When a city is locally recognized as having an old part and a new part, and the new was built in the 13th century, you know you’ve landed up in a place of rare antiquity.
Fez is a time capsule: a Moroccan city with a UNESCO World Heritage medina — that’s the original, walled town whose footprint remains largely unchanged since the 9th century and which is now the world’s largest pedestrianized area. A labyrinth of stone streets guarantees visitors will get lost, that they will turn down alleys that will narrow to shoulder width, that they will pass donkey carts but no cars (except the occasional illicit motorbike).
Today, Fez is Morocco’s third largest city, and it has spilled out beyond the medina into cool European-style, palm-fringed boulevards. But the historic medina remains the cultural heartbeat of this imperial city. In the souks, shopkeepers hawk local handicrafts — unobtrusively, almost timidly by Marrakech standards — like pottery hand-painted in lauded “Fez blue.” Follow your nose to the tanneries where skins are colored by hand and feet in vats of natural dyes (think dried berries and pigeon poop). You can also visit the world’s oldest university (founded by a woman in the 9th century) and Morocco’s second largest mosque, al-Kairaouine, with its green-tiled roof. (Unlike Turkey, Morocco does not allow non-Muslims inside most mosques — you can thank some rambunctious French protectorate soldiers for ruining it for the rest of us — though you can stand at the open doors and marvel.)
Fez is surrounded by green hills, and there are few views that can compare with a rooftop panorama of the medina. The best perspective is from the balcony of your room at the recently-renovated Sofitel Palais Jamai (pictured: veranda and exterior), perched high along the medina wall. If you really want to shell out, then book a room in the original 1879 palace (built for a grand vizier) whose stunning zellige tiling, shimmering chandeliers and intricate woodwork is some of the most breathtaking we’ve seen.
Indulge in the hotel’s sumptuous breakfast buffet — from French pastries to traditional meloui bread (and of course Moroccan mint tea!) — but for dinner you must venture out to Palais Amani, part of a clutch of hot newly-restored riads that have opened in the medina.
At Palais Amani, 14 rooms blend contemporary style with Moroccan sensibility, but it’s the courtyard restaurant (pictured)— set around a trickling fountain, beneath the shade of fruit trees — that makes it imperative to visit Palais Amani no matter where in Fez you’re staying. The young, Moroccan chef riffs on Moroccan classics with a fresh, modern eye — like a moist lamb pastilla (traditionally made with squab or chicken) studded with juicy dried fruit.
Don’t be surprised to see the hotel manager, Abdelali Baha (a Fez native who’s lived most of his adult life in England and France), sharing a drink with guests. If you listen closely, they’ll likely be talking social philosophy and world politics.
After all, this is Fez — a city founded on academic, spiritual and political pursuits.