Fez, the third largest city in Morocco after Casablanca and Rabat, placed under world heritage protection by UNESCO is one of the favorite destinations for lovers of oriental culture.
By Farah Souames
Algiers – This medieval city, which celebrated its 1200th anniversary throughout 2008, was previously called Africa’s Athens. Imperial city, spiritual and gastronomic capital of Morocco, Fez still maintains its authentic traditional architecture, preciously conserved despite the sprinkling of modernity.
This El dorado of tourism is attracting more and more globetrotters who come from all over the world to admire its mosques, the Islamic schools called Madrasas, the famous zaouia of “Moulay Idriss”, the old medina and its prestigious riyads that make up the originality of Fez.
Nothing is predictable to the visitor walking its narrow streets, that behind those blind walls and small windows with metallic bars, they will discover beautiful interiors where colors and materials are amazingly mixed, creating an indoor paradise. This architectural heritage and real estate full of splendid houses turned Fez into a cultural and civilization crossroads.
It is difficult to escape the glorious history of this city; history is everywhere in every inch of this space, even its inhabitants ignore they are spending their lives in a museum-town.
It is almost impossible for new comers to find their way, with those narrow streets making it a complicated labyrinth city. They can feel the ancient side of the medina, while crossing the old market, where they smell the perfume of different spices that are the key to the delicious Moroccan cuisine. Craft industries still maintain their traditional characteristics dated from centuries; it is alive through the old jewelry, lamps, carpets, fabrics, etc. Everything is there to satisfy all tastes for eastern culture amateurs.
My guide of the day was Khalid, a Moroccan from Fez who emigrated to France. It was in Khalid’s Riyad that we organized the gala dinner for the fifth International Conference of the Arab Society for Computer Aided Architectural Design ASCAAD 2010, a great scientific event that enabled me to see the beauty and lust of his guest house.
We crossed the old medina that my guide seemed to know too well. We stopped near a coffee shop opened nearly 60 years ago. The owner welcomed me with the famous Moroccan expression: “Marhba ya lalla”, which literally means “welcome lady!” We walked up narrow stairs to sit in a mezzanine. Khalid told me that he loves this place. “It’s a part of my history, this is where I got my first job when I was 15 before I traveled to Europe and finally settled in Paris” he said. We tasted a delicious almond/grape juice before we left this awesome café and the smile of Si Cherif and his waiters.
We walked back up the “leather street”, that locals call “Souk el djeld”. All those small leather shops were full of tourists busy buying gifts and souvenirs, one of them who was choosing a bag told me: “Its my fourth visit to Morocco, and I love it more each time. It’s the best period to be in Fez. The weather is so great!”. Not far off, you can see the fabric market showing in all its shops the most traditional Moroccan dress called “Caftan” from the simplest to the bridal ones.
A few minutes more walking and then we are in one of the most distinct areas of Fez. We could smell blood, cumin, coriander. We are near the famous tanneries of Fez, where I saw people of all ages working hard inside among these special smells and spectacular pigments that colour water going through basins serving for leather treatment.
We ended this small tour by a walk to “derb el haddadine”, which means the blacksmith street. It is clear that these craftsmen are doing a brilliant job, unique lamps, beds, tables, that will decorate the city’s houses. This diversity is like a sense of traveling back in time. The tourist can easily imagine himself in the Berber period, an amazing rainbow of sense capturing the attraction of any visitor.
Riyad El Alya, a thousand and one nights palace
During our awesome tour in the old medina, Khalid was speaking so passionately about his guest house, and the difficulties he encountered to realize this dream-project in his hometown, that his passion made me impatient to go there and appreciate it! We took a taxi that drove us to Batha, a quiet area where the richest inhabitants of Fez used to live. A few meters and here we are…
Once the thick wooden doors crossed, I was in front of a magical interior, like in a thousand and one nights, a majestic house spreading over 1200 square meters renovated and restored with an exquisite taste. We felt like we were in a big palace, with its adorable welcoming staff, dressed in traditional black Moroccan clothes, serving tea and cakes to some of the residents enjoying their time in the Riyad patio.
The first things that attracts your attention once inside this house is the plaster ornaments on the walls, beautifully restored by the plaster craftsman Khaled Reda. Khalid told me that the successful renovation of his riyad is mainly due toReda’s efforts.
The building was bought in 2006, from a Moroccan resident in Germany, then the work lasted 2 years. Reda’s team restored every inch in the house, starting from the walls that preserved their natural blue mosaic to the fountain surrounded by orange trees centering amazingly the patio. Reda told me: “we have worked hard in a team of ten, during two years only in this architectural jewel”. Khalid and Reda knew each other for a long time, but Khalid discovered Reda’s work through an illustrated book about Fez he bought in Paris. “Al Alya house success enabled me to travel and transmit the Andalusian style in plaster all over the world, so that it never dies!” added Reda.
All the space recalls Andalusian houses and palaces, mixing genially marble and cedar wood, permeating bright colours and particular lighting, while visiting every room, creating a charming and reflecting a seductive Morocco.
I went downstairs to have a cup of water, waiting to continue my great visit of the wonderful place, and I surprisingly discovered the gastronomic paradise of Al Alya house. Everyone was peeling, washing, cooking happily. A beautiful young woman welcomed me, Halima, the Riyad manager. She was helping another French resident in peeling tomatoes. “It is the help Riyad” she said, “we all here help each other, and love smelling those food and spices that make of Fez cuisine one of the most delicious in the country and the world”.
I continued my visit with Khalid. The riyad has 7 fascinating rooms named after the most beautiful cities in Morocco: Fez room, Casablanca room, Marrakech room, Rabat room, Meknes room, Tangier room and Tiznit room. Each of them was more amazing than the other. Khalid told me that he and his daughter had designed themselves everything; lamps, carpets, covers, decorations. He showed me proudly one of his daughter’s paintings in Tangier room. Everything here aspires to rest inside these strong walls, witness of Berber traditions and customs.
I ended up in Khalid’s favourite place, the terrace, giving a unique view on the imperial city, decorated in a folkloric style, a place of pretty evenings under a Fez clear sky!
I went back to the house hall, pretty sure that tomorrow’s dinner would be a real success.
This great evening ended up with the attribution of the best paper to Dr. Hans Hubers from Delft University, who was offered a pure copper plate with his name beautifully written by one of the medina’s best blacksmiths. I left Al Alya house wishing to visit it again one day!
It’s the end of my marvellous trip in Moulay Idriss city. Time stopped in this mysterious part of Africa full of civilization, leaving its taste, soliciting each tourist to come again, feeling its warm streets and walkways, and as the famous novelist Clezio once said: “Despite the hard times, the human virtue is always shining in this bright Maghreb, in which Fez is obviously the youngest spark”.
All conference speakers and contributors to the scientific success of the fifth sustainability conference were there, immediately amazed by the beauty of the place, the authenticity of restoration work in this 14th century building, under the rhythm of traditional folkloric music.
Khalid told his guests that he was too far from the architecture and heritage field, but this house gave him the will to invest in his hometown in a cultural and architectural project.
Editing by Benjamin Villanti
Farah Souames obtained her Bachelor of Science in Computer and Information science at the University of 2o August 1955 Eastern Algeria. She has High degrees in French and English at foreign cultural and language centers.
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