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.
Luckily a new energy is palpable in Fez, as British and French (as well as a few Moroccans) renovate its exquisite riads into boutique hotels and offer artisanal, culinary and cultural tours to help visitors understand the intimate fabric of life in the world’s most enduring medieval Islamic settlement. They are just the last in a long line of Berbers, Andalusians, Jews, and Arabs who have come to call Fez home. While a few short years are but a blip on the Fez timeline, these newcomers celebrate its traditions and are helping adventurous souls peel away the layers of Fez culture, one hammam scrub at a time.
Cooking class in a local home
My guide Aisha picks me up at Dar Finn, painstakingly restored by Brits Beccie Eve and Paul O’Sullivan, who feel more like long-lost friends than guesthouse hosts, and we walk over to the home of Olya and Rasheed in the Rcif district and step through their heavy wooden doorway into a courtyard suffused with bird calls and the scent of orange blossoms.
I spend the morning with them taking a cooking class and learning about Moroccan family life. Olya, dressed in casual sweatpants, dons an emerald embroidered caftan and purple scarf and grabs a shopping basket to take us to her local market to pick up lamb and couscous, tomatoes, eggplants, garlic, cauliflower, and peppers. On our return, Olya’s mother Leyla shows me how to knead flour, water and yeast in a ceramic bowl to make the daily bread. We then caramelize onions and steam the lamb tagine with a kaleidoscope of spices before moving onto pastille, combining a fricassee of pigeon with chilies and cumin and layering it between thin layers of pastry dough. I trade stories with Olya about parenting as she breastfeeds her daughter while her mother whips up three delectable cooked vegetable salads.
Then, in a time-honored procession, Aisha and I follow local children to take the risen loaves of bread to the communal oven for baking. Every neighborhood in the medina has five essential institutions: an oven, hammam, water fountain, mosque and school and it is the children who do the bread runs so their mums don’t have to don their caftans and scarves twice more each day.
Sitting down to the family feast in the courtyard, they show me how to use the bread to scoop up the melt-in-your-mouth meat and vegetables, no other utensils required. Rasheed then prepares mint tea in a silver teapot and proudly shows me their wedding album, with Olya wearing seven elaborate outfits culminating in a magnificent white-silk caftan.
Souk tasting trail
My appetite whetted for more adventures, I meet the owners of Plan-it Fez, who organized my family cooking class, among their many culinary, artisanal and cultural tours. Australian Michele Reeves is married to a local Fassi and Gail Leonard is a Yorkshire lass who started her immersion in the exotic at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and lived in Berlin and Tokyo before moving to Fez five years ago.
“Life happens on the inside here and our goal is to give people access to that inner world. Food is the glue…it offers a fast route into Fassi life,” Gail explains as she guides me on a fabulous souk tasting trail. After learning about myriad dates and spices, and how halal butchers kill the chickens in cages outside their shops (“they cut their throats right, left, right so that they die looking towards Mecca”), we head to the honey souk located in a traditional fondouk workshop.
According to the Qur’an, the lord inspires bees to roam freely to eat as many flowers as possible so that their nectar is both delicious and has health giving properties. “This,” says Gail, “is very important in the Medina where faith is an essential ingredient of daily life.” We taste honey from orange blossom, thyme, lavender, fig, eucalyptus, and acacia and sample culinary Argan oil and salted, aged butter. Moving onto street food, we sit down with the locals to enjoy a bowl of b’sarra, dried fava-bean soup laced with garlic and olive oil, which I have to admit is more accessible than the steamed sheep’s head and stuffed camel spleen.
Hammam in the medina
At the end of the day, Aisha takes me to a local hammam deep inside the Medina.
Inside the third and hottest steam room, an attendant applies rhassoul, a fine mineral-rich clay mask enriched with Morocco’s famous restorative Argan oil, to my pink glowing skin, which she has just scrubbed with a zeal most Westerners would confine to dirty floors. There must be 50 voluptuous local women here with me, some with fussy toddlers, others accompanied by prepubescent girls whose curious eyes can’t help straying towards the scrawny stranger.
Sure, in Marrakesh’s fancy resort spas, there are rarified private hammams, all marble benches and tip-toeing staff catering to precious Western sensibilities. Here I’m washing…and sweating…in the midst of a convivial and noisy scene the way people have done for centuries, before homes had access to running water. Aisha is sudsing herself beside me before she sloshes a bucket of cold water over both of us. It is hotter than a pistol in here and we move to the outer steam room to start cooling off. In the communal changing rooms, the married women dress first in pretty underwear, Western clothes and, finally, caftans and head scarves and we all head out into a chilly November evening as the last call to prayer rings out from the local mosque.
The riad experience
Tonight I move to Riad Idrissy, painstakingly restored by English designer and chef Robert Johnstone, whose other passion is the Ruined Garden next door, where he creates private banquets of slow-cooked mechwi lamb as well as Roman and Sephardic Jewish feasts, each a tribute to his culinary anthropological research. He also offers lunch-time street food in the garden which “knocks off some of the rough edges” of what Gail has shown me in the markets. “Sometimes visitors, however adventurous, look like they’ve been caught in the headlights,” he laughs. “Walking around the Medina is such a visceral experience.”
An artisanal tour
Thoroughly fortified now, I join an Culture Vulture artisanal tour with Welsh resident artist Jessica Stephens. She started sourcing crafts for theater designers five years ago and fell in love with the city. “Nothing is false or polished here. You really feel like you are stepping into something very authentic. It is like walking through a living museum.”
We start in the Sbarine dyeing quarter, one of the oldest streets of the Medina, where we meet Mohammed, his hands permanently stained indigo, as carpet weavers and tailors bring their threads to be dyed here. Jess pays all the artisans for their time, to change the age-old hustling dynamic. Almost all the craftspeople we meet are called Mohammed, testament to the fact that crafts and spiritual life are intricately linked in Fez. There is Mohammed, the last bone worker on Comb Street, who fashions buttons and combs from sheep horns and Mohammed, a metal worker in the Seffarine Square copper-guild district, who is crafting a 100-chicken pot, the mellifluous beating of hammer on metal ringing through the air. And at the Nourredine family cactus-silk weaving cooperative, Mohammed tells us, as he clacks jewel-bright threads on his ancient loom, that he has no idea how long his family has been in this fondouk because their craft goes back too many generations.
We visit the leather souks above the Fez River where, mint leaves pressed to our noses, Jess explains the centuries-old process taking place below us. Men in dye-stained shorts spend their lives washing, kneading and coloring fetid goat, camel, sheep and cow hides in huge open-air vats to transform them into Fez’s famed butter-soft leather, which is dyed with the likes of henna (orange), indigo (blue), cedar wood (brown), poppy (red) and saffron (yellow). And the secret to its suppleness….well, it’s the extra soaking in pigeon poo, whose ammonia acts as a softening agent, and then kneading by bare feet.
Finally, Jess takes me to the Centre for Training and Qualification of Craft in Fez, set up by the King of Morocco’s Mohammed V Foundation. Here we watch young Moroccans learning ancient crafts such as carpet knotting, basket weaving, babouche making, and plaster engraving. And I buy gifts in the shop at fixed (and remarkably low) prices, knowing that all the money goes directly to the artisans.
I end my visit at Mike Richardson’s Café Clock, tucked in a 250-year-old former courtyard house behind the enigmatic 13th century water clock, whose mechanisms have been…rather appropriately…lost to time. With nfar trumpets used in Sufi music hanging from the ceiling and free Wi-Fi at its tables, Café Clock embodies the richness of Fez past and present.
“Music, art, faith, and craft are intrinsically linked within the Medina but often only within a familial environment”, says Mike. “I decided to create a fun and relaxed cultural cafe to meld the best of the best. Our ethos is that all can join in…..at the cooking school, jam sessions, lectures, live concerts and film screenings.”
And they do. The night I’m there, gnaoua musicians play to a rapt audience, half curious tourists, half locals. The young Fassi staff, their eyes bright with pride, dance with anyone who is keen. Everyone else is too busy eating Café Clock’s signature camel burgers which, I admit, go down a treat.
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