Some ten years ago, Fez boomed as a tourist destination. Money poured into the city, from foreigners buying up riads in the medina to new parks and fountains in the ville nouvelle. If you believed the travel and style pages of the Western media, Fez had become the new Marrakesh. Then the Arab Spring and similar events in other Muslim countries took their toll on tourism. Now, however, it seems that investment is on its way back, particularly apparent in the number of new hotels being built and old ones renovated in Fez.
Fassis, though, know that their city is beyond the vagaries of tourism. This is an old and supremely self-confident city that has nothing to prove to anyone. Dynasties and booms have all come and gone in the city’s 1200-year existence, and Fez will be around long after the next fashion has burned itself out.
The city’s allegiance, or at least submission, has always been essential to whoever held Morocco’s throne. Morocco’s independence movement was born here, and when there are strikes or protests, they are often at their most vociferous in Fez.
For visitors, the medina of Fès el-Bali (Old Fez) is the city’s great drawcard. It’s an assault on the senses, a warren of narrow lanes and covered bazaars fit to bursting with aromatic food stands, craft workshops, mosques and an endless parade of people. Old and new constantly collide – the man driving the donkeys and mules that remain the main form of transport is likely to be chatting on his mobile phone, while the ancient skyline is punctuated equally with satellite dishes and minarets.
Years of neglect have taken their toll on the medina, however. The authorities have taken note; the city walls have been repaired and much is being done to conserve buildings. Scaffolding is everywhere. Yet for all the romance of medina life to visitors, many residents have been happy to sell up to foreigners and swap their sometimes medieval living conditions for a modern apartment in the ville nouvelle.
The trick is to dive straight in. It is initially overwhelming, but once you adjust to the pace of the city, Fez reveals its charms in most unexpected ways. Seemingly blind alleys lead to squares with exquisite fountains, filled with the rhythmic hammer-music of copper beaters. Getting lost in Fez is where the fun really starts.