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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - A Strong Strange Scent Of History

The Telegraph, 12 Jan 2002

A strong, strange scent of history

The alleys of Fez - the most complete medieval city in the world - leave Paul Mansfield both enchanted and exhausted

ON my way to see the herbalist about a miracle cure, I popped into Khayar's for a shave. In his tiny shop, under magazine photographs of chubby Moroccan starlets, Khayar lathered my face and shaved it with a cut-throat razor. Then he splashed on sticky "Sorciere" aftershave, rubbed some cream into my scalp and combed my hair into a side parting. I haven't had a side parting since I was 11, but never mind. Smooth, sweet-smelling and rested, I set off to do battle once more with the city outside.

And you do have to do battle. No matter where else you've travelled in Morocco, Fez stands out as different, richer, stronger. Other Moroccan cities offer glimpses of a quaint and fascinating historic landscape. Fez, the most complete medieval city in the world, jumps out and assaults your senses. The only way to tackle this ancient metropolis of 200,000 people is to give into it and float along on its strange, hypnotic tide.

Fez sits in a low basin in the foothills of the Rif mountains. The French built a new town to the north in the early 20th century, but they left the old one untouched, and its Medina has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century. On my first evening I wandered into it at twilight. Narrow lanes led off in every direction; swarms of people filed this way and that.

In the souks, yellow lamps lit stalls of food, spices and crafts. There was the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer; yells from street vendors, from children. Horribly overladen donkeys plodded through the streets, their masters whacking them with sticks and yelling "Balak, balak!" (Watch out!) In workshops no bigger than cupboards, men were bent over tin and copper plates, hammering and scraping. The strangeness of the place was enough to take my breath away - but there was more.

I sensed it in the veiled women hurrying towards mosques which non-Muslims are forbidden to enter. In the dark alleyways that led seemingly nowhere; in the grilled windows from which blank faces stared out at the crowd. Fez hides itself away. It is a mysterious, wilfully secretive place. "What you see on the street is only half of Fez," said Omar Lebbar. "Real life here goes on behind closed doors."

He should know. Omar is a native Fassi and the owner of the Dar El Ghalia, a house in the Medina that has been in his family for nearly 300 years, and which recently opened as a small hotel. The house is a blank, high-sided building indistinguishable from its neighbours. But then you push open the door and you're in another world.

Inside is a tall courtyard full of light and colour. Tiled floors, palms, a fountain, delicately painted wooded screens, banquettes padded with silk cushions. Public rooms lie off the courtyard; the bedrooms are on the second tier, spacious but cosy, with Moroccan rugs and time-worn furniture. Two attendants, Hassan and Said, are endlessly attentive: smiling, bringing glasses of mint tea; building up the fire as night falls. At dinner, Said decants thick local Guerrouane wine into a crystal carafe; Hassan brings a little tray of sweetmeats. This makes you feel distinctly Pasha-like. In Morocco, hospitality has not yet become synonymous with plain old service.

I awoke the next morning at dawn to the eerie drone of the muezzin, and shortly after that came the clump of donkey hooves in the cobbled alleyway below, and the shouts and cries of locals. Fez's restless energy means it is not a city for long lie-ins. Time for a second shot at the Medina, but this time with a guide, whose assistance was clearly vital. Fatima was 33, with a degree in French, and dressed in a smart grey business suit. Although from Fez, she had spent the two months since she qualified as a guide walking through the Medina, trying to familiarise herself with it. "And I'm still learning," she said.

Working as a female guide, too, had been something of a revelation in conservative Fez. "Many men in the Medina think I should be at home with my husband." She was also, apparently, forbidden to wait for clients outside some hotels because the management assumed she was a prostitute. But Fatima had the stoicism of the native Fassi. "Things are changing in this country," she said. "Where there is change, there is always difficulty."

By day the Medina was as jumbled and confusing as it had been by night. But now Fatima was leading the way. Its sounds and smells were overwhelming, images piled up. In the Place Seffarine, tinsmiths worked on enormous copper bowls. At the Dyers' Souk, the cobbled alleyways ran red and yellow with dye, as bare-chested workers wrung out sheets of cloth. We visited the Attarin Medersa, an Islamic college of exquisite, honey-coloured stone. We passed the street corner where slaves were auctioned. We saw mosques, minarets and towers. And we - or rather, Fatima - fended off the hustlers, the children and the shopkeepers who stood in front of piles of leather sandals, or mountains of gold and silver, beckoning us in.

After a few hours Fez was becoming a blur. But two sights stood out. One was the tanneries, where, outside on a terrace, you look down on to a scene so medieval it seems like an hallucination. Skins drying on the walls and roofs; figures toiling in vast vats of dye and toxic limescale; the smell of faeces and guano (used to treat the leather) rising up and turning the stomach. The other was a detail: in a dingy basement damp with steam, a lone dark figure was shovelling wood into a furnace to feed the public baths above. Picturesque Fez undoubtedly is, but parts of it can look like hell.

Later, with Fatima gone, I was on my own and at the mercy of the hustlers. Easy to fend off elsewhere in Morocco ("It's all right, I know where I'm going"), here it was impossible - mainly because I manifestly didn't know where I was going. After several dead-ends, followed by ignominious retreats, I engaged one boy to lead me through the Talaa Kebira, the long lane that traverses the Medina from east to west. He did, but was immediately set upon by another, bigger boy, and then by a third, until I was leading a ragged pack of competing children through the streets. They scattered when they saw a policeman - locals are not allowed to accost tourists - but followed me for the rest of the trip, hands outstretched. For a foreigner, the Medina can be a tiring, tiring place.

Back, then, for some much-needed tranquillity at the Dar El Ghalia, where Hassan and Said knocked up an afternoon snack of boiled eggs dipped in cumin, and the only sound was the trickling of the fountain and the occasional muffled cry from the street. Bliss. M. Lebbar smiled at my exhaustion. He had been right, of course: the streets of the Medina are the public face of Fez, its industrial zone and shopping mall. This was how life went on behind doors - if not always in such luxury.

Still, I wanted one last look at the souks - and a consultation with the herbalist Fatima had recommended. The next day, emerging from Khayar's barbershop, I headed for the herbalist with growing confidence. A few days in Fez toughens you up. I found Abdul sitting with friends in the street, sipping tea. When I entered his shop he pulled on a white coat and followed me.

We gazed at the ranks of jars and bottles, and Abdul began an explication in decorous French. He had, he said, cures for the back, the head, the stomach, the feet and God knows what else. He also had a sideline in perfume. What was the source of my problem?

"Snoring," I said.

Abdul looked delighted at the challenge. A jar of a black substance that resembled coal dust was produced. "Black anis," he said, rubbing some on to a cloth, which he then passed to me. It was like inhaling acid. As I staggered around the room wheezing, Abdul changed tack. Perhaps I would prefer some perfume instead?

I made my way back to the Dar El Ghalia with streaming eyes. Leaving Fez that morning, two aromas accompanied me. One was Abdul's pungent cure for snoring; the other the sickly whiff of Khayar's aftershave. But like Fez itself, they had a strange way of growing on you.

Paul Mansfield travelled to Fez with Best of Morocco