A tour of the ancient city of Fes tries to find the best riads and restaurants in the medina:
The oud player had been strumming for almost an hour in the cool, modernist dining room of the Riad Fès before I noticed what he was doing. My slowness might have been due to the barley soup, quail pastry, lamb shank and other delicious dishes that had emerged from the kitchen. I might have blamed it on the deceptive character of gris, a wine as pale as water but packing a punch. It might even have been exhaustion after a long day in the souk and the hammam. Whatever the reason, I was only half listening as the man in the cream djellaba plucked his lute. I thought he was simply strumming the same strings, caught in his groove. Then I realized that with every riff, he changed the tune, his music winding its way hypnotically through the evening.
The medina of Fez, like the music of the oud, is all about repetitions, with progress achieved through a gentle shifting of pattern, a fresh combination, a new note. Fez is still the most intact, least modernized medina in the Arab world and one of the largest car-free urban spaces on the planet, but it’s changing. Sixty years ago, the writer Paul Bowles met people here who had never seen a car. That’s not to say there were no cars in Fez, but they were in the Ville Nouvelle, the new town that sits above the ancient city, and those people had made it a point of honor not to walk out of the gates to see the newfangled contraptions. Such determination has shaped Fez, making it one of the last bastions of the medieval world. In many of Europe’s best-preserved cities, such as Bruges, the past has become a commodity to be kept alive and sold to tourists. In Fez, it has survived because that is just the way the locals want it; foreigners are still a tiny minority. But in spite of all this, changes are happening – slowly – and these are making it a more fun place to visit.
Don’t let the ‘imperial city’ label put you off; Fez may be all about history and tradition, but you needn’t feel obliged to see the sights, for the simple reason that there aren’t many to see. Its oldest and most impressive building, the Kairaouine Mosque, which sits at the bottom of the valley, is grand, impressive and both architecturally and culturally significant. It dates back to the city’s founding in the ninth century, is the second largest mosque in Morocco and forms part of what is said to be one of the world’s oldest surviving universities. But it is open only to Muslims; the rest of us must content ourselves with gazing through its great doors. Freed from obligation, I prepared to do what people have been doing in Fez for hundreds of years: stroll down the hill into the center and engage with the living past…[Full Story]