We took the comfortable four-hour train trip to Fes. It’s the oldest of the ancient imperial cities - founded in the ninth century by the great-grandson of Mohammed himself, and from what we could see, not much changed.
In fact there are at least two Feses. When the French took over after 1912, the enlightened French Governor, Hubert Lyautey, decided to leave the old medieval Fes untouched and to build the new French colonial city outside of the old town. (Edith Wharton was so taken with Lyautey that she dedicated her book, In Morocco, to him.) There are only three kilometres between the old town and the new, but the difference is striking: one modern, prosperous, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, fountains and pavement cafes; the other the seething Medina, the ancient Arab quarter - the quarter is ancient, not the Arabs - its narrow streets so winding and undulating that it’s impossible, even with a compass and solar navigation, to keep one’s bearings for more than a few minutes. It doesn’t help, either, that the streets and landmarks are hardly ever labelled, or if they are, it’s in some Jackson Pollock-like script like the product of a leaky paint tin. Your only hope is that some ten-year-old kid will take pity on you and ask what you are looking for. Then the challenge is to remember the name of the mosque (of which there are over 400) that you were so confident of remembering when you read about it the previous evening.
Such is the topography of the Medina that the only practicable means of transport is donkey-powered. Sad-looking - but then, what have they got to laugh about? - spindly-legged donkeys and mules squeeze by, almost invisible under their huge loads, while recumbent on top of it all is the animal’s owner. When Napoleon called the English “a nation of shopkeepers”, he obviously hadn’t seen Morocco. The souks consist of miles upon miles of tiny stalls, their size seeming still to fit Mark Twain’s description when he was here in the 1860s: “about that of an ordinary shower-bath in a civilised land” (in Twain's view there was only one civilised land). Every fourth shop seems to be a shoe store - just like the shopping malls at home except that there’s not a chain store in sight.
Among the seething crowds of locals, tourists are comparatively rare - but they’re there, in their M & S chinos and Panama hats, Indian-filing behind their guide like baby ducklings. As a group passed us, someone called out the first English words we'd heard in three weeks: “donkey-poo”. And the warning was passed down the line: “donkey-poo, everybody”.
Most people wear floor-length, hooded djellabahs, the men's woollen, those of the women - in scarves but not veils - lighter-coloured and more decorative, and the girls wear smaller replicas. The young guys wear baseball caps and football shirts bearing names like Beckham and Ronaldinho.
But I never saw anyone wearing a Fez.