Sat by the lemon, orange and pomegranate trees in the riad of the Palais Amani, it is hard to believe that the tall studded cedar-wood doors, the trickling fountain and towering mosaic-tiled columns were originally funded in the late 17th century by trade with …er…. Manchester.
An educated guess suggests that it was sugar that was probably traded, maybe cotton. Evidence? Portions of Fez’s ancient Medina are still sheltered from the baking sun by dried fronds of sugar cane. Whatever the trade, it paid for a grand palace for the Lalhou merchants’ extended family of 50 or more. Shame descended on a family if a son left home so the Lalhou family just kept growing.
The England – Morocco connection has been recently reborn. Jemima Mann-Baha, an English visionary and her Fez husband, Abdel, undertook a four-year restoration project, to create an elegant 18-room boutique hotel, retaining some of the Art Deco flourishes from an earlier 1930s makeover.
The Palais Amani is Fez for the stylish traveller. Travellers who want to dine beneath filigree bronze lanterns hanging from the trees, to take a sunset cocktail on a roof terrace overlooking the Medina and the mountains, before retiring to a vast oasis of a bed.
With their dark wood furniture, recesses and rugs, both rooms and suites channel the elegance of traditional Arabic interior design. Though to meet contemporary expectations there is a Nespresso machine, a large mini-bar and ample charging points. Remember that Morocco was a French Protectorate so a European plug adaptor adapter does the job. Look out for French-influenced patisserie too.
The Palais has created access to a sophisticated Fez for the traveller who wants more from the Imperial city than to wend their way through the alleys haggling for bags, belts, rugs, spices, teapots and toy camels. Perhaps as you wander through the 9,500 alleys and their many stalls it is wise to recite a wise Moroccan proverb, “Few desires, happy life.” Then as the alleys narrow further, “A narrow space looks wide to the narrow-minded.”
Hosting the world’s longest continually operating university, home to the world’s oldest library and featuring eight madrasahs (Koran schools) elevates Fez as a candidate for many accolades. A city that is Morocco’s most holy, most artistic and most cultured. Although Marrakech deposed Fez as political capital in 1912, it is Fez, without a doubt, that is Morocco’s Foodie Capital.
Guests at the Palais Amani are encouraged to get hands-on with Fez, to engage with its people. Sign-up for a three-hour lesson with a calligrapher who uses stories of yesteryear Fez to bring his and your skills to life. Take a tour of the Medina’s food souks to shop for your cookery class that will create a traditional chicken tajine, followed by a classy phyllo pastry and orange-blossom creamy dessert. Alternatively, escape to the mountains for a hike with both guide and picnic provided by the Palais Amani.
The Baking and Pastry Class reveals so much about Fez’s family life. Bread is a staff of Moslem life, wives knead their dough every day. But many do not bake it. A grandparent or child takes it to a baker who bakes for the entire neighbourhood. So, the bakers on the course take their loaves to a nearby baker too. He recognises every tray, there is no need to name them.
In Fez’s world of long working hours, the Hamman, the steam baths that cleansed men and women before prayer, was a social highlight of the week. The Palais Amani’s Hamman, a serene candle-lit cocoon of tranquillity is a far more individual, reflective and relaxing experience. Facials and massages are also on offer.
Every day, breakfast immediately gives guests the option of discovering more about Fez. As well as fruits, yoghurt, flatbreads, butter, oil, soft-cheese and eggs cooked to their liking – there are seven Discovery options throughout the week. You can try krachel, a brioche-based start to the day. Or chorea which is a vegetable soup served with eggy bread. Or d’chicha, a thick tomato and semolina soup served with unleavened bread.
The desire to share Fez with the guests, to connect them to the city and its traditions, runs through the menus of the Eden Restaurant too. In fact, it has three menus. Adapting to the seasons and what’s looking good in the souks, there’s a bistro-style three-course market menu that changes weekly. Also, there are classic a la carte options, for the diner who has journeyed from afar to taste a classic lamb tajine or duck with prunes. Then, recalling the Arab-Andalusian roots of many of the Fez population, there is a lighter tapas-style menu.
Even as a guest closes the great door of the Palais Amani behind them, to step out into the alleys of the Medina, perhaps for the last time, they still touch a part of Fez’s history. The knocker on the left-hand door was positioned for the ease of the master of the Lalhou dynasty. But its heavier resonance than the lower knocker alerted family and servants to the return of their patriarch.
Tell Me More About Palais Amani
Palais Amani, 12 Derb El Miter, Oued Zhoune, Riad Fez- Medina, Hay Blida Fez- Medina 30000 Morocco
A Classic room, including breakfast for two, begins at around £240 per night.
A three-course meal from the Market Menu will be around £25.
A taxi from Fez airport to the Medina takes around 30 minutes, then, accompanied by a porter it is just a three minute walk to the Palais Amani.