The most ancient is Fez, one of the world’s most important medieval monuments, located in the north east by the foothills of the Rif and the Middle Atlas, founded in the late 8th century AD and site of the world’s oldest university which won for it the title of the Athens of Africa. Al Quaraouiyine Mosque was founded in 859 by a pious lady and as a centre of high learning, its traditions continue to this day with a campus just outside the city wall.
Fez el Bali, old Fez, with Al Quaraouiyine, also has a fascinating tannery quarter, turning out the finest Moroccan leather, with drying fields and long rows of dyeing vats of varied striking colours that resemble a giant’s paint box. Homes may look gimcrack and faded in the sun but, should you be invited in, you are privileged to find spotless domestic gems, even mini-palaces tiled with mosaics and arabesque designs. This is a city that rivals the Baghdad of Haroun al Rachid with sectors perched on pinnacles and crags, or spread through the valley, a mixture of green grass and cream coloured rock. The Old Town is built on both sides of the Oued Fez River with elegant old palaces now serving as restaurants. One of two fortresses, the Borg Sud, is the site of a spectacular son et lumiere display from mid-February to November which celebrates the Fez el Bali story.
Fez el Jadid, the so-called New Town, built in 1276 on a plateau to the west, houses the Royal palace and its amazing Medina with labyrinthine streets and alleyways and has been designated by UNESCO one of the world’s cultural treasures.
Amazingly, some old families there still retain the documents, deeds and keys to the homes their ancestors abandoned in old Andalusia more than 500 years ago during the Spanish Reconquista. The Ville Nouvelle, built in the 20th century during the French Protectorate, has a pleasant ambience but can hardly compete with the historic charm of its neighbours. In Fez one senses a closeness to the country’s soul. It remains Morocco’s cultural capital and the citizens, the Fassis, have a reputation as masters of the art of good living.