Considered the spiritual and cultural heart of the Kingdom, Fez has emerged as the essential Morocco city destination, writes Andrew Forbes.
Morocco almost touches Europe, yet it is tantalisingly exotic. Fez, the first capital of Morocco, and the oldest of the country’s imperial cities, epitomises the wonder of this north African country, where even the ordinary feels extraordinary. The city has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, with an ambitious renovation of its remarkable medina, the unveiling of new hotels, and the opening of contemporary restaurants.
Fez remains truly authentic, where contemporary daily life is still interwoven with age-old traditions. Founded by the Idrisid dynasty in the 8th and 9th centuries, Fez has grown to have three distinct city districts, which together offer an exceptional architectural and cultural legacy that makes for an enthralling visit.
The original medina, known as Old Fez (Fes el-Bali), is a Unesco World Heritage site, the epicentre of the Moroccan crafts industry and a bustling community where thousands live and work. The bazaars, souks and artisan workshops of the medina are the living history of Fez. Said to be the world’s largest car-free urban area, it can justifiably be described as labyrinthine. Exploring the busy lanes and alleyways is a sure-fire way to become disorientated. Yet that is the best way to become immersed in the magic of the old town, one of the oldest living medieval cities in the world. Although there are colour-coded signposted itineraries in the medina, highlighting routes that take in palaces, crafts workshops and hidden gardens,
the easiest way to navigate Old Fez is with a professional guide.
The Old Town attractions include the iconic Chaouwara Tanneries, dating back to the 11th century, and the imperial architecture of the historic madrasas and medersas. These religious colleges established Fez as a centre of science and spirituality, and are impressive for their beautifully designed tiles, restored cedar wood ceilings and carved stonework that is so evocative of Morocco.
Leaving the medina and passing through Jardin Jnan Sbil, the elegant, restored city park, also known as Bou Jeloud Gardens, one reaches Fes Jdid, the second city. Despite being called New Fez, it was in fact founded in the 13th century by the Marinid dynasty. Here, the Mellah, the walled Jewish quarter, is noticeably different to the secluded riads of the warren-like medina: the streets are lined with multistorey homes with large windows and carved wooden balconies facing outwards.
Ville Nouvelle, the contemporary commercial city of Fez built at the beginning of the 20th century by the French, is the third portion of Fez. This is where modern Morocco most visibly collides with the old – a place of contemporary bars, restaurants and boutiques. Here, European influences in architecture, cuisine and design fuse with African and Arab culture.
Served by direct flights from London, the new terminal at Fes-Saïss International Airport was inaugurated by King Mohammed VI last year. It is an investment that has increased the airport’s passenger capacity fivefold. This is a bold demonstration of Morocco’s confidence in Fez as an international destination, and an invitation for carriers to offer more direct flights. Last year, the city experienced a 25 per cent increase in visitor numbers, double the average for Morocco as a whole. June is one of the most popular months to visit, when the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, an international phenomenon of world music, art and cultural dialogue, is held at venues across the city. Autumn is also popular, when temperatures are more comfortable.
Discerning tourism has driven growth in stylish hotels in Fez. Once-abandoned riads – the traditional, palatial-style houses with cool, shaded courtyards – have been reimagined as chic and characterful guest houses and modest boutique hotels. There’s genuine luxury, too. The renowned Riad Fes, an upscale Relais & Châteaux hotel housed within a spectacular cluster of ancient buildings, is one of the finest hotels, with its beautiful patio courtyards and elegantly appointed guest suites. Its sister hotel is the contemporary, architect-designed Hotel Sahrai, built just outside the city walls in classic Fassi Moroccan style, with stunning interiors by Parisian designer Christophe Pillet. These properties are the epitome of modern style and splendour in this royal city.
They are complemented by an array of fine-dining restaurants in equally striking riads and historic palaces. Fassi cuisine is among the best in the country, comprising plenty of local specialities and snacks such as spiced pigeon meat wrapped in fine, flaky pastry, and tasty street food such as Maakouda – fried potato balls. However, expect more than traditional tagines and colourful couscous; Fez also offers some of the finest contemporary cuisine in Morocco. At the exclusive Restaurant Nur, chef Najat Kaanache brings to Fez her cutting-edge style, fine-tuned in Spain, transforming the exotic market-fresh ingredients of the local souks into a gastronomic tasting menu that changes daily.
Fez is undoubtedly a destination to watch. It is embracing change but defending its unique character, offering visitors a quintessential Moroccan experience in style.