Caught on a relentless wave, you are carried through slithers of alley-way, dodging donkeys and ducking under enormous baskets of mint as they are carried by on bobbing heads. Either side of your wake, tiny stalls brim over with their wares — cloth, slippers, pottery, leather, brass. Children weave their way deftly through the legs of their elders; old men with their peaked hoods shadowing their leathery, bearded faces crouch in corners carving bits of wood; and women, shrouded and swathed from head to toe save for their piercing black eyes, hold hands and shuffle through the swarm.
This is the underworld of Fes. This is where time chose to stop and rest about two hundred years ago, and never quite got going again. Entering the medina is like taking a huge breath and going underwater, to experience total bombardment of your senses — to feel life in its most frenetic form. It is quite literally almost stomach-churning in its excitement, as sheep heads and goat balls flash past you, and as the excruciating stench of pigeon poo and sulphuric acid hits your nostrils from the tanneries. Almost ten thousand alley-ways form this walled rabbit warren, so you will need to keep coming up for air.
While Fes el-Bali (Old Fes) is indubitably the core fascination of this Imperial City, a quick trip uphill to the Merenid tombs is worth it for the stunning view back across the biblical bowl that is Fes.
Also worth visiting are the Royal Palace and the Mellah (Jewish quarter) in Fes el-Jdid (New Fes). The ville nouvelle, constructed by the French in 1916, impresses with its broad, tree-lined boulevards, and more conventional-style restaurants and shops than can be found in the medina. Further afield, the Imperial City of Meknes and the Roman ruins of Volubilis, both only about an hour’s drive from Fes, are worth dedicating a day to.
Fes is a city that one cannot fail to be passionate about. The addictive essence of the pounding medina drips into one’s veins like a drug that forever leaves you with a thirst to feel more, to dig deeper. A single visit can never be enough. This is Morocco’s religious capital, its cultural capital and its culinary capital (breakfasts that you’ll never forget), and its frenzied pace and enormity provide an interesting contrast to the laid-back village, by comparison, which is Marrakech.