Morocco: Hats off to Fez, then haul on your boots and conquer the High Atlas

Far from Morocco's most popular haunts is a land of breathtaking scenery and dedicated workers who still put art into craft
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The Independent Travel

Marrakesh may be more fashionable, and Tangier more cosmopolitan, but if you want an undiluted taste of traditional Morocco, then head for Fez, the oldest and best preserved of the country's four "imperial cities". Fassis - its citizens - claim to have the finest cuisine, the best poets, and the most beautiful mosques and religious colleges in the land. And hidden behind its massive, 14th-century ramparts, Fez el Bali (as the Old City is known) still lives in a bygone age.

Marrakesh may be more fashionable, and Tangier more cosmopolitan, but if you want an undiluted taste of traditional Morocco, then head for Fez, the oldest and best preserved of the country's four "imperial cities". Fassis - its citizens - claim to have the finest cuisine, the best poets, and the most beautiful mosques and religious colleges in the land. And hidden behind its massive, 14th-century ramparts, Fez el Bali (as the Old City is known) still lives in a bygone age.

The whole of Fez el Bali has been declared a Unesco conservation area, and many of its crumbling palaces and caravanserai are now being restored. But it's not just the narrow alleyways, curling back on themselves between overhaning houses, that made me feel I'd been transported back in time. It's the way of life. For here is an entire city that lives by the old rules, with its merchants and craftsmen organised by guilds, each occupying their own carefully defined quarter, as they have done ever since the city was founded in the 8th century.

No motor vehicle can enter the city gates except the smallest of motocyclettes, and even these negotiate the labyrinth of alleys and steps with difficulty. In Fez el Bali, the donkey is still king of the road. Everything that enters or exits, from raw wool and firewood to cooking pots and elaborately tooled book-bindings, goes on their backs. And there are plenty of warning cries of " Balak!", as another caravan squeezes past. For this is not just a souk or market place, where goods are bought and sold. It is a living centre of production, with its tanneries and dye-pits, its coppersmiths and woodworking quarters, all of them governed by medieval craft traditions.

It was by chance that I met one of these master craftsmen. His name was Azzedine, though I came to know him as the Master of Patterns. I was sitting by the pool at my hotel in the French colonial-style ville nouvelle, along with my wife and a friend who is a curious mixture of Greek and Scots - and has a sense of humour to match - when an enormous German woman emerged from the changing rooms and belly-flopped into the deep end.

"There," my friend observed, "we have a perfect demonstration of Archimedes' principle." And it was true. The German lady did seem to have displaced an awful lot of water which was now flooding the poolside.

No sooner than he'd spoken the word "Archimedes", the Moroccans sitting at the table next to us began giggling uncontrollably. "But it's true!" my friend protested. " Absolument!" they agreed. This started a conversation, by the end of which Azzedine had explained that he was a master craftsman working in zellij, and his wife had invited us all to lunch.

Now, of all the crafts that flourish in this city of craftsmen, the zellij is one of the most demanding and, for me, most characteristic of the country. It is a form of mosaic, which is boldly coloured and intricately worked into geometric abstractions that tease and delight the eye. The technique may have developed first in Andalusia, before being introduced to Fez by Muslim craftsmen fleeing the Spanish. The city still has its Andalusian Quarter.

The next day, Azzedine took us to the family house, where his wife fed us a delicious couscous ("to taste the true couscous, you must eat in the home"). Afterwards, over mint tea, Azzedine explained that he was working on a large panel for one of the King of Morocco's palaces, although previous commissions had taken him all over the world. He has even re-created one of Fez's celebrated fountains for a theme park in Florida.

"For this work," he told me, "you need an aptitude for mathematics and a good memory." When he took me to his workshop I began to see why. It is not just that everything is done by hand, from baking the special clay from the Atlas mountains through to cutting the pigmented tablets into a thousand different hexagons and lozenges and star-shapes - it is the next stage, the ordering of these tiny fragments into a preconceived, harmonious design, that seems miraculous. "Each piece has its own name," he told me, "and in making the zellij I have to know precisely where every piece has gone."

That's where the memory comes in. First, the design is etched on to a soft plaster mould, which may be flat or indented or dome shaped, tailored to fit the building that is to embellish. On to this mould each coloured fragment is pressed face down. Someone has to keep the grand design in mind and know what colours and shapes to add next, and in this co-operative (there are some 80 co-owners) that person is Azzedine. To watch him at work is like seeing an artist colouring in a rough sketch. Except in this case that artist is effectively blindfolded, and nobody can know whether he's got it right until the finished zellij is cemented in one piece to the building it will adorn. Only then is the plaster is chipped away, and the master craftsman's success in realising the work judged.

As the eldest son, Azzedine took on the family business and he remains faithful to traditional craft methods. He is aware that factories in Casablanca are now using computer-assisted design and advanced cutting techniques to turn out zellijes combining new shapes and various colours. But he maintains that only the old way can produce the slight variations that are the hallmark of a true zellij.

Azzedine's younger brother, Hassan, gave me a lift back. "Fez is a city of craftsmen," he said, "and always has been. The problem is that, despite all the conservation work on buildings, the crafts themselves are dying out. Nowadays it is cheaper to make the same things for tourists in a factory or some small village in the country. Most people don't notice the difference in craftsmanship. So the Old City is dying and will soon become like a museum."

It takes time (and many glasses of mint tea) to explore this city of hidden gardens and spice bazaars. At one moment, you are hemmed in by the blank walls of a residential quarter, aware only from the overhanging branches of a fig tree that a palace garden or orchard lies just beyond. Then, passing under an arch, your nostrils pick out the scents of fresh herbs and open sackfuls of spices.

The Fassis say that you can always tell an outsider because they stick to the centre of the main thoroughfares, while locals keep to the edge or slip down the narrowest alleyways. So, following local habits, I ducked into a courtyard, where I found myself transported into a world of medieval alchemy.

While some shops sold staples such as henna, others were festooned with snakeskins, antelope horns or stuffed crocodiles - all ingredients for traditional cures.

Towards evening I found myself in Nejjarin Fondouk, one of city's better-restored caravanserai. In the centre of the square is a lovely fountain covered in zellijes, which is still used by the carpenters' families who occupy this quarter of the city.

I recognised it as the model for what my friend Azzedine had re-created in far-off Florida. The same traditions and skills are still there - more so in Fez than elsewhere in Morocco. What's more, their survival is what gives the Old City its timeless quality. Preserving beautiful buildings is one thing; maintaining an entire way of life is another. That is the challenge that craftsmen like Azzedine must face up to.

Pink. Very pink. Garishly pink, like Lady Penelope's limousine in Thunderbirds. That's the colour I left behind as I headed for the slopes and screes of Morocco's Atlas Mountains. Marrakesh really is unutterably salmon-tinged - pink roads, pink mosques, pink city walls - and to reach the grey-brown-green of the High Atlas under a red-blue sunset in an off-white minibus was pretty damn mind expanding.

We arrived - 10 of us, complete strangers, thrown together for an attempt to climb to the rooftop of North Africa - at the ski resort of Oukaimeden. Sleeping four to a dorm in the musty old ski lodge - no special favours for travel writers, and God knows we deserve them - I swapped the sounds of my bunk-mate Dave settling himself down for the night for the music of Paul Simon. As Dave tossed and turned, my headset hummed me to bye-bye land at the touch of a button. On the cusp of a climb, "Slip Slidin' Away" seemed curiously appropriate.

Waking next morning to "Loves Me Like a Rock" (is this some kind of joke, Paul?) I forwent the undoubted charms of breakfast - my porridge, frankly, looked too much like the kind of polystyrene goo that holds your ceiling tiles in place - and psyched myself for our first acclimatisation climb over the crags and boulders that comprise Jebel Oukaimeden.

We shinned down the mountain to 8,000ft, scrambled back up to 11,000ft, before dropping down once more into a gorgeously sheltered valley of sun-bathed beauty and rare tranquility. We were surrounded by 14,000ft peaks that enveloped us like some kind of gigantic granite charm bracelet, and all seemed right with the world.

Over a picnic lunch of couscous and - well - more couscous, Mohammed, our head guide, briefed us for what was to come. "This is the easy day," he announced. "Tomorrow, it gets harder, and the next day harder still, and the day after that." This is not what we wanted hear; not after six hours of hauling ass over enough oblique land formations to build another planet.

Mohammed, on the other hand, sashayed around the mountains like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. We were his boys, he loved the smell of Berbers in the morning, and together we were going to give the enemy a good old British-style hiding, six of the best, crampons showing if necessary.

The enemy was Mount Toubkal, at 14,200 feet the highest peak in North Africa, and with some sections so steep you get a nosebleed just reading the cross-section map.

Another four hours' trekking up and down dales and across ridges, and we fetched up at the climbers' refuge in the Berber village of Tachidirt (pronounced Tacky Dirt, and rightly so). If the village clung to the mountainside for dear life, then we clung to distant memories of sanitation for all we were worth. The rat droppings were not a good sign, while the lavatory - a hole in the floor, with neither a cistern, a tap, nor a single piece of tissue paper in sight - spelt the imminent demise of Western civilisation as we know it. This place was basic.

All I needed now was for some local kid to try to sell me a luridly ornate dagger encrusted with what looked suspiciously like fossilised dung. I was tired, and definitely not up for buying a dagger-in-fossilised-dung, or fossilised anything. How do these kids find me? "Okay," I said, weary as hell. "How much?" His reply, I urge you to believe, came with not a trace of irony. "A hundred and fifty dollars. But for you I make special price." "How special?" I asked. "A hundred and forty five dollars" he replied. "Come back when you've learned how to haggle," I said. "Offer him $5," I was advised by Brahim, our other guide. "That's the only way to lose him." I closed the deal at $2, before selling the thing on to a member of another climbing group for $10.

Brahim, who for some obscure and quite possibly Pythonesque reason everyone was calling Brian, woke us at 4am for what was to be quite the most sensational day's trekking through the foothills of the High Atlas.

Refreshed from a surprisingly good night's sleep - an unlikely prospect, to judge from my mattress, which was as sickly grey, lumpy and infested as the porridge we'd been breakfasting on - we beat a sensuously twisty-turny path around the valleys, up and over passes that would cause vertigo in a lumberjack, and under a sky of astral loveliness.

We traipsed through natural-coloured Berber villages which blend into the surroundings so seamlessly that you have to look twice to see they're there. They look as though they grow organically from the hillside, and I don't believe I have anywhere seen such a heady blend of natural and man-made landscape, the layered Berber houses merging with the stepped crop terraces in perfect union.

After lunching under the walnut trees that shade the village of Imlil in the fertile Mizane Valley, we trekked a few hours more before reaching our next base at Aroumd. All around us were the peaks that stand, almost in defensive formation, in front of Toubkal, pretty much as England's back four should have defended David Seaman the other week. Toubkal, though, was supremely defended. So well defended we couldn't see it. In fact, it would be two days more before we glimpsed Toubkal. Two days in which to hike to our base camp, two days to turn pudgy suburban bodies into sinewy climbing machines, two days to find ourselves at least one appropriate receptacle for the bowel movement which we were all aching for.

We found it at the Toubkal Refuge, last stopping-off point before the final ascent, and home to a production line of toilets, the sit-down variety, paper and all. OK, they were the inside pages of an ancient climbing magazine, but they were soft, pliable and thoroughly absorbent. This was too wonderful for words. I was so overcome I actually asked Brahim-who-shall-be-known-as-Brian to photograph me in motion, so to speak. Like the Children of Israel, we gazed on this confection of porcelain as though it were manna from heaven. After such bliss, falling short on the way to the top simply wasn't an option.

Having scaled Kilimanjaro, which is some 5,000 feet higher, a few months earlier, it never occurred to me Toubkal might offer the same degree of difficulty. But size, as I heard once or twice in my courting days, isn't important. It's what you do with it that counts. And what nature has done with Toubkal is to cover it with such loose scree - some fine and powdery, some pebble-size and slippery - that you take three steps forward just to make one. That's right. I got up at four in the morning (why is it always four, what's wrong with five, or six, or seven?") just to slide back down two out of every three steps. And it's all uphill on Toubkal; not even an odd level stretch here and there to lend a bit of respite. The words glutton and punishment come to mind. And yet, the longer I climbed, and the harder I pushed, the stronger I felt. Figure that. We're talking a 3,500ft stretch up a one-in-two gradient, surfing through the early morning cloud-line on a wave of adrenalin and derring-do, and by the time the summit was in view, just beyond the final ridge, I felt there was little my slender frame couldn't endure short of out-racing Steve Redgrave.

Don't get the idea that this kind of climbing is enjoyable. It's not. It's a hard slog. The enjoyment lies in the achievement, and the achievement is hitting the top, drawing a long, deep breath, and, for the first time in four hours, looking up from the ground and allowing your circular vision to assimilate the sheer majesty of your surroundings. I savoured the summit in quiet contemplation, my apparent nonchalance a flimsy mask for my huge sense of well-being.

We each descended at our own pace. Such is the reward of a successful climb. The pressure is off and you come back down as you please. Some race down, some amble, and some, like me, are oblivious to anything, or anyone, else for the next eight hours. Actually, all of us were like that. All except Andrew, that is. Andrew was our group's mountain-man, macho-man, possibly five-times-a-night-and-not-come-up-for-air-man.

Andrew's mission was to get everywhere first. Lunch, dinner, base camp, top of the mountain, and all points in between, lavatories included. Andrew it was who described the final ascent as "a bit of a jog, no more challenging than Snowdon".

So it was with no small sense of schadenfreude that I watched Andrew run down Toubkal like a ferret on Benzedrine, hit a boulder with the full force of his 14 stones, wince as his right leg stiffened like an extremely stiff thing, before hobbling back to Aroumd looking uncannily like Douglas Bader at a skateboard regatta.

Poetic justice? I wouldn't be that cruel. Funny? You bet.

Marrakesh was still pink as ever when we returned next morning. Sitting alone, gloriously alone, on the rooftop terrace of the Restaurant Argana, an espresso in my hand and gazing down on the raucous, joyous cacophony that is the Djema El Fna, my mind turned not to the Triumph of Toubkal, but the scene in that film Hideous Kinky where Kate Winslet arrives in Morocco from west London and looks around in wonder, before deciding that this is the place to raise her two small daughters. I switched on my Discman - Paul Simon singing "Still Crazy After All These Years" - and I thought, yes, I could do that.