fondouks, the mosques and the palaces that were built during the early years. It can sometimes be hard to notice them in the compact urban development but if you can find the right door and go inside, you'll know you have stepped back in time.

The entrance to the Bou Inania Madrasa, for example, is just a brass door in an alleyway of shops with an orange juice cart obscuring the entrance. But inside this historic religious school built in the 1300s is a beautiful courtyard decorated with colourful geometric tilework, carved plaster and lattice screens made from cedar.

Inside the Bou Inania Madrasa, a religious school from the 14th century.
Picture: Michael Turtle

Inside the Bou Inania Madrasa, a religious school from the 14th century. Picture: Michael Turtle

Built even earlier is the University of Al Quaraouiyine, which is said to be the oldest university in the world, having been founded in 859. It doesn't have elaborate decorations but the understated elegance has been focusing the minds of young students for centuries.

You can easily spend days exploring the historic sights - places like the roadside inn called the Fondouk el-Nejjarine, the summer palace of Dar Batha and the mausoleum for the founder of Fez, Moulay Idriss. But it's getting between them where the real energy of Fez lies.

So many of the streets within the ancient walled city are dedicated to the markets, or 'souks' as they're called in Morocco. They are selling food, of course, with weaved baskets of spices, tables with piles of fresh vegetables and nervously-clucking chickens in cages.

Workers make copper pots by hand in one of the souks of Fez. Picture: Michael Turtle

Workers make copper pots by hand in one of the souks of Fez. Picture: Michael Turtle

But there are also the traditional wares that are still being made the traditional way. In one small square, men sit on stools outside banging copper into place to make pots. I peek through a wooden door and see workers with large looms. And follow the little alleyways and you'll come across the infamous tanneries where the animal skins are treated in the open air.

Try to find any of these things intentionally and you may have no chance, though. It's not just your sense of time you lose in the Medina of Fez, it's also your sense of direction. The labyrinthine streets and alleys follow no pattern, having grown organically at a time when urban planning was not deemed significant. Signs are virtually non-existent and the GPS signal struggles to reach past the multi-level buildings into the narrow laneways.

The ornate gate of Bab Bou Jeloud, the main western entrance to the Fez Medina. Picture: Michael Turtle

The ornate gate of Bab Bou Jeloud, the main western entrance to the Fez Medina. Picture: Michael Turtle

Often I find that local people will warn me that the street ahead is closed and point me a different direction. They seem helpful but it doesn't take long until I realise they are just directing me towards their shops. I start to ignore them and usually just head down the street anyway and discover that it's open - a miracle! Except the time that I realise it is indeed closed and have to double back, red-faced, to the laughter of the man who had tried to help me.

You will get hassled by touts and vendors in Fez unfortunately and they can be quite persistent - although an air of confidence seems to be the best shield against them (I'm convinced these amateur psychologists can detect their easiest targets by the way we react). But this aside, I find Fez to be the most interesting of Morocco's cities.

It's easy to get lost in the maze of streets in the historic centre of Fez. Picture: Michael Turtle

It's easy to get lost in the maze of streets in the historic centre of Fez. Picture: Michael Turtle

Marrakech has become the most popular in recent years and I certainly love the vibrant colours of the city, the Islamic architecture, and the liveliness of its medina. But on my last visit to Marrakech, I felt as though everything was becoming a boutique hotel or a trendy café designed the way a tourist imagines Morocco should be.

Fez has resisted this temptation and, as a result, feels timeless. The carpets hanging from the racks in the street are similar to the ones that have always hung here. The old woman sitting with her table of boiled lollies may well have been sitting there for decades, as far as I know.

Outside the earthen walls of this old part of town, things seem more like you would expect from any city around the world. But when you're inside them - in the crooked alleyways with just glimpses of sunlight, smoke billowing up from stoves, the glow of lamps reaching out from stalls - you're in the Morocco that is more than just what you imagine it to be.

A view across the Fez Medina that is contained within old earthen walls. Picture: Michael Turtle

A view across the Fez Medina that is contained within old earthen walls. Picture: Michael Turtle

TRIP NOTES

You can fly from Australia to Morocco with just one stop in Doha, or use one of the many connections through Europe. A budget room in the Fez Medina is from about $20 a night and a 5 star is from about $140. A local meal is less than $5.

  • Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Read more about his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com
This story Losing yourself in the bustling heart of Fez first appeared on The Canberra Times.