The geometry of the earth is best seen from the air. Thousands of feet above the ground, it’s easy to perceive the geographic changes. Flying from Europe to North Africa, the land changes from rough to smooth; from industrialized to agrarian. Seen from the air, the pieces of the puzzle are obvious.
There are few ways to avoid being trite when discussing one’s impressions of Fes, not least because it’s an ancient place and whatever was original to say was said long ago. Yet, the experience for each new arrival is just as valid as it was for the first, because Fes is an ancient constant that defies time.
Fes was founded in 789, and a walk through the walled Fes el Bali Medina is a version of time travel. Or, rather, a continuum of time. Small motorbikes traverse narrow streets, but only when a donkey isn’t a better solution. The ancient is mixed with the modern as necessity dictates—and seemingly no more. Daily life is distilled to an endurable essence.
Befitting such a place, the people are warm and hospitable while remaining guarded. Everyone from cab drivers to vendors to strangers in the street is quick to offer help and assistance, but there’s always the impression that the efforts are as much about guiding one away from something as toward it. Like the Medina itself, the people of Fes are an enduring mystery.
Like many mysteries, however, the pathway to understanding lies in giving oneself over and experiencing the place as the locals do. Embracing Fes as the product of a centuries-long process of refinement and practicality reveals its sense of things. There is structure and pattern to anything which has lasted more than 1,200 years, and even the maze of the Medina will present its logic. (Hint: the lower one goes, the cooler the air gets; the way out is up.)
And taken from that perspective, being in Fes is not about visiting a specific place at a specific time. Being in Fes is to take a step into simultaneity where one can find in the present any moment that took place in the past. You just have to be willing to embrace the mystery.