The journey begins at a city gate, Bab Bou Jeloud, the symbolic blue of Fez from the outside (pictured above), and green, the colour of Islam, on the inside (below). It is a very new addition to Fez, built by the French protectorate.
Walking under the beautiful Bab Bou Jeloud into the winding narrow lanes of the medina of Old Fez (Fès el-Bali), one can feel the light tingle of mystery and taste the sweetness of magic in the air. Though it is the largest car-free urban space in the world, it quickly becomes hot and close, with high walls on either side and covered bazaars in the middle of the road, and small alleys snaking off into new mazes of discovery at every turn. This ancient walled city is more than one thousand years old and walking through it you can see the footprint of time everywhere.
The centuries collide as a shop seller leans out from his doorway, surrounded by plastic storage bins and toilet bowl cleaners, intricate glass lanterns, cheap silver-plated tea pots, tiny handle-less drinking glasses, beautiful hand-woven carpets, hammered copper plates, mirror mosaic candle holders, muslin bags of spices as high as his knees – and he pulls himself neatly into the doorway, mobile phone at his ear, as a heavily-laden donkey comes charging through, bags of large stones hanging from his sides, head down and determined to pass over the dirt path despite the small world of people in the way.
But the people understand his message and squeeze up against each other in the shop entrances, watching the donkey pass, swift and steady, a young, darkly tanned man with black hair jogging behind, holding up a stick and making a melodic lulling noise to the donkey, who doesn’t seem to need any encouragement.
The medina is a treasure trove. The walls on either side are crumbling, the color of white-wash with a millennium of dust on top, but still look impossible to penetrate. Inside the walls you pass no windows on the ground floor, only unassuming wooden doors, once painted bright colors but those too have faded with time into a dull, dark tone. Every now and then, though, a door will be open, and the treasure behind the walls glitters from within – a riad, its garden right there in the center of the house, green palms among lemon trees, a tinkling fountain on the marble floor, gorgeous mosaics on the walls, an open or glass ceiling in the centre of the rooftop terrace.
Along the upper story of this lane (pictured below) on the right side you can still see the modesty windows with rust-red cages, where women could look out into the action of the medina without being seen. Today this path is calm enough for sunbathing, as demonstrated by the resting cats.
The medina also has spectacular fountains awaiting the bold adventurers who dare to stray from either of the main paths through the walled city, hidden at blind turns and dead ends, though usually near a mosque, so just look around a minaret if you want to find one.
Though if your interest is more in doors, there are also plenty of beautiful examples of those throughout the maze.
One of the many treasures of the medina, and perhaps the easiest to find, is the ancient Kairaouine mosque and university, the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, established in 859 by a Tunisian refugee, a woman named Fatima el-Fihria. Unfortunately it is not open to non-Muslims, though the tourists do crowd around the entrance ways and if you wait long enough, you will eventually get to the front of the cameras and get a decent peak of the inner courtyard.
There is also an opportunity to look in through a few other doorways that are less known. Here I was allowed to stand in the door frame and admire the exquisite detail of an entrance hall to the mosque.
The medersa Bou Inania is also easy to find and quite close to Bab Bou Jeloud. It also qualifies as ancient, being completed in 1357 and recently restored. The medersa welcomes anyone who wishes to see it and pay the nominal fee, excepting during prayer.
For something quite different from education and religion, you only have to follow your nose to the Chaouwara tanneries. Here we were assaulted in the most friendly way possible to buy leather goods of all kinds: jackets, poufs, sandals, wallets, handbags, key holders, belts, book covers, shoes, and anything else that could be made from leather. The sales pitch is well worth the trouble though, as it gave us a vantage point on a rickety balcony overlooking the tanning pits. We got away with a beautiful camel skin pouf and a small tip to our educator, who explained what the tanners were doing and the process involved in start to finish production.
The medina also has a water clock from the 14th century. It is missing the brass bowls that used to collect water that flowed between them to mark the time. When the clock maker died, the clock fell into disrepair and the secret of its mechanism died too. But the mystery lives on, above the flow of heads through the winding lanes.