Fes: The sights and smells of old Morocco

Traditional crafts still thrive in a medieval setting, but make time to explore the city's modern side too, says Kate Wickers

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The Independent Travel

Nizar is 84, and he has been carving combs, necklaces and trinkets from cattle horns at the same hole-in-the-wall workshop since 1952. "You are welcome!" he tells me with a three-toothed grin; tourists are surprisingly still thin on the cobbles here, so there's a real friendliness to the "salams" that greet me.

Now is the time to visit Fes, before it starts to wipe off its medieval grime and while the walls still crumble and mules aren't afraid to fart in the faces of tourists. Actually, I'm not really that concerned. This city will never sell its soul because the people who live here like it the way it is: authentic, self-sufficient and the cultural and intellectual heart of Morocco. I lost count of the number of people who told me proudly that Fes is home to Karaouine University, the oldest in the world, set up in AD859.

Of the European investors turning derelict riads into boutique hotels and restaurants there's a real passion for keeping their ventures "real". Robert Johnstone, of charming Riad Idrissy and the Ruined Garden Restaurant (riadidrissy.com) is a great example. He is excited about being involved in Fes's "slow food" movement (that protects the taste and variety of local food) more than cashing in on the tourist trade.

There are other faces to the city, too: Ville Nouvelle, with its predictable palm-lined boulevards, and Fes el Jedid, really just a continuation of the medina but not so chaotic or ancient, dating from 1276.

Yet it's Fes el Bali, the city's ninth-century medina and the world's largest urban car-free zone, that is the most enticing. I laughed when I saw the map, because there are more than 9,000 tiny streets, then I folded it up and put it in my bag where I knew it would stay. The best piece of advice I had was to start at Bab Boujeloud, a blue tiled gateway to the medina, get lost and when I'd had enough to walk uphill, because Fes el Bali is shaped like a bowl.

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Karaouine University (Getty)

Unpack

At Riad Fes (00 212 53 594 7610; riadfes.com) take a seat on the rooftop terrace, the perfect perch for a cold Casablanca beer. It has been called the sexiest hotel in Fes, but in a city where modesty is de rigueur, the word "sensual" seems more apt as the aromas of mint, orange blossom and spice waft in through the windows. The hotel's centrepiece is a vast tiled courtyard with antique doors, Islamic carvings, stained glass windows and an immense Moorish chandelier. There is also a pool big enough to swim in – an essential if you're visiting in summer.

Think Local

Spend a morning with a local who knows Fes el Bali. Ahmed, my guide from Plan-It-Fez (00 212 53 563 8708; plan-it-fez.com; four-hour Hidden Medina Tour from 250 dirhams/£18 per person) was born in the heart of the medina so knows every nook and cranny. "Don't judge a book by its cover," he tells me, disappearing into the narrowest of alleyways. "Behind many humble doors in these simple streets there are beautiful houses with gardens full of flowers."

Occasionally there's a glimpse into these worlds – a lemon tree-filled courtyard, an intricately tiled fountain, or a palm-shaded terrace. Elsewhere, life in Fes carries on as it always has; a knife grinder turns his stone wheel, a spoon is carved from cedar wood, a bobbin shuttles across a loom and yarn is dyed in Souk Sabbaghine, the Dyers' Souk.

Eat

The wonderfully quirky Café Clock in Fes el Bali (00 212 53 563 7855; fez.cafeclock.com) has an eclectic design – cylindrical red fez hats on the wall, an enormous chandelier made of brass horns. I ordered the famous camel burger served with taxa ketchup, a jam-like tomato relish (95 dirhams/£7).

Often the best restaurants are found in the riads, like the sumptuous citrus tree-filled courtyard restaurant of the 1930s art deco Palais Amani (00 212 53 563 3209; palaisamani.com). I'd heard that the food was excellent so went for the chef's special without looking at the menu and it was a delicious move: creamy avocado mousse, beef tagine that flaked off the bone on to a bed of artichokes, followed by semifreddo orange tart. Main courses start at 175 dirhams (£12).

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Drink

Fes isn't known for its nightlife and it can be tricky to find anywhere decent to enjoy a drink outside a riad or restaurant. However, Mezzanine Bar (17 Kasbat chams; 00 212 11 078 336) has recently reopened after a refurbishment and fills the gap stylishly. It sits across the road from the pretty gardens of Jnane S'bile in Fes el Jedid and is popular both with young Moroccans and with tourists.

Spend

Leather is a great buy in Fes, particularly soft lambskin jackets. At El Haj Ali Baba (10 Hay Lblida, Chouara) the sell is refreshingly gentle but I still haggled (it's expected) over one in "Fes blue", the colour of lapis lazuli.

For a unique shopping experience contact Nina Mohammad-Galbert, who runs Artisan Project (artisanprojectinc.com). She works closely with local artisans and organises tailor-made shopping experiences within the medina.

Alfred Berlin is an up-and-coming Fes-based fashion designer who takes traditional Moroccan design and adds a twist. His T-shirts in particular are great fun. The opening hours of his home-based atelier in the medina are erratic, so it is best to call first (00 212 63 104 3630).

Don't miss

"The smell is for free. But the leather is not," jokes Ahmed as I gaze down on the tanneries in Chouara, arguably the most medieval sight in the medina. Luckily I'd grabbed a sprig of mint to hold to my nose, as the smell of ammonia from the cauldrons of pigeon dung used to soften the animal skins isn't pleasant. The traditional process of treating and dying animal skins in an immense honeycomb of vats hasn't changed for centuries, and hundreds of skins lie on the rooftops to dry. The site is beguiling and fascinating, but a little voyeuristic, as there's no denying a tanner's life is a hard one.

Getting there

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies twice-weekly from Stansted to Fes.

Staying there

Kate Wickers was a guest of Riad Fes (00 212 53 594 7610; riadfes.com). Room rates start at 2,100 dirhams (£152), includ- ing breakfast.

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