Fez is Morocco’s cultural and spiritual center and is an outstanding example of a medieval town created during the first centuries of the Islamisation in the country – which is why it is part of the UNESCO world cultural heritage. The narrow lanes meander chaotically throughout the medina (the old part of the town, called Fes el-Bali) and high brick walls flank them all along. There are nine thousand dwellings in the medina and no fewer than four thousand lanes and blind alleys. Casa Aya Medina guesthouse is located in the western end of the medina, at a walking distance between Talaa Kebira, the main shopping pedestrian street, and Bab Ain Azliten, one of the entrance gates through the old city fortifications.
As you walk – coming from any direction, take care not to bump your head as you pass through a passage from the street of Ain Zleten. You enter a narrow lane (locally called derb), less than one-meter width, with a few doors and windows arranged randomly. Maybe a few children play football in this small place and you might get a ball smashed into your face. Walk ahead and you find a simple door entry at the end of a zigzag blind alley, but you’ll never guess what lies behind it. Nevertheless, the old configuration of the urban tissue will reveal discretely the authentic secrets of the area.
You enter the door of the guesthouse and step into another long L-shaped corridor at the end of which lies an inner courtyard. You are in a traditional Moroccan house, called dar (a modest version of a riad, which is the traditional Moroccan house for wealthy families). A dry fountain decorated with colorful mosaics (called zellij) stands on one side of the inner courtyard. It had been a larger fountain that during the restoration works suffered some transformations to gain more space for a new dining room in the courtyard. On the opposite side of the fountain, a traditional family salon (taklidi) and a luxury matrimonial room cluster around the court (bahn), and open onto it. Close to the main entrance, a staircase goes up to the next levels where the private rooms are.
As a rule, all the rooms of the house gather around the inner courtyard due to the principles of Islamic architecture. The main concept is to minimize as much as possible the impact of heat and direct light and provide ventilation for the inner space. The courtyard was originally open-air, but now it has been recently covered with a glass skylight and gained a new modern look.
Many people work usually out on the street no matter what they do – from selling something to woodcarving and loom weaving. Unlike the exterior of the house which is a working space, the inner space of a traditional house is like a haven – not only for women who might be without the constraints of clothing -, but because it is so richly decorated. The door and the window frames facing the patio have stucco plaster decorations of hand-painted multi-colored arabesques. The door’s thresholds have finely and richly colored mosaics. The inner doors and shutters are of solid cedar wood from the Middle Atlas Mountains, some painted with colorful drawings.
All the chambers are for guests on the upper floors, two rooms per floor. The modern rooms open out onto the common patio, but offer privacy inside, with two to three beds and a private bathroom. Wooden shutters, called mucharabian, create the privacy for these rooms, but once inside one can still see what is happening downstairs in the common court. The rooms have traditional motifs, from cactus silk curtains and bedspreads to old painted cedar furniture and handmade Berber carpets. Even the recently restructured bathrooms have sinks with traditional mosaic (zellij) and the ceiling of each room is cedar painted with geometric or floral designs.
The top floor terrace was once for drying the laundry – an occasion for women to meet up. It is now an outdoor dining area grouped around the last level of the inner courtyard. A green pergola covers the terrace overlooking the mosque and the old furniture bazaar (called souq) from the Ain Azletin neighborhood.
The co-owners of Casa Aya Medina, Fouad and Milouda el Ouazzani had just completed the restoration works when I was their first guest in the autumn of 2015. After several local consolidations, I didn’t feel I was in a house seven hundred years old. I explored every corner with great curiosity. The house configuration and the careful interior design transposed me into another world. I heard from my bed the birds singing on the terrace every morning and the call to prayer five times a day. I saw from my room the breakfast prepares and I smelled already the mint tea poured with white foam into small glasses.
I was anxious to start my day. I pulled on my shoes with excitement and went downstairs. I had a quick breakfast and I rushed out to the street. I was ready to explore Fez.
Some more photos from Casa Aya Medina: