Fez, the capital of medieval Morocco, the world’s largest pedestrian zone, a city of sights, sounds, smells and a city somehow outside of time…
People often think that living in Provence is about living in Provence. While to some extent that’s true, one of the greatest things about being here is it’s very close to a lot of other places I’d like to see. This week, my son and I spent three days in Fez. Dropping the temptation to spend a day in a cab visiting the beautiful Roman ruins of Volubilis (next trip!), we decided to lose ourselves in the over 9,000 streets and alleys of the Old City, the Medina.
Construction of Medina began in the 9th century, under the Idrissids, the first muslim rulers of what is now Morocco. It was a settlement over the Fez River, in a deep valley, and keeps the hills and gulleys that characterized the landscape before it was built. They began by digging a network of tunnels over eight feet in diameter to ensure drainage. The tunnels still work today. Over the centuries, Fez has grown and prospered, living today, partially at least, on some of the same industries it boasted in the middle ages: tanneries, carpet knotting and weaving and copper pots. I confess you may meet a few tourists too, but in January, there will certainly be more locals and good bargains. The city is also home to the oldest university in the world: al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 A.D., and still an institution of higher learning for muslim scholars today.
My son and I thought we would see the city on our own, a naïve idea quickly corrected by our hotel manager. We spent five and a half hours our first day with Azzedine, an expert on the Medina and a PhD in American and English literature. His fluency in Arabic, Berber, French, English, German and Spanish humbled both of us, and we settled down to quizzing him on the history of the Medina, traditional muslim faith, modern moderate muslims and a host of other issues. The afternoon will not soon be forgotten. On the way, we ate the best kefta we’ve ever had, drank several mint teas, visited a medieval tannery (and its leather shops), and thought up a half dozen story plots of intrigue in medieval and modern Fez. The next day, armed with our nascent knowledge of the town, we struck out on our own and continued the discovery, hitting pay dirt mid afternoon as we stumbled on a carpet store/antique shop inside an ancient palace sprawling across several buildings and at least four floors.
After two and half days, we cannot say we know Fez, but will certainly claim to have scratched beneath the surface, and are ready to fly Ryanair back again at the next opportunity. Oh, and by the way, if you’ve ever wondered what donkeys are for, wonder no more. The Medina could not get by without them, a ubiquitous means of carrying everything that needs moving in and around the old town.