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Finding Morocco in Fez

Fez isn’t the first city people think of when they think of Morocco. I know this because before my recent visit to the country, the first question of everyone who heard about my trip was how long I’d spend in Marrakesh.

I wasn’t headed for Marrakesh at all, but for northern Morocco and Fez, the country’s spiritual heart. Besides being one of the holiest cities in the Arab world, Fez is an intellectual nerve center whose most noted university has been educating people for well over 1,000 years, and, within its medina’s ancient walls, the world’s largest car-free zone. But most of its allure, for me, had not much to do with worship, education, or transportation; it was more corporeal. It was the textures, sounds, smells, and tastes of the medina’s web, a sensory overload I’ve never experienced before. It was in this time-warped cacophony that I found the joys of Morocco.

My days began before light, at 4:50am with the first call to prayer, an ornate offering lasting nearly 30 minutes that married chants from multiple mosques with the strangely melodic calls of roosters and dogs. I ran to my window every time to see the action, but there was none; the city was entirely alive yet eerily still at once. If only every wake-up call were so profound.

Wandering the old city late mornings is another story, as its covered streets heave with action. Beyond the Bab Boujloud, the medina’s main gate, is a scene: heads of camel hang above strings of figs; reed toothbrushes fall from heaping bins; donkeys shove pedestrians aside as they haul goods uphill; vendors spoon snail soup into bowls for takeaway; a bull on a leash struts by; bakers sell charred ksra bread from their stoves; coriander, parsley, and kif make the air smell like earth. It all unfolds in a way that would make any design fan drool—under awnings so beautiful that even their undersides are meticulously adorned, in front of rainbows of stained glass, atop intricate zellij tiling.

At the ends of alleys and behind heavy doors are the artisans who support the city—and what tourism infrastructure it has—by making heavily scented prayer mats, rugs, embroidered textiles, pottery, leather goods, metals, Hand of Fatima charms. There is virtually nowhere to turn that won’t get you lost, but nowhere you can look that isn’t a discovery, a revelation of how people have lived here for centuries upon centuries.

So, no, I didn’t make it to Marrakesh this time, but I found the Morocco I was looking for dodging donkeys in the orange-blossom-and-everything-else-scented streets of Fez. Any other visitor can expect to as well—though it may well be a different Morocco every time. Just trust that your senses will tell the story.

michelle_doucette

My name: Michelle Doucette

How I earn my keep: I'm an editor at IgoUgo.com.

Favorite way to get around: Some of my favorite trips involved renting cars in foreign countries and driving through the countryside, stopping on whims. You get a feel for the culture away from the big cities and meet interesting people on the road, including, I must admit, an embarrassingly high number of local policemen. I suppose it would be prudent to learn all of the traffic laws ahead of time.

Best meal I've had while traveling: Since a succession of gelato cones probably doesn't count as a meal, my favorite must have been a fresh crabmeat lunch prepared by a St. John sailboat captain while we took a break from snorkeling in the Caribbean. Sharing baklava as the sun came up over Paros, Greece, (while, once again, not technically a meal) was also memorable.

Travel ambitions: Since climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I've figured out that I'd like to keep trekking while traveling. I've got my eyes on epic hikes in Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru.

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