Fez - When I first came to Morocco in June of 2012, I got acquainted with the concept of a “medina” in the Moroccan (and North African) sense of the word; before that time, I had known medina (al-madinah) only as a word for a town or city, in the general sense.
Fez – When I first came to Morocco in June of 2012, I got acquainted with the concept of a “medina” in the Moroccan (and North African) sense of the word; before that time, I had known medina (al-madinah) only as a word for a town or city, in the general sense.
The Moroccan medinas, however, with their mazes of narrow lanes and worn-down facades, were a new experience to me. At that time though, to be frank, the Fez medina did not impress me at all. Little did I know, however, that two years later I would find myself living in the second largest city of Morocco, in a house right in the middle of the huge and confusing medina. If someone would have foretold my future, I’d have surely laughed.
The Intricacies of a Life in a Traditional Medina
It has now been almost two years since a beautiful Dar, not far from the Qaraouine mosque, became my home and refuge as well as my office. Living in the largest historical medina in the world is my daily reality, and even my Moroccan friends from the New Town sometimes wonder why in the world I would want to voluntarily put up with the noises, smells and crowds in the medina rather than live comfortably, and emulate their European lifestyle in the New Town.
What I like most about the medina, however, isn’t what it is, but rather, what it’s not.. It isn’t conspicuously beautiful; literally, it has its inner beauty. It is not a particularly comfortable place to live and, at times, it teaches me to be thankful for what I have. Finally, neither is it a quiet place, yet I find, that I’ve been able to contemplate and find peace in it easily.
In my almost two full years living in the Fez medina, I have been able to locate where I can get the best bread, onions or jben. I have also learned when the streets are empty so I can pass through quickly to do my shopping at the souk. I know the shortcuts from the main road and have also learned to put my trash out at night so it can be collected in the morning.
Dar Is Where It All Happens
While the little lanes stay comfortably cool in the summer time, I pass through them running my errands, using them only as narrow passages – unlike the wide and sunny streets back home in Slovakia where I would spend my time sitting, playing with friends or taking walks. Here, the life happens behind the large and thick walls, not outside of them. Not having the faintest idea what is behind the thick and run-down grey wall causes anticipation and raises expectations which, in the case of renovated riads and dars, are often found to be modest when confronted by the reality of the beauty one finds inside.
My own house is one such hidden beauty – after a long day outside, I may decide to come in and just sit downstairs on the step of my room and gaze up at its finely renovated pillars, white curvy stucco and colorfully painted flowers on the cedar wood. I’ve encountered cedar wood in many other places before coming to Morocco, but I feel that this wood will remain a symbol of my life here in Fez; owing to its rich fragrance which welcomes me home every time I bow my head to enter the house. Homes are supposed to be places of refuge and rest, and the traditional Fassi houses are exactly that.
I love visits to the houses of my Moroccan and foreign friends around the medina. What an incredible amount of painstaking work had to be done to revive the old beautiful houses, and to save them from falling apart! Dar Seffarine is a vivid example – its owners, an Iraqi architect Alaa and his wife Kate, like to reminisce about the days when they had to use hundreds of donkeys to clean out the debris from the 600 year old property before the actual work of artistic restoration could begin. Their house, operated today as a top-end guesthouse, is a true jewel of Fassi architecture with very positive vibes, tasteful furnishings and a great sense of serenity.
Another stunning house which has been meticulously restored and taken care of, belongs to a German expat, Kleo. Her little palace is called Dar Attajalli, and it boasts one of the most beautiful interior fountains I have seen in Fes. I feel enchanted by the intimate courtyard, with its intricately ornamented bartal and natural paints on the preserved cedar wood. What a great place to relax and meditate!
However, even if enclosed by massive walls, which I blame for the bitter cold in winter, and weak internet connection year-round, there is no sense of forced seclusion in the beautiful dars – their interiors are connected to the sky via the halka, which I like to keep open unless it’s raining. It allows the birds to fly in and make their nests upon our pillars. Even more nature can be found in the riads, which are, by the sense of the word, large courtyard houses with an interior garden. There is nothing like sitting in the shade from palm and citrus trees during the heat of a summer day, sipping on a tea or fresh juice. The image of an oasis, or a paradise, is intensified once again by the fact that they are hidden away from the streets and businesses.
When the Destination Is All about Accommodation
When pondering the beauty and uniqueness of the Fassi interiors, one thought comes to mind: while many of these old jewels of architecture have been renovated and turned into business, they are far beyond mere providers of accommodation – they should be considered a destination in themselves. Within the broader context of islamic architecture, Fes has something of great value to offer. I believe that the touristic potential of Fes lies right there, in its riads and dars, which deserve to be sought out deliberately, not only as places to sleep but also as places to visit, enjoy and savour.
Dozens, if not hundreds of beautiful old Fassi houses deserve such attention because of their historical value, but also because they are very much a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, unparallelled within the realm of world famous destinations. When I first entered the Fes medina through its famous Blue Gate, I clearly did not know what lay hidden from my view – two years on, I am proud to be an inhabitant of a place with such an exceptional hidden beauty and extraordinary character.
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