Confession: I don’t really like Morocco all that much.
This is probably not the most auspicious way to begin an essay meant to be effusive ode to one of Morocco’s major cities. But bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. I hope.
Like most people, when I think of Morocco, my mind immediately hums with the colorful chaos of Marrakech: the snake charmers, the street-food vendors promising “fingy-licking good” fare, the persistent salesmen hawking grimy bottles of what purports to be argan oil, the chichi restaurants and obnoxious mega-clubs that have likely never hosted a local that wasn’t employed there, boutiques where an ornate djellaba retails at three times the national average salary, and hordes of Europeans on package holidays, clogging the congested labyrinth of the medina with selfie-sticks wielded in identically henna-ed hands.
Correction: I suppose it’s actually Marrakech that I don’t like all that much.
But everything Marrakech is, Fez isn’t. Where Marrakech has glitz, Fez has gumption. Marrakech is the sultry one-night stand, but Fez is the homely keeper you’ll want to bring home to mom. Marrakech is the city that lures you to Morocco with its enticing siren call; Fez is the one that actually delivers that seduction.
Fez’s charms aren’t as over-the-top as Marrakech’s are; in fact, after a few days, you’ll wonder if Fez is even trying at all. And yet, isn’t that how it usually works: the one that isn’t concerned with impressing you is the one that renders you impossibly smitten. That’s pretty much how I found myself falling hard for Fez.
In the thousands of meandering alleys that make up the ancient medina, I came upon more donkeys than tourists. It’s a fact that makes me brazen enough to conjecture: could the absence of foreign accents be directly proportional to the city’s utter lack of pretension? Where at times all of Marrakech can begin to feel like an Orientalist theme park catering exclusively to foreigners, Fez feels like a living, breathing, working city, albeit one still suspended in a bygone era. This is a city whose “new” part was built in the 14th century, while its older reaches date back to the 8th century.
Today, in one of the largest car-free urban zones in the world, residents continue to chart the circuitous routes that their ancestors traversed, strolling from the neighborhood hammam to the mosque to the bakery to the fountain. Artisans ply centuries-old trades from the very studios their forefathers may have frequented; leather is made in the exact manner it was done in the 14th century, pigeon poop and all; and students still attend classes at the 9th century al-Karaouine University, the oldest in the world. At times, as you stumble from a gilded 18th-century mosque to an atelier where a craftsman spins wool on a rickety old loom to a 14th-century caravanserai, the only clue to which decade you’re in lies in constant chorus of cell phone ringtones buzzing around every corner.
But don’t presume that Fez is a stodgy old antique lacking in luxury — the Art Deco-meets-arabesque ethos of Palais Amani has cemented it as one of my favorite hotels anywhere in the world, and I’ve enjoyed more than one evening overlooking the terra-cotta skyline of the medina from the terrace of the Sofitel Palais Jamais, an opulent re-imagining of the palace of a 19th-century grand vizier. And too timid to visit an authentic neighborhood hammam, I had my first thorough Moroccan-style scrub-down amid the relative privacy of the cosseting spa at the chic Riad Maison Bleue. But what makes Fez truly memorable to me is the luxury of mingling, the opportunity to connect with locals, not just fellow travelers; in Marrakech I only ran into foreigners at every restaurant or boutique I frequented, whereas each night in Fez had me joining hip Fassi twenty-somethings for a boisterous evening of Arabic karaoke, playing soccer with a group of kids in an alley in the shadow of the Sofitel, or feasting on homemade tagines and a delectable whole-roasted fish as guests at a private home.
If you’re looking to party with the global jet-set to the beats of the hottest international DJ du jour, by all means, book that RyanAir flight to Marrakech. But if a city with soul is what you’re after, meet me in Fez.
More reasons why we love Fez: