FEZ, Morocco — "Balak!" (watch out) is the word you hear most often in this city's medina, usually shouted when donkeys, carrying piles of various goods, make their way through the narrow alleyways.
Fez, the oldest of Morocco's four imperial cities (with Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat), is still the perfect medieval Islamic town, with 200,000 of its 500,000 citizens living in the medina, largest in the Arab world.
The old walled city is divided into sections, each having its own public oven, Koranic school, Turkish bath, public fountain and mosques--of which there are more than 200. Rust, terra cotta and pink are the predominant colors of centuries-old buildings, mosques and minarets, many decorated with the green tile that Muslims favor.
Fez is still considered the most important cultural and religious center in Morocco, although its once-famous university, which drew European scholars for centuries, has lost its intellectual laurels to the one in Rabat, and commercial activity has largely moved to Casablanca.
The French protectorate here (1912 to 1955) created a new town outside the souks (marketplace) of the medina--one of broad avenues, fine hotels and modern conveniences. But the Fes el Bali medina still owes nothing to the 20th Century save electricity . . . and a brief nod to modern styles in its leather wear.
To Here: Fly KLM, Lufthansa or Iberia to Casablanca, then Royal Air Maroc to Fez. The latter also flies nonstop from New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport to Casablanca.
How long/how much? Give the city three days, perhaps another for a 35-mile drive to the old imperial city of Meknes and the Roman ruins at nearby Volubilis, the empire's most far-flung outpost. You'll find good accommodations at moderate cost, along with marvelous moderate dining.
Few fast facts: Morocco's dirham recently traded at 8.1 to the dollar, about 12 cents each. Visit any time of the year, although November through January sees some rain and midsummer can be hot. Stick to bottled water, even in the best hotels and restaurants.
Settling in: Hotel Les Merinides (Borj Ennour, Route du Tour de Fes; $80 U.S. double) is a five-minute drive from the medina and has a magnificent view from a road high above walls of the old town. Bedrooms are in white wicker and white bamboo, with pastel fabrics. The pool area also enjoys the spectacular view, with lobby shops, bar, Moroccan and international dining rooms.
Sofia (3 Rue du Pakistan; $40 double) is six years old and in the new town. It's a modern hotel with Moroccan and French restaurants plus a coffee shop. A pool in the courtyard, also a bar and nightclub. Bedrooms are large and contemporary, with tile baths.
Palais Jamai (Bab-Guissa; $84-$111 double) was built by the Jamai family in the 18th Century as a "pavilion for rest, for escape, for pleasure to the eyes and peace to the soul." It's set within the old city walls in an Andalusian garden of palm and orange trees, tiled fountains, lush shrubs and tranquillity.
A Moorish-tile lobby with huge brass chandeliers introduces you to one of Africa's most gorgeous hotels: Berber rugs, mosaics and glorious antiques at every turn. Even the bar is exquisite, having overstuffed lounges and chairs, and great banks of roses everywhere. Bedrooms carry out the general opulence found throughout.
Food and drink: Moroccan food owes much to the spices that seem to give every dish a distinctive and exotic flavor: coriander, cumin, peppers and garlic are added to tomatoes, making a memorable sauce that works wonders with fish and meat. Black olives and lemon are also used in many recipes.
Lamb is the basis for numerous main courses, including those slow-cooked in a tajine , a glazed and colorful earthenware dish shaped like a top. One version includes the olives and lemon, another the tomatoes flavored with spices, yet another with prunes; they're all delicious. Pigeons, a great favorite, are a delicacy, particularly when served in a b'stilla (puff pastry with almonds).
Couscous of steamed semolina , with lamb or chicken and vegetables, has made its way to tables around the world. And Coquillages is a crisp white wine that goes well with just about any Moroccan dish.
Good dining: The Moroccan dining room of Hotel Les Merinides is a pleasure dome of impressive Moorish columns, tiles and a ceiling of colorful filigreed designs in wood and glass. Guests sit on low couches and start meals with briouates , a puff pastry filled with minced meat and rice. A good choice for the main dish is a lamb tajine cooked with large pieces of quince. Service is attentive, and there's a folkloric show of native music and dancing several times weekly.
Al Fassia is the name of Palais Jamai's Moroccan restaurant, one of the most beautiful rooms we've seen. Lustrous brocade fabric of red and gold cover the couches. Rich local rugs are underfoot, and a carved wooden door is a masterwork.