While the name Casablanca conjures up romantic images of cinema’s golden age and Marrakech attracts the tourist hordes, visitors seeking the true Morocco should instead head to Fez, the ancient city in the country’s rugged interior.
Located north-east of the fabled Atlas Mountains, Fez is Morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital, making it both revered and envied by its rival regions. Home to the world’s oldest continuously in-use university — The University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 CE — Fez’s influence on the Arab world is vast.
Sited in the 1,200-year-old medina, the university is one of many must-see sights among the 9,400 streets that make up the world’s largest car-free urban area. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the labyrinthine alleyways are no trite tourist attraction — around 70,000 people call the old city home.
The construction of the neighboring Karaouine Mosque, built at the same time as the university, marks the start of Fez’s Golden Age as the capital of a sprawling empire. Wealthy families funded a vast building program of luxurious homes, palaces, religious schools and mosques, many of which still stand today.
The medina’s claustrophobic density means visitors never know what will be revealed around the next turn. Getting lost is inevitable, but the main landmarks are regularly signposted so reorienting yourself is straightforward.
Although there is plenty of accommodation available within the medina, visitors may prefer to stay in neighboring Fes el Jdid, the “new” city (built in the 13th century), which allows cars, making it easier to for airport transfers.
The old city’s two main streets, Talaa Kebira and Talaa Seghiri, can both be accessed through the ornate triple-arched Bab Bou Jeloud, the medina’s western gateway. Kebira takes you to the meat district, which is not for the squeamish – live chickens ignorantly cluck in cages next to their newly-killed and plucked friends, while camels’ heads dangle in front of some stores.
The street then meanders downhill, and butchers’ shops give way to family-run stores selling everything from ceramics to artifacts, clothing and spices.