WITH more than 9,500 alleyways, minaret-topped mosques and living historical souks, the 1,200-year-old Medina in the Moroccan city of Fez radiates energy from the past. The rhythmic hammer-music of cobblers, stone chisellers and copper workers bounces between buildings so tightly packed together it seems they were hewed from a single stone.
Visitors are sure to lose their bearings exploring this remarkable labyrinth. But getting lost in Fez is part of the experience — a road to discover a rug you have to have or a hole-in-the-wall pastry shop filled with exotic sweets. And with the World Heritage-listed city now bearing the fruits of a four-decade-long restoration program, Fez lives up to the hype of the best-preserved medieval city in the Arab world. Here are eight highlights.
Along with the restoration of public spaces, Fez Medina has seen many of its old riads — terrace-style mansions with inner courtyards — converted into small luxury hotels. The most decadent is Palais Amani, an art-deco palace that would make suitable lodgings for Aladdin himself.
Palais Amani has a rooftop terrace bar with 360-degree views, a library, salon, an a la carte restaurant and 14 suites with marble-clad bathrooms. Nearly every room in the hotel looks inward to the courtyard, a sunlit Garden of Eden replete with a star-shaped fountain, indigo mosaics and colourful flower beds.
The restoration took the owners, Australian-born Jemima Mann-Baha and her Moroccan husband Abdelali Baha, five years from start to finish and they’ve just celebrated their first five years in business. “If this had been a pure business venture we would have gutted the place and added twice as many rooms,” says Mann-Baha of the peculiar U-shaped suites.
“But the architects brief was to return the building to its original state. These tiles, these railing, the crossbeams, they’re all original.”
PALAIS DES MERINIDES
If Aladdin slept at Palais Amani he’s dined at Palais Des Merinides, a princely restaurant set inside a refurbished 14th-century mansion in the geographic heart of the Medina. Wrought-iron chandeliers hang from soaring 20m-high ceilings, while every single inch of wall space is covered with carved cedar wood panels, elaborate floral plasterwork or mosaics.
The food is equally gregarious. Moments after taking their seats, guests are served flatbread and 10 concurrent entrees — an array of marinated zucchini, rice with herbs, beans in garlic, sweet carrots, diced potatoes, Moroccan salad, olives, aubergine dip and another dip made from scolymus, a mountain herb akin to spinach.
But save space for your main. The house specialty is Meshwi — barbecued lamb with couscous — and there’s a small wine cellar too. “In the Medina, nearly all the restaurants don’t serve alcohol,” says Tayleb Lahlou, whose late grandfather opened the palace in 1969. “But our guests are welcome to enjoy traditional Moroccan wine. And we have beer as well.”
AU COIN BERBÈRE
It takes carpet weavers up to eight months to make one, but they last a lifetime. They are authentic Berbèr rugs — loop-pile carpets with brightly coloured designs that are distinct to the Berbèr ethnic minority of North Africa.
“Rugs are something I have in my blood. It is the thing I know better than anyone else in the Medina,” says Chez ‘Koko’ Saïd, a third-generation carpet merchant who holds court with his minions in a smoke-filled attic showroom called Au Coin Berbèr.
Over glasses of über-sweet mint tea, Koko shows customers examples of handwoven rugs from the furthest corners of the Kingdom of Morocco: a rug made of baby lamb wool that’s soft as felt, another made of cactus that’s resistant to both water and fire, hybrid Arabic-Berbèr rugs with knotted textures, and rugs embedded with the markings of some of Morocco’s 276 different tribes.
MERVEILLED DE CURE
Fez is famous for its leatherwork. Bags, belts, jackets, purses and poofs of the highest quality that can be picked up — if you bargain hard — for a fraction of the price they’d sell back home. See leather made from scratch at the Chouara — a massive open-air tannery where nothing has changed since the trade was introduced to Fez by Berbèr and Jewish tanners in the 14th century.
Using only their bare feet, leather workers pound the hides of goats, cows, sheep and camel in stone vats filled with lime, cow urine and pigeon poo — pungent compounds with high sulphuric acid content used to cure and soften hides. Afterwards skins are rinsed in hand-powered wooden washing machines and tinted using plant and natural mineral dyes.
“The best quality leather is goat. It is very light and washable,” says Abdel Hadi of Merveilled De Cure, a voluminous leather showroom occupying a dozen cave-like rooms in a terrace overlooking the Chouara.
La Plaza el-Nejjarine (Carpenters’ Square) is one of the Medina’s colourful public spaces, home to the stunning Nejjarine Fountain and a Carpenter’s Inn that had billeted travellers since the 18th century.
Today it’s home to the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts, a cultural icon featured in the world’s best-selling travel book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. With carved wooden arches and a four-storey atrium covered with decorative cedar panels, the Nejjarine Museum is the actualisation and a depository for some of the world’s finest woodwork.
Its treasures include wooden cots used by royalty, a collection of wooden chests from the 14th century, wooden thrones and pentagonal-shaped chandeliers. There’s a room displaying priceless wooden instruments — lutes, flutes, tablas and an original Stradivarius violin — and another room full of wooden parchments inlaid with tiny Arabic lettering.
Perched upon a precipice north of the Medina, Borj-Nord is the most prominent of the ten borjs (bastions) surrounding Fez. It was built in the 16th century by Saadian Sultan Ahmed El Mansour Addahbi using Portuguese slaves to defend the city against marauders.
Fittingly, in 2003 Borj-Nord was converted into a museum of arms that traces the history of warfare going back thousands of years. There are 750 items from 35 different countries on display: starting with prehistoric spearheads and moving on to remnants of the crusades: a 700-year-old six-foot long sword, ivory-handled daggers and entire suits of armour.
There is a rare mini-cannon decorated with gargoyles, a roomful of blunderbusses, rifles encrusted with jewels and some of the first automatic firearms ever made. Borj-Nord also offers the views of the Medina second to none — making in not only the old city but the new city to the west and rolling green hills that verge into mountains in the east.