The leather dyeing vats in the Fez medina
Fez is the cultural and spiritual heart of Morocco, its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Medina the world’s largest car-free urban area. The American writer and longtime Moroccan resident Paul Bowles called it “an enchanted labyrinth sheltered from time”. Today people live and work in its 9000 lanes in much the same way as they have for a thousand or so years. Donkeys remain the main form of transport. For a visitor this ancient city can seem inscrutable so it is important to find ways to connect with the locals in order to gain an insider’s view of this fascinating place.
On my first visit to Fez I had felt very much the tourist with an official guide leading me along a hackneyed path of historical highlights (such as the tomb of its founder, Moulay Iddriss II, the great, great, grandson of the prophet Mohammed) and shopping meccas where I’d bargained for leather, carpets and jewelry in government-approved shops.
Yet I was fascinated by this place of secrets, of veiled women and hooded men navigating narrow passageways that weave between high windowless walls. It was so radically different to Marrakesh, six hours drive to the south, which has become a sort of Sub-Saharan Costa Brava, with mega resorts and nightclubs fed by a constant stream of budget flights filled with sun-starved Europeans. Fez, on the other hand, followed a fervent daily rhythm in a time capsule, like a lost tribe in the middle of a maze, unaware that the rest of the world had moved into the 21st century.
It was time to take a different tack on my next visit.