Fez, Morocco, September 29, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Fez is sometimes characterized as one of the world's most magical cities, a place that even today is like something out of 1,0001 Arabian Knights, so I was eager to judge for myself whether it lives up to its reputation.  Unless your tolerance level for messy, noisy, dusty places with narrow pedestrian alleyways and crowds of people and donkeys is quite low, it almost certainly does.  Set between two mountain ranges, surrounded by hills covered with wheat fields and olive groves, and consisting of crowded low rise buildings that seem from the distant hillside overlooks to all blend into one mass, Fez-El-Bali (the old city/medina) is spectacular.  To me the old walled city (the medina) was quite reminiscent of Jerusalem, except on a much grander scale, and what it lacks in sights of great religious significance it makes up for in atmosphere and authenticity.  Also like Jerusalem, Fez has a thoroughly modern and rather standard Ville Nouvelle outside the old city walls to address the modern needs of residents and visitors
Old Fez is far from being a sanitized tourist attraction, though.  With somewhere around 200,000 people living within the old city's walls, it's the world's largest thoroughly medieval city, and with its massive maze of narrow, winding pedestrian streets in some cases too narrow for two donkeys to pass, its complete absence of automobiles, and active souks and crafts workshops, it is one of few places I've been where it is easy to imagine yourself transported to an entirely different era.   At 841 acres or more than one square mile in size, the medina is easy to get lost in without a detailed map, since the alleyways that sprawl up and down the hills are virtually indistinguishable from one another and are often too narrow to even determine the angle of the sun to judge directions.  Needless to say, no two streets or alleys meet at right angles either.  Even in Fez, though, the medieval world has adopted aspects of modern technology with some electrical tools buzzing away in the craftsmen's workshops and satellite dishes on residential roofs. 
Fez is said to be an assault on all the senses.  A walk through the alleyways of Fez involves navigating the jostling crowds moving through the narrow lanes, warding off the hustlers attempting to befriend you to get you into shops where they'll earn a commission on anything you might buy, and avoiding the heavily-loaded donkeys and mules moving swiftly past; you better move when you hear someone yell "Ballakh!" or "Attencion!" or you might well get knocked over.  Throughout this all, one can't help being greatly touched, in the physical as well as the figurative sense, even if one tries to avoid it. 
For the sense of hearing, the assaults include the ever-present music, the people quarreling in the markets and at the butcher stands, the shop keepers trying to get your attention, the prayer calls from the mosques, and the braying of donkeys.  For sight, it's the bright colors of the jelabas in the haberdashers' shops, the variety of the women's costumes, the intricately carved woodwork on the medrassa facades, the technicolor  tiled fountains, carved stone archways, mounds of colorful spices, dried fruit, and produce, green mosque roofs, brightly-colored carpets, and glittering gold, silver, and bronze.  Mosques and medrassas are sprinkled liberally throughout Fez-El-Bali's maze, but the tight-knitted nature of the city often means the only perspective of these gems is from the roofs of other buildings. 
Perhaps Fez-el-Bali's greatest assault on any sense, though, is that of smell.  The most memorable of these smells is the stench of the tannery pits which use pigeon dung as a bleach, but there's also the rich aromas of the spices in the souks and the sweet scents of vendors' freshly baked bread and exotic pastries like pastilla and gazelle horns, the fragrance of perfumes and fresh leather, the wooly muck of the carpets for sale everywhere, the body odor of the passersby in the crowded alleys, the equine scents of donkeys and their excrement in the streets. 
Our guided visit to Fez began with a stop at the entrance to the Royal Palace, the Dar El-Makhzen, Fez being one of Morocco's four imperial cities.  Our palace tour, though, only went as far as gazing at the glittery gold doors and zelij-tiled facade, since the palace is still used as a residence by the royal family.  It was then on to Borj Sud, a hilltop fortress south of the old city with the most commanding views of the medina. 
Unfortunately, with only one full day Fez we didn't have adequate time to fully explore one of the world's most magical cities, especially since so much of our guided tour involved stops for shopping.  We had little opportunity to explore the city's multitude of small museums nor the chance to explore some of the less touristed outer reaches of the medina.  Those will have to wait until my next visit to Fez.
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