A crooked old man in a pyjama suit and kufi knitted hat wanders slowly down the eerily quiet laneway, scuffing his pointed babouche slippers on cobblestones that have become glossy with age as he passes a row of shuttered shopfronts. This man is the only other person in this laneway; the only other person, in fact, that my By Prior Arrangement guide Khalid and I have seen for the past five minutes since we entered the Fes medina. We stroll past some narrower laneways and I peer down their length: also empty, save for a few stray cats and some surrealist shadows cast by the late morning sun.
This is the exact opposite of what I had been expecting to find in Fes. For years I had read about the ebullient chaos of the 1200-year-old UNESCO-listed medina of Morocco’s cultural capital with its 9400 hivelike streets. About how this warren of covered bazaars would assault my senses and my concept of personal space with its endless parade of people.
But I shouldn’t – and will not – complain about this ghost town that I’ve found myself in, because it’s actually blissful. Haunting and lovely, a little post-apocalyptic in the best possible way. And it’s all thanks to the Eid al-Adha Islamic festival, which Khalid tells me celebrates Ibrahim following Allah’s command to sacrifice his son.
Moroccans don’t work during this four-day festival, during which every family slaughters a sheep to symbolise Ibrahim’s sacrifice which they then feast on. Which is why there is also, in line with the post-apocalyptic theme, rather a lot of blood congealing here and there on the rough ground, and the occasional pile of raw, fly-covered sheep hides lining the laneways. Ooh and there, under my foot just now, a rogue sheep hoof.
But really, who’s looking at the ground when there’s all this enchanting ornamentation to take in? These arched fountains decorated with kaleidoscopically coloured Moroccan mosaics called zellij; these romantically faded blue, green, purple and yellow walls; these antique wooden doors folded over the closed shop fronts. I wonder how much of it I would have noticed had it been business as usual today in the medina.
Khalid ushers me to the right, to the entrance of the Bou Inania Madrasa, a 2nd century theological college and mosque. It’s one of the most important religious institutions in Morocco and, Khalid tells me, one of the few religious places in Morocco non-Islamic visitors can access.
Even the stairwell leading up from the madrasa’s massive brass doors is breathtaking – the morning light spills across the intricate zellij and the man sitting languidly on the stairs in a white caftan and yellow babouche slippers, quite literally, stops me in my tracks. Inside in the main courtyard there are soaring stone arches, cedar lattice screens and zellij so elaborate my mind boggles at the skill and patience of the master craftsmen who constructed it. And we can see it, including its beautiful green-tiled minaret, in all its glory since we’re the only visitors this morning. Just us and a local woman in a headscarf, quietly mopping the floors surrounding the central fountain in preparation for the morning prayers.
When the cry of the muezzin echoes through the medina calling the locals to prayer, Khalid guides me around a few corners and into a… what is this? Another mosque? No, this is a carpet shop. A very, very beautiful one, with two-storey-high ceilings hung with chandeliers, walls decorated with colourful zellij and filigree marble work and hundreds, possibly thousands, of vibrant carpets stacked, rolled and hung on every surface in sight. I spend a happy half hour perched on the floral velvet couch here at Aux Merveilles Du Tapis, sipping sweet mint tea and marvelling at the handiwork of the Berber tribes from the High Atlas, Middle Atlas and Rif Mountains who created these beautiful rugs, that I sadly am unable to afford.
What I can afford, however, is a pair of leather babouche slippers at our next stop, the historic Chaouwara Tanneries, which has been washing, treating, smoothing and colouring animal skins into soft leather goods since the 13th century. The walls are stacked with slippers, bags, vests and pouffes in all the colours of the rainbow. I’d been told that the view of the colourful tanning and dyeing pits from here on the second floor was unmissable, but when I get up there I find that the vats are currently empty and covered in wooden scaffolding for renovations. I’m a little disappointed but only until Khalid whispers to me on our way out that I’m lucky to have missed the stomach-churning stench that usually emanates from them.
As we exit the medina, we stop to admire the exquisite brass gates of the Dar el Makhzen royal palace, which are surrounded by fine zellij mosaics and carved cedar wood. Khalid tells me these gates, which mark the entrance to the palace that is strictly closed to the public, are usually being ogled by dozens of travellers. Today, of course, we have them all to ourselves.
Nina Karnikowski was a guest of Palais Amani and By Prior Arrangement.
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Casablanca via Dubai from about $1680 return.STAYING THERE
Luxury riad Palais Amani offers 15 opulent rooms decorated with mosaic tiling, stained glass windows and Berber rugs. Sun yourself on the rooftop terraces, get pampered at the traditional hammam and spa, relax in the salon and library or feast on sumptuous Moroccan cuisine in its alfresco garden and rooftop restaurant. Room rates start at about $180 a night in the low season; reduced rates available for those booking through bypriorarrangement.com.NEED TO KNOW
By Prior Arrangement creates small bespoke luxury tours and private itineraries to Morocco based around shopping, art, architecture, gardens, food or trekking.