The first time I went to Morocco, the 60s, it was all about the Marrakech Express. And once you got there, there were the gentle charms of Essaouira, not all that far down the road. On that first trip, before the Jamaa el-Fna was a parking lot during the day, Morocco and Marrakech were synonymous to me. I had driven my VW van down from Spain, taking a ferry to Ceuta and studiously avoiding what I thought would be Tijuana-like Tangier (a city I came to love in later years). We spent most of our time in Marrakech and Essaouira, slept in the van every night. But we also managed to visit many of the country's other main towns on that trip. I had a terrible case of dysentery when we got to Fes and I remember spending all my time in a camp ground outside of town.
I've been back to Morocco eleven times since then. And Fes has long since replaced Marrakech as my favorite city, although Fes has gotten a lot tamer and less dangerous feeling lately and Marrakech seems to have gotten cooler again, more like the way it was in the 60s. Fes, though, will always be exotic, basically because Fes is a functioning medieval city with streets too narrow and with too many steps for motor vehicles. Sunday's New York Times features it and calls it The Soul of Morocco. The title fits although you could ask almost any Morocco-hand and they'll think that title refers to Marrakech. The Times relied on a Fassi partisan, "a craftsman and cultural entrepreneur," Abdelfettah Seffar, to give them the lay of the land:
“Fez is really just the medieval city that it was,” Mr. Seffar went on, contrasting his hometown with its fast-developing jet-set sister and rival, Marrakech. “We are a little scared of what Marrakesh has become. Fez is the soul of Morocco. It’s the last bastion of what Morocco really is.”
Faded but stately, crumbling but proud, the walled city of Fez might well be the largest and most enduring medieval Islamic settlement in the world. It is indisputably Morocco’s spiritual and cultural heart.
You need only watch the daily procession of candle-toting mourners entering the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss II — believed to be a great-great grandson of the prophet Mohammed — to feel the city’s connection to its past. A glance at the ninth-century Karaouine University, widely considered the world’s oldest operating institution of higher learning, reaffirms the impression.
As Marrakesh has opened to Tropezian swimming-pool clubs and branches of Ibiza night spots, Fez has turned ever deeper to its history, renovating architectural masterpieces and creating new festivals devoted to the city’s rich culinary and musical traditions.