A night on the tiles

By day, Fez is one of the most vibrant medina cities in Morocco. After dark you see a different side of it. Jackie Hunter is taken on a moonlit mystery tour
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The Independent Travel

After dark, the medina becomes a tranquil warren of shadows and echoes, safely encircled by the ancient city walls of Fez- el-Bali. The awesome babble and flow of its daytime existence has ebbed away; the sounds, smells and colours subdued until morning. Gone are all the shoemakers who were hand-stitching yellow leather slippers, like nimble-fingered elves in some old-fashioned book of fairy tales; the women who made pancakes by tossing a ladleful of batter over a hot stone shaped like a giant hat block; the irresistible stacks of oven-warm bread and delicate patisserie; the live turkeys, dead goats, pottery, jewellery, finely woven wool rugs and djellabas, dates and olives, bunched herbs, lizard skins and love potions.

After dark, the medina becomes a tranquil warren of shadows and echoes, safely encircled by the ancient city walls of Fez- el-Bali. The awesome babble and flow of its daytime existence has ebbed away; the sounds, smells and colours subdued until morning. Gone are all the shoemakers who were hand-stitching yellow leather slippers, like nimble-fingered elves in some old-fashioned book of fairy tales; the women who made pancakes by tossing a ladleful of batter over a hot stone shaped like a giant hat block; the irresistible stacks of oven-warm bread and delicate patisserie; the live turkeys, dead goats, pottery, jewellery, finely woven wool rugs and djellabas, dates and olives, bunched herbs, lizard skins and love potions.

During business hours, you must move as part of its fluidity, carried along on waves of shoppers, sellers, and plodding mules laden with bundles of leather or bottled mineral water. Dawdle on a busy street and it's easy to get pulled under: you soon learn to sidestep out of the torrent when you want to take a closer look at goods on sale. It's a far less intimidating place in its night-time existence, however.

The warm, dry night air makes this a perfect time for properly exploring Fez's endless cobbled streets, unchanged for centuries and inaccessible to cars. The passages meander and wind, rise, fall and sometimes narrow so dramatically that a person can just about pass through without scraping their shoulders. Low wooden beams overhead create pitch-dark tunnels. At night you can see the shape of things, the length and curve of the streets, the wall-mounted public water fountains, iron door knockers and the ubiquitous hand of Fatima, inscribed beside almost every doorway to ward off the evil eye.

Earlier today I spent four hours exploring the souks of the walled city with the help of Hassan, an English- and French-speaking Moroccan tour guide. It was a glimpse of everything there is to see here, but what an experience for the senses.

I am here again tonight at the invitation of a resident of the medina, who lives in one of the thousands of houses hidden behind thick cedarwood doors; someone who can negotiate this vast urban labyrinth and chat in Arabic with the locals. David Amster is not one of the Fassi (natives of Fez), nor even Moroccan, but an American linguist attached to the prestigious university here. His real passion, however, is for preserving the traditional appearance of Fez's ancient houses with their Andalusian tiling, intricately carved woodwork and moulded plaster decoration. He and I have already established a mutual interest in architecture, and now I'm going to get a lesson in how this fascinating enclave was built, and why the structure must be properly preserved if Fez's reputation as a triumphantly unchanged medieval city is to thrive.

"God knows how he manages to find his way back here after a night out on the lash," I'm thinking, as we turn corner after corner, because few of these streets appear to have signposts or numbers and all the front doors look the same to me. But we quickly arrive at the house he inhabits (he owns and rents out another smaller property, Dar Bennis, nearby), which is currently undergoing renovation. There lingers inside the strong, fruity scent of freshly sanded cedarwood. Some of the door panels and frames are being painstakingly repaired to the original design by a local craftsman. Tiling in modern colours had to be removed and replaced with a more traditional pattern.

It is not easy to find artisan builders and carpenters in a grindingly poor community such as this: when a thousand-year-old door has warped beyond repair, the house-owners will usually replace it with a cheap metal one, which - given the extremely dry climate - is likely to remain in use for a few centuries. David has an unusually philanthropic approach: he has made a study of authentic restoration techniques so that he can instruct local carpenters, tilers and builders and encourage them to train other men in these disappearing skills. He himself will often pay for other people's doors, shutters and ceilings to be properly mended rather than see them lost and replaced with modern materials. The quiet American is a respected, if rather intriguing, figure in this neighbourhood.

The beauty of Fez right now is that it is not a major tourist destination like Marrakesh. The Fassi have not made tourism the prime source of income, mainly because most of the tourist money heads for Casablanca and other places on the coast. This city is the cradle of civilisation and oldest imperial capital in Morocco, home to the country's most important mosque, and possibly the world's oldest university (built in AD862), both in the Kairaouine quarter. There are Jewish and Andalusian neighbourhoods, too, and a pervading French influence that adds to its Islamic charm. The city's New Town, built during French rule in the early 20th century, has an elegant, Art Deco-ish appearance, with wide, palm-fringed boulevards and parks redolent of Haussmann's Paris. With boulangeries, patisseries and tiny pavement cafés at every corner, the single, newly built branch of McDonald's in the New Town looks as inappropriate as a pole-dancer at a garden party. Taxi drivers laugh off the inevitable presence of the golden arches, and prefer to draw your attention to King Mohammed VI's fabulous palace, which, with its stunning gateway and 90 hectares of grounds (complete with private golf course), is less easy to overlook.

Palaces of similar size and grandeur stand in readiness for the king's arrival in other Moroccan cities, too. Everywhere you go, photographs of the twinkly-eyed and smiling monarch are prominently displayed. At the age of 36, Mohammed VI has much to smile about, not least his adoring subjects; none of whom I meet, no matter how poor, says they begrudge the man his extraordinary fortune. Public opinion seems consistent - for the tourists' benefit, at least: the king deserves his riches, for he is a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, whose great-grandson Moulay Idriss founded Morocco's first independent Muslim kingdom here in the 8th century AD.

Back in the medina, which is home to some 800,000 people (a quarter of Fez's bulging population), we are exploring David's house. High above the main salon on the ground floor there's a square glass atrium, and outside it a roof terrace which, I am promised, offers one of the best views in the city. Naturally, I am wearing totally inappropriate shoes, which I have to remove in order to climb the steep, tiled staircase. It's too dark to see properly, but I can feel a fine layer of cedar sawdust underfoot.

Temporary lights illuminate the corners as we round the mezzanine balcony with its carved wooden balustrade. Straining my eyes to see the blue and green of the traditional Islamic tile patterns (always flowers and plants; never animal or human figures), I think to myself this is rather like that romantic scene from The English Patient in which a character is swung aloft with a blazing torch in her hand to examine the frescoes inside a dark church...

It's back to earth with a bump, though, when I realise I'm actually being treated to a detailed lecture about the building materials used to make this house. It really is a night on the tiles.

The inner walls, I learn, are brick, fixed not with cement but with a mixture of sand and lime (which allows them to "breathe" and to expand in this hot climate), then covered in tiles. I am also acquainted with tadlakt and medluk, which may sound like a firm of Arab lawyers but are, in fact, two very old substances crucial to the construction of this city. The outer walls of the house are finished with medluk, a blend of very fine sand, lime, egg-white and sabon beldi (a soapy by-product of olive processing). Over time, it acquires a marbled effect on its smooth, strokeable surface. Tadlakt is a slightly shinier sand mixture often used to press intricate patterns into the medluk, a desirable detail. Calligraphy describing poems or verses from the Koran is another elegant form of wall decoration favoured by the Fassi.

As we pop up on to the sprawling roof terrace, the promised view stretches out on all sides. The Middle Atlas mountains, red by day and aflame at sunset, are now in silhouette. There's a pair of fortresses, positioned to the north and south of the medina, and in between are the mosques and minarets, souks and riads that they protect. The way of life is a modest one: everyone, from the King downwards, enjoys family life behind closed doors and high, high walls.

Later, we'll be heading for the restaurant at Maison Bleue, a fashionable riad hotel just outside the medina walls. But first, says the American, we're going to the best coffee shop in town. Don't tell me they've got Starbucks here, too! Just kidding. As we plod down the tiled stairs I'm imagining a luxurious salon with coffee served to customers lounging on embroidered floor cushions. The reality is a little different.

Five minutes' walk away, still deep in the medina, we stop at a hole-in-the-wall caff with half a dozen rickety tables and some non-matching vinyl chairs. "It's not pretty," says David, somewhat unnecessarily, "but the coffee's great." Inside we're greeted by half a dozen old men who, I'm willing to bet, have not a full set of teeth between them. They're sitting around, shooting the breeze and watching the al-Jazeera news channel on an ancient TV set. The owner fetches us some glasses of coffee, and yes, it is pretty good. We stay there for an hour or so, chatting about life in Fez. David has lived here for eight years or so, teaching Arabic and English, and has also overseen several riad restorations. On some occasions he has been able to stop local builders ripping out 14th-century fountains or ruining a brass door with mechanical polishing, but at other times has had to swallow something hard and jagged when ancient features were ripped out and replaced by shiny new materials that the Fassi think will give a better impression to visitors from Europe and the US.

As it happens, foreigners are cottoning on to the appeal of riad life and are buying up properties to use and rent out as holiday homes, or as temporary accommodation for visiting academics and professionals. A house in the medina can be got for as little as €20,000. Buying is relatively easy, but overseeing an authentic restoration is a slow and frustrating labour of love.

During the day there are just as many women out and about as there are men, but after dark the Muslim wives and daughters vanish off the streets and it's the men who loiter in friendly conversation with one another on steps and at pavement cafés late into the evening. We amble along to the chic Maison Bleue, which is a tourist favourite, but no less appealing for that. Over drinks we're entertained by Gnaua musicians, who play what I can only describe as Arabic drum'n'bass. It sounds brilliant; the fast, rhythmic drum-beats and simple string melodies go on relentlessly, but the musicians never hit a duff note or lose tempo.

Meeting someone who's enthusiastic enough to show me a glimpse of real life in Fez was a gift, I reflect as I amble back to my own quarters late that night. The insider's angle is something you won't see on your own or with a regular guide; I've had a totally unexpected view of the city and the people who live in it.

How disheartening it would have been, then, if I were heading back to one of the westernised hotels in the city: but no, I am staying in the gorgeous Ryad Mabrouka, just outside one of the medina's main gates, which has been transformed by its owner Michel Trezzy.

Trezzy is an urbane Frenchman from Limoges who has made an art of hospitality. (He's also a fantastic chef: if you stay here, don't be too eager to dash out and find a local restaurant on your first night, because Seafood Tagine à la Trezzy is worth staying in for.) Manou, a gentle Alsatian with soulful eyes and a pale coat the colour of moonlight, follows Trezzy everywhere. The large, airy riad with its exquisite central salon, central fountain and lush, compact walled garden boast an impressive combination of authentic Moorish style and chic modern comforts.

My suite, with its twin wooden doors carved out of a bigger, barn-size door in traditional riad style, adjoins the elegant central salon with its tiled fountain. There are two more ground-floor suites facing inwards, and on the mezzanine floor further rooms and suites. Much of the furniture here is family owned, brought from Provence where it once graced Michel's grandmother's house.

The roof terrace boasts another triumphant vista, but first thing in the morning I prefer the private garden and shaded veranda. I note figs, lemons, roses, palms, ferns, bougainvillea, quince trees, rosemary and olives among the garden foliage. There is also a jade-green swimming-pool, big enough for a gentle morning dip.

So unbelievably tranquil is it, it's hard to imagine the tremendous bustle that you know is going on over the nearby medina wall. The only sound that might disturb your outdoor breakfast, in fact, is the sound of a ripe fig plopping into the swimming-pool.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled to Fez with Simply Travel (020-8541 2215; www.simplytravel.co.uk), which can put together similar itineraries for around £347 per person, including three nights' bed and breakfast at the Ryad Mabrouka, return flights on Royal Air Maroc from Heathrow via Casablanca, and transfers.

The only non-stop flights between the UK and Sais airport outside Fez are operated from Gatwick by GB Airways on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) on Tuesdays and Fridays. Fares of just under £200 are available for travel early next year, if you book through the BA website. Plenty more options are available to Casablanca on GB Airways and Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com) from Heathrow. Royal Air Maroc quotes £203 for dates in January for travel only as far as Casablanca; with the 45-minute connecting flight to Fez, the fare rises to around £250.

The cut-price approach is to get a cheap flight to Almeria or Malaga in southern Spain; continue by ferry to the Spanish enclave of Melilla; and travel the rest of the way by land. With judicious buying, you could make it there and back for around £100.

STAYING THERE

Ryad Mabrouka, pictured below, (00 212 55 63 63 45; www.ryadmabrouka.com) has doubles from 900 Dirhams (£57).

Riad Lune et Soleil (00 212 55 63 45 23; www.luneetsoleil.com) has doubles from 650 Dirhams (£41).

Riad Zamane (00 212 55 74 04 40; www.riadzamane.com) has doubles from 1000 Dirhams (£63).

Riad Sheherazade (00 212 55 74 16 42; www.sheheraz.com) has doubles from 1260 Dirhams (£80).

All these rates include breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Moroccan National Tourist Office (020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.com).

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