Following the course of the river that bears the same name, Fez El-Bali spills down the hill from the plateau of the new town.
In shades of cream and gold dotted with the green roofs of its places of worship, it sits there like the mosaic it is famous for: a vast cubist painting made from millions of different hand-fashioned tiles, each one a work of art in itself and put together to produce a timeless weathered masterpiece, visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year.
Edith Wharton, on her visit in 1917, colours her description of the city with that of an enchanter’s wand. For enchanted it is: a vast labyrinth only really mastered by those born within it.
Its alleyways can seem to lead you in concentric circles or straight to a dead end that you were sure was your way home but also to surprising courtyards with fountains and fragrant gardens. Improbable alleys open out onto markets of spices and honey, or colourful stalls of abundant vegetables and olives, or again, workshops of woodcarvings, metal work, leather and embroidery. If one thing is constant in this chaotic place, it is that no one leaves Fez unmoved. Yet it is no art gallery or museum. Nor is it an amusement park with actors simulating the life that was. The medina of Fez, the largest in the world, is a vibrant living, working community.
Like all communities it has its own codes and customs and functions in a way that has essentially remained unchanged for centuries but it is also a community that is in constant evolution.
Visitors are welcome, are often a source of curiosity, but they are not what fuels the economy. As a tourist you are a bystander, an admirer of its heritage, and a spectator to the customs, routines and rituals that make it unique.
The people of the medina are as integral a part of this place as the alleyways they navigate in, the schools they study in, the monuments they worship in or the workshops they work in. So when you come to the medina of Fez, take time to stop in one of the many cafés that are dotted along the streets and do some serious people watching. To begin to understand the medina of Fez, you need to understand the people that live here.