Entering the dusty medina of Fez-el-Bali (old Fez, Morocco) is like walking into The Middle Ages. Built in the 8th century and now one of the oldest surviving medieval cities in the world, Fez is nestled in the foothills of the North Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. The old city is made up of a confounding labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways, designed to keep out strangers who could easily get lost. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s largest car-free areas.
However you would be well-warned to keep your wits about you and your eyes open, or your behind may get nuzzled by a horse or mule. You may turn a corner and run into a laden donkey or a jangling bicycle or get pursued by a persistent peddler or two. Empathise with the mangy stray dogs and cats who rummage in the rubble for something to eat, although, very nearby there is an animal hospital, especially for them, started by an American artist called Barbara Hutton.
People still live here – in discreet centuries-old houses. You may see inhabitants standing inside the little box windows covered with painted wooden shutters from which their predecessors used to throw hot oil on potential intruders. As you can see, they were really not keen on visitors but you can’t blame them as the visitors of old were out to murder their leader and city founder, Moulay Idriss. His mausoleum is now located in the mosque of the old city.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland. There are madrasas, fancy foundouks (boutique hotels), old palaces, houses and mosques. Interspersed between these are quaint little shops. Look into each one – you don’t know what you may find – a treasure trove of olive shops, sweet shops, trinket shops and many others. There are workshops where skilled artisans still use the ancient techniques of making cotton, silk, leather and shoes. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were all there, and so was the metalworker chiselling decorative metal plates. I looked for the fezmaker, just to buy a fez that I could say was bought from Fez…and found it.
The obligatory carpet demonstrations, sweetened by the offer of Arab mint tea offered an air-conditioned respite from the oppressive heat of the city for a change. It was followed by a visit to the oldest leather tannery in the world where we were given sprigs of mint to counteract the stench caused by the pigeon poo which is used to soften the leather. The tannery is at least nine centuries old.
A delicious lunch was served at a Moroccan restaurant where we all sat around the table. Everyone sampled the starter offerings but ordered their own main courses. Tagines and couscous were most popular and so was the Moroccan mint tea served thereafter. There was lots of laughter and sharing of experiences with new friends from Uruguay, Portugal, Mexico and Chicago ..but that, I guess, is one of the joys of travelling.
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