There was a moment in the old medina in Fes where three worlds seemed to collide: God, Commerce and the Wolseley Café in Piccadilly. Here, within a few steps of one another you find the religious, the secular, and an excellent latte that’s best enjoyed alongside a lemon tart.
Commerce is everywhere in the lanes of this medieval Muslim city. Still enclosed within high walls, still threaded by a labyrinth of narrow alleys where mules jostle with robed figures, its medina is little changed in a thousand years. Mysterious figures in burnouses with pointed hoods perch on the ledge of a tiled fountain, like extras from Lord of the Rings. Veiled women mill round the underwear stalls, checking out the frilly knickers while men in loincloths hurry towards the tanneries.
Families of pale Berbers from the Atlas, blue tattoos wrinkling on their cheeks, crowd into the jewellers’ shops to finger the gold chains. Dark Africans from the other side of the Sahara cast knowledgeable eyes over piles of dried fruit – figs, raisins and dates – each, like the men themselves, the product of a different region. From time to time, the crowds part and flatten themselves against the walls to let the mules – the only traffic in this antique – world pass.
But there is one moment when commerce falters in these narrow lanes: Friday at midday, when the entire city pauses for prayers. Suddenly the rivers of people vanish: merchants begin pulling down their shutters, and stall holders pack up their tables as people begin to make their way towards the great Karaouiyne Mosque to which all lanes in Fes eventually lead.
The Karaouiyne is said to have been founded in 857, which was long before the earliest of the England’s Norman cathedrals. It is one of the great mosques of Islam. But in these lanes, you could pass the Karaouiyne a dozen times without knowing it was there. In spite of its vast size – there’s room for 20,000 worshippers inside – its blank exterior walls are almost indistinguishable from those of surrounding shops and houses with which it is so intricately enmeshed. It is only a door, left ajar in a humble lane, which allows you suddenly to glimpse the vast pillared courtyard, the great stretch of open sun, and the worshippers assembling for prayers.
On Fridays, all of Fes seems to gather in this courtyard, leaving their shoes outside on the doorstep in a chaos of footwear. Between the pillars, long rows of worshippers sit cross-legged. Then, suddenly, everyone stood and bowed as the name of Allah reverberated down the aisles.
Once prayers were over, the great assembly rose and padded towards the doors in their socks, where their shoes awaited them. But also awaiting them in the alleys just outside the doors of the mosque were rows of sock salesmen. They had hurriedly set up stalls. Here was a golden opportunity. Here was the chance to sell new socks to customers who had so recently been able to observe the shortcomings of their old ones. Within minutes they had sold out. God may preside over this ancient city, especially at Friday prayers, but commerce is its lifeblood.
In Fes, the divine comes in many forms. At the other end of the Talaa Kabira, near the Bab Bou Jelou gateway, I stepped into the exquisite Bou Inania. Fes was the cultural centre of Morocco for a thousand years or more, and, as such, it was home to numerous medersas, or Islamic universities. This was one.
In a single stride I passed from chaos to order, from the commercial hurly burly of the lane to the calm repose of this extraordinary interior. Bou Inania is in retirement – its academic career was over. But though its students are long gone, it remains one of the finest buildings in Morocco, ranking among the very best in the Islamic world.
I came at lunchtime and was alone in the courtyard with a couple of white doves. The courtyard is a space of the most exquisite proportions. Its interior walls bear three bands of dense decoration, rising from courtyard to the roof beams: zellige tiles, stucco work and cedar wood. The patterns – floral, geometric, calligraphic – are astonishingly intricate.
It is the ambition of Islamic art and architecture to illustrate the nature of God. And here, in this courtyard, you find two aspects of the divine: the complexity of design, with the curvaceous swirling lines of those decorative bands, and a profound sense of stillness and purity – almost a sense of simplicity. The courtyard is a place of repose, of refuge.
Almost opposite the medersa, I noticed a small sign in the wall – the Clock Café. I followed a narrow side alley, where two hooded Berbers were deep in conversation. I turned a blind corner and stumbled through a heavy door into a tall, narrow courtyard. Suddenly there were tables and people, and the bubble of conversation.
It is the tradition in these parts that beauty should be veiled. The houses of Fes are all turned inward. To the outside world they present a blank wall, an anonymous door. To their inhabitants they offer fountained courtyards, gorgeous tile work, deep divans, shade, internal peace. The charm of these Fassi houses have attracted an increasing number of foreign buyers, who are snapping them up now that prices in Marrakech have risen to such heights.
Michael Richardson – the former maître d’hôtel at The Wolseley in Piccadilly – is one of these buyers, and has transformed this lovely courtyard house into a café. There are various terraces, a comfy library, and a marvellously eclectic menu. Michael, who always seems to be doing 12 things at once, bursts with enthusiasm as he talks of the café as a cultural centre with exhibitions, sunset concerts, belly dancing classes, and calligraphy workshops.
I had a latte and the café’s famous lemon tart on the roof terrace overlooking the minaret of Bou Inania and the great jumble of Fes rooftops beyond.
‘How is the lemon tart?’ Michael called up to me from the deep well of the courtyard.
“It is divine”, I said. “Simply divine.”
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.