On the Cusp: Northern Morocco

A veritable feast for the senses, northern Morocco is still exotic, mysterious, and stunning. But as boutique hotels and upscale restaurants trickle in, more tourists will follow. Beat the rush; put this tradition- and culture-rich gem on your to-do list...now.
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Donkeys in the Fes medina, Morocco
Donkeys make their way through the Fes medina  (Ellen Clark)
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As the world gets seemingly smaller, travelers increasingly covet authentic destinations. And while there are still plenty out there, many of these places are on the brink, just waiting to bust at the seams and become a more mainstream tourist destination. Northern Morocco is one of these authentic places on the cusp, with the lure of exotics such as Berber tribes, cannabis fields, and Barbary apes. Throw in the smell of piping-hot tajines, the site of white-washed Moorish buildings perched along hillsides, and the smell of fresh ocean air on undiscovered beaches. You've got yourself a true travelers' paradise. But like most good secrets, this one's not being kept.

Fes, Morocco's oldest imperial city and still its spiritual and religious capital, is popping up all over travel guides and magazines, and it's the best jumping-off point for discovering less-visited destinations. That's not to say the city itself should be overlooked. It's a study in contrasts between the traditional and modern, and in many ways it's the heart of northern Morocco.

It's actually three cities in one. The Fes el-Jedid, home to the royal palace and Jewish quarter; the Fes el-Bali, the historic medina; and the Ville Nouvelle, or new town, a striking contrast to the other two with its modern buildings and fast food emporiums. And, yes, there is a McDonald's for those having burger-and-fries withdrawals.

The Fes el-Bali is the true center of the city's action. Thought to be the largest car-free urban area in the world and home to more than 200,000 inhabitants, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Narrow streets lined with shops and stalls are jammed with people. Tiny alleyways lead to remarkable discoveries, and you will periodically find yourself flattened against a fruit stand or jumping into a spice or leather shop to avoid being run over by donkey carts piled high with carpets, earthenware water jugs, or sacks of onions.

If it weren't for the ubiquitous cell phones and teenagers and tourists in Western dress, you might think you've time traveled back a few centuries. I was lucky to have expat Kiwi Sandy McCutcheon as a guide, which you'll need one if you want to unearth the best handicrafts, not to mention find your way out of the labyrinth of alleys by nightfall.

McCutcheon fell in love with Fes and now lives here part of the year with his wife Suzanna Clarke, whose book A House in Fez tells of the challenges of buying and renovating a centuries old house in an ancient and oh-so-foreign city. He's involved in both the Moroccan and the expat communities, and, were it not for him, I'd never have found the Cafe Clock.

The Cafe Clock may not be easy to find, but it's a happening place. Here you can sip a great cappuccino while you check your email (thanks to free Wi-Fi), have a reasonably priced meal, attend a cultural program, or hang out on the rooftop terrace soaking up the sun and drinking in great views of the medina and the city.

For shoppers, the Fes el-Bali is the place to buy carpets, leather goods, jewelry, and textiles. You'd better hone your negotiating skills though, because the merchants here were born bargaining, and they are experts at it. "I am giving you a shocking price," a carpet salesman told one of my traveling companions. She continued haggling and did wind up knocking something off the price, but there was no question who the real winner was.

Staying at a riad in the medina is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the culture. A riad is a house that is built around a courtyard, usually with a fountain in the middle. Riad Laaroussa is a 17th-century former palace that has been beautifully restored. Not only is each room individually decorated, but the innovatively designed bathrooms are each one of a kind. La Maison Bleue is an elegant upscale riad in an 18th-century house. The hotel's restaurant serves traditional Moroccan four-course prix-fixe dinners in sumptuously exotic surroundings. This is a great place to try a tajine, a slow-cooked stew so named for the heavy clay pot with a knobbed lid in which it's cooked.

Published: 12 Feb 2009 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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