12 Derb El Miter
Tel: +212 5 35 63 32 09
It was as if I was on a magic carpet, flying from Stansted to another land a land full of mysticism and a cornucopia of different sights and smells. Yes I was on my way to Fez in Morocco. The carpet ride was a short three hours and as Fez airport is small it was not long before I was in the cool evening air of a November night.
In less than half an hour I was checking into the Palais Amani, a large luxurious riad or house spa in the northern section of the old city – the Medina. A UNESCO world heritage site it is said to have 10,000 alleys and lanes. Not many vehicles can navigate the tiny roads and paths the only transport I saw were donkeys and bikes.
Nora Jones was playing in the background of the restaurant when I arrived. The cocktails were good (a perfect mojito anyone?) and the cooking traditional. Think tagines with chicken and beef and super fresh bright and vibrant salads.
The inner courtyard or garden was vast and sensibly planted with orange trees 70 years ago. There’s plenty of other foliage too including fig trees, a gentle trickle of water from the intricately tiled fountain is the only other sound. My quarters were vast – a suite of three rooms, a bathroom and my own private staircase to my part of the roof garden. This is what makes a riad so special. Night falls and I’m woken by the call to prayer and the sun just peeping over this vast metropolis unchanged in millennia as it wakes for another day.
I slept well on the very comfortable bed and wandered up to the roof where I could see the wall and battlements of the old northern Medina wall. Home to the oldest university in the world Fez is an eclectic mix of spices and smells that entice you round its never-ending twists and turns. The Medina is a brilliant place to explore, expect to get lost, everyone does. You can organize a guide, which is helpful if history is your thing but if you just fancy wandering around and taking the way of life in then don’t. It’s a very safe place to be a tourist I was with my family and we felt totally secure at all times.
After my wander around the city I went up to the roof bar. No one about, not to worry there’s a bell and within a jiffy a member of staff had arrived by lift and opened up, a little cool music and a few beers before dinner in the cooler air. The food is very good here, a mix of traditional and modern interpretation of Moroccan classics. Medfounah a shredded saffron chicken dish hidden in a dome of vermicelli was a winner and the kefka matecha minced beef balls cooked in a spicy tomato sauce served with an egg was clean and fresh. As I descend to the restaurant Abdou who had been serving me in the roof bar was there to open the door. Not unlike the film Local Hero he seemed to magically appear doing a different job.
My favourite spot for breakfast was by the fountain. Soothing and relaxing and slightly cooler it provided a dappled shade. The fountain is an ancient system of circulating cooler air into the courtyard garden as well as being decorative. There were also small birds that kept me company chirping away and bathing in the fountain. Breakfast in Morocco is yoghurt, delicious honey, fruit fresh bread and homegrown orange juice.
The spa part of the riad was in the lower floors. I decided to have a hammam. Wearing my swimming trunks I walked into the intense heat of the antechamber and let the temperature do its job. It was all very atmospheric with only candlelight to see by. My hands and feet were washed and I was scrubbed down with a black mud of some sort, some essential oils rubbed in by a short athletic woman who had the strength of an ox. She then threw buckets of water over me and laughed, as I flinched not knowing if it would be hot or cold.
I was then scrubbed with a loofah and this time she meant business. I was left on a slab of marble, my skin tingling and bright -pink. It bordered on pain but somehow was soothing and certainly took ones mind off things. Afterwards I had a pleasant warm feeling and felt totally relaxed. I then went to another room and had some mint tea (mint tea is everywhere in Morocco and must be tried). The whole experience left me soothed, glowing and as if I had played a game of rugby. I was nearly on the verge of feeling human again. Would I do it again? You bet.
I took part in a cooking lesson as well. A small group of guests assembled on the roof (where else) as the head chef Housin taught us all how to prepare a chicken tagine and salad. It was great fun as we tried to be as proficient as possible with a lady from Brazil recording her efforts on her phone for her teenage daughter to see. “See my dear how hard I am working on my holiday to learn new skills to keep you happy at meal times”. After the cooking we all repaired to the restaurant and ate our efforts. I must say that it wasn’t bad at all.
The riad’s history goes back to 16th century but it was significantly renovated in 1920’s and then again by the present owners before they turned it into a boutique spa. The renovation took four years but it still retained the Deco feel they inherited. The tiles on the floors and walls are exquisite and the proportion of the rooms refreshingly large. You wouldn’t have to leave the place as it has everything you need to have a super relaxing stay except the lure of the Medina was too great for most. You can’t say you’ve visited Fez without a day of exploration in the markets and side alleys of the Medina.
I really enjoyed my time staying at the Palais Amani it served as the perfect base in Fez. The staff were brilliant, fun and knowledgeable about the area and the food and wine (you must try Moroccan wine – a revelation) of a high standard. This is a cool place to hang out and do nothing all day or use as a pit stop for all that essential ‘shopping’ we all seem to need to do when in somewhere as fascinating as Morocco. My children loved it, a world apart from the trappings or a more conventional holiday, they really got into the rhythm of the city. It’s cheap to get to (about £60 from London Stansted with Ryanair) so there’s nothing to stop you.