Situated between the cedar-wooded summits of the Middle Atlas and the silver olive groves of the Rif mountains, lies Fes - for many, the cultural and spiritual centre of Morocco. It is also one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world. Walking around its dense warren of streets, it was hard to believe that it is only a three-hour flight from London. It feels like a world away from Europe and metropolitan life. I was here to attend the 22nd Fes Festival of World Sacred Music.
In recent years, Morocco has become one of the world's premier locations for music festivals. Aside from the Fes festival, there is the brilliantly named Jazzablanca in Casablanca (where else?), the Timitar Festival in Agadir, the funky Gnaoua festival in Essaouira on the coast, and the massive pop Festival Mawazine in Rabat - which recently starred Rihanna and Stevie Wonder.
I entered the walled city through the Blue Gate, one of 13 mighty gates which punctuate its vast sandstone fortifications. My initial feeling was that Fes was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It is home to what must be considered the mother of all medinas, - with some 10,000 alleys, and innumerable stalls, cafes, and shops. I was not surprised to learn that this has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There is a real sense that much of the medieval fabric of the city has survived the centuries. With so many things to distract me, I began to fear that I would never find my hotel. However, I was soon able to locate the Palais Amani - a renovated Riyadh, or traditional and opulent house, located near the heart of the medina. In keeping with Islamic concepts of modesty, the entrance of this former palace is subdued. But when you enter you are struck at once by the balance and serenity of its garden- planted with lemon and orange trees around a bubbling fountain. The fabulous tile work in the courtyard has been painstakingly restored. My room was spacious, airy and tastefully decorated with traditional furnishings. Its restaurant offers sophisticated takes on Moroccan classics, and my chicken and turmeric tagine was both light and filling.
That night I relaxed with a few rather potent cocktails in the loft bar. Looking out over the rooftops, the view was broken every so often with thin, pencil-like minarets. The blueish mountains in the distance made it all seem impossibly romantic.
The next morning, I was sufficiently rested to explore the medina again. Fes' medieval roots are perhaps nowhere more evident than in its iconic tanneries. Here, you can still witness bare-chested workers toiling in the blazing sun as their predecessors have done for hundreds of years. They treat animal hides in a colourful array of huge vats in which the workers are themselves immersed. Thankfully, we were given clumps of mint to hold to our noses to escape the stench of the untreated hides.
The medina is one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world, where 270,000 Fassis live cheek by jowl in an enclosed space. At times the streets are so narrow that you have to press yourself against the shops to avoid being crushed by donkeys laden down with wood, carpets, hides and spices. The bakeries are often communal, and offer an array of cheap but delicious sweet snacks, all of which are washed down with lots of refreshing mint tea.
Madrasas have a somewhat sinister reputation today as centres of political extremism, but it is as well to remember that it was these institutions that helped kick-start the revival of medieval European learning. For centuries, scholars from all over Europe would travel here to pick up the advanced learning then on offer. Fes was once one of the great centres of learning of the Arab world, packed with libraries and schools. Indeed, the University of Al Quaraouiyine is the oldest continuously active university in the world and was founded over 700 years before our own Trinity College.
Nearby is the stunning Madersa Bouanania Mosque, the only madrasa in Fes with its own minaret. It is one of the few religious places in Morocco that is accessible to non-Islamic visitors. Originally built in the 1350s, it has been beautifully restored and the ornately carved cedar wood and intricate geometric tile work are quite magnificent. As figurative art is strictly forbidden in Islam, there are no statues or images inside. This does not mean that it is not rich in symbolism. The colours of the tiles and mosaics are suffused with meaning: blue represents Fes, green and white for Islam, pink for rival Marrakesh and yellow and black is the evil eye.
For lunch I headed to Cafe Clock, an eclectic restaurant created by Mike Richardson the former maître d' at The Ivy in London. It is famed for serving the best camel burgers in Fes and it didn't disappoint. Camel meat is supposed to be much healthier than other red meats. When my burger arrived it was almost the size of my head but so tasty that I somehow managed to devour the whole thing.
There have been Jews in Morocco since at least the 6th century BC, when Jewish traders began the arduous journey across the Atlas Mountains to trade with the Berbers. Fes was also the destination for both Muslims and Jews who escaped the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Although the Jewish population has decreased markedly in recent years, with many families leaving for Israel, their legacy is still apparent. The tiny but charming Aben Danan Synagogue is open to visitors. You enter through a simple doorway indistinguishable from the doors of nearby houses, which doesn't prepare you for what lies inside.
It is decorated with simple but beautiful blue figured Moroccan tiles with delicate carved plaster work and painted wooden beams. It is also possible to visit an underground bathing area which is used for rituals. As you wander around the Mellah - or Jewish quarter - you notice a distinct architectural shift. Unlike Muslim homes which are enclosed and centred around a central courtyard, there are town houses with ornate balconies and intricate wrought iron windows facing out onto the street.
It is in this historic spirit of religious toleration that the Fes festival was founded. It is strictly non-sectarian. In the wake of the first Gulf war, it was intended to serve as a "beacon of tolerance" to counter the increasing polarisation of the Islamic world and the West. The underlying ethos is a simple but profoundly admirable one: to juxtapose religious music from all over the world - inviting musicians, artists and speakers from across the religious spectrum to perform.
Now well established, the central theme this year was the multifaceted role of women as founders and innovators of sacred music. And the programme was full of female artists from Morocco, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Italy. There was a strong contingent from India.
The opening ceremony was quite extraordinary. It took place at night, outdoors in the Bab Al Makina. The vast walls of this imposing former military fortress were illuminated by a stunning series of shifting psychedelic projections. Just in front of the stage was a special royal platform. The thousands of guests eagerly awaited the arrival of Her Royal Highness Princess Lala Selma. Her entrance was heralded by a cacophony of ululation.
The show itself was highly ambitious. It promised to demonstrate how some of the founders not only of Islam but of other ancient cultures were female: 'the women of the Orient lead us on a journey of discovery into the history of Morocco and into the myths of the East.' The revealing, not to say provocative dancing of two rather voluptuous Ethiopian singers may not have been to everyone's tastes but it certainly got the loudest cheer of the night. At one stage, a group of gigantic flying winged unicorns appeared in the background, it was all very enthralling, but I had absolutely no clue what was going on.
Every day at the Fes festival, there were eclectic performances from acts as varied as Tibetan throat singers to Italian folk acts - all staged at a number of stunning locations throughout the city, from the shaded gardens of a 19th-century palace to grand concerts in an open-air theatre.
The undoubted highlight for me, however, happened on the one day it rained. It was a screening of the Indian silent film King of Ghosts, in a disused Art deco cinema hidden in the medina. Old portraits of the former king hung precariously from the wall and its faded grandeur was the perfect setting for this surreal masterpiece.
This remarkable film was brought back to life by a live accompanying orchestra. The piece was composed by Soumik Datta, Johannes Berauer and the Waterford-born percussionist Cormac Byrne. They want to bring the piece to Ireland and I hope that they are successful.
There was just time the next day to explore the ancient ruined city of Volubilis.
It is about an hours drive west of Fes in the foothills of the Rif Mountains. It seems fitting that today the site is surrounded by idyllic olive groves as it was the trade in olive oil which sustained it in the past. Before it was abandoned in the 11th century in favour of Fes, it was once one of the most important cities in north Africa and marked the limits of the Roman Empire. The size of the site itself is hard to fathom, and it is still only partially excavated. It is easy to become completely lost as you walk along its streets.
Huge prehistoric looking Storks nest on the tops of some of the Corinthian capitals. In the forum plinths to statues of Emperors and local heroes long forgotten still stand. Amongst the houses there are scores of incredibly detailed and well preserved mosaics.
There are depictions of animals and sea monsters along with a plethora of identifiable Gods and figures from the Aeneid and Iliad.
They offer tantalising glimpses into what daily Roman life must once have been like in the city. Unfortunately, we are increasingly bombarded with frightening and negative images of Islam. It is all too often caricatured as being comprised of unbending fundamentalism, repression or terrorism. Islamic fundamentalists, like the Puritans before them, abhor music and have tried to repress it.
But just as in Christianity, Judaism and other religions, there is another more representative strand of Islam where music is placed at the heart of devotion. In these worrying times of fear and divisiveness, this festival celebrates the values of tolerance and openness. And that is surely more needed now than ever.
Palais Amani www.palaisamani.com
Palis Faraj www.palaisfaraj-fes.com
For information about the Fes Sacred Music Festival: www.fesfestival.com
Places to eat:
Cafe Clock http://fez.cafeclock.com/
For more information on Morocco: visitmorocco.com
Sunday Indo Living