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Whether you head to Marrakech, Casablanca, Essaouira or Fes, there’s excitement waiting for you in magical Morocco

“Balak! Balak!” Fes’s urban hubbub is punctuated by a string of short guttural cries that follow me as I roam the winding alleys of the walled medina. But my senses are already in overload, taking in food aromas, bleating hawkers, squealing children, distant traffic, pyramids of colourful spices, fresh hunks of slaughtered cow, and shelves stuffed with patterned leather shoes. The croaking is now closer behind me, and I spin around to face the watery snout of a mule. ‘’Balak!’’ it turns out, means “watch out!”. I didn’t, and as a result have momentarily exchanged hot breath with an ass. Unperturbed, the beast pushes on into the labyrinthine old quarter with seven gas cylinders fastened to his rump, taking no pedestrians for prisoners.

Mules are the only mode of transport that fit into the bewildering network of narrow, winding alleys in Fes el-Bali, the city’s old town, and they are subject to stunning improvisation.

“These are Fes’s Michelin taxis,” our tour leader, Mohammed, says. He stops a passing mule-handler, who upturns the front hoof of his animal to reveal a shoe crafted from recycled tyre. “Nothing is wasted in the medina.”

It’s been 1400 years since the Arabs exploded across North Africa and built Fes, now the oldest of the ancient Moroccan imperial cities and the country’s religious and cultural centre. Exploring its streets, it’s evident life continues to move to the centuries-old traditions on which it was founded.

In a poky little room off one of the alleys, a baker cooks golden discs of bread for families who don’t have an oven of their own. I venture deeper into the maze, my ears ringing as metal workers in Seffarine Square bash at pots and pans, unruffled by the people criss-crossing around them. Carts of tangerines and strawberries are whizzed about as boys sell bread from trays balanced on their heads. Cats prowl mounds of rubbish while old men sit on the ground, hawking the bunches of mint and parsley splayed out in front of them.

‘’If you want to get someone lost, send them to Fes,’’ Mohammed suggests as we navigate the throng. My group makes it to Chouwara tanneries in the heart of the complex, which reveals a fascinating glimpse into an ancient practice. We look down into giant vats of dye, laid out like a jigsaw puzzle, and full of men standing knee-deep, dunking animal skin. The stench here is as iconic as the sight. It’s pigeon poo, the ammonia from which is used to strip the skins.

Beyond the complex, the skyline is dominated by a sea of satellite dishes.

‘’We say they are Morocco’s ‘white flowers’,’’ says a man next to me, who has been trying to flog a leather jacket for the past 15 minutes. If it wasn’t for the satellite dishes you could be forgiven for wondering which century you’ve accidentally stepped into. I am three days into a group tour of Morocco’s main cities – Casablanca, Meknes, Fes and Marrakech – which we shuttle between by train. But so far, Fes has captured my heart. There’s something romantic about a place that time seems to have overlooked.

Meanwhile, Casablanca, Morocco’s cash cow, is a city of contradictions, where wide French-style boulevards exist alongside rubble-pit streets, and it has an old centre that I can see now was a soft introduction to the chaotic atmosphere of the souks in a walled medina. Sheeps liver and sausages sizzle at barbecue stands, and if you are in for a sunny holiday, this is where to get your sunglasses. ‘’One hundred per cent original fakes,’’ is one cheeky vendor’s pitch.

Casablanca’s crowning glory is the Hassan II mosque – an immense structure built on a rocky outcrop that can accommodate 80,000 worshippers inside and another 25,000 in its courtyards. It has heated floors, mounds of shiny marble and a retractable roof. The third largest mosque in the world, it is a structure of Wembley-like proportions.

A late train means the ancient imperial city of Meknes is just a whistlestop for the group, but we manage to dash into the Unesco-listed old town and kasbah just before it grows dark, and there’s still enough daylight to appreciate its cultural bounty – 45km of high walls, and intricate Spanish-Moorish architecture. We snack on olives and dates in the covered market, and stare for probably too long at dubious-looking cuts and organs in the meat section. Yep, nothing goes to waste.

But Fes has the spirit of both cities and then some. Any Fassi will tell you Fes created the world’s first university – the theological college, Khartoum – centuries before Oxford and Cambridge were a twinkle in anyone’s eye. As a result, the city has grown to become Morocco’s cultural and religious centre. There’s definitely an air of cool authority.

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