It’s an odd feeling flying into Fez late at night. The streets into the city are deserted; not an image you would normally associate with Morocco. Still, it’s a mercifully traffic-free journey to Palais Amani, my luxury abode inside the Fez’s ancient medina. Talking of traffic-free, the taxi pulls to a stop in a dusty car park and my driver offers up another surprise. “You need to walk into the medina from here sir. Please follow this man.” He is pointing to a gentleman who gives me a beaming smile, takes my case from the car, turns and walks up a narrow street.
I follow him thinking to myself it’s after midnight and I’m following a man I’ve never met before who’s probably going to take me to somewhere to rob me blind. The taxi driver is obviously his accomplice. I’m never going to get out of here alive.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. A couple of tight turns later and I’m at the doors of Palais Amani safe and sound and trying to look as if I knew this would be the case all along. I am a seasoned travel professional after all.
Palais Amani is a labour of love. An extraordinary 17th-century riad tucked away in Fez’s huge souk and owned and run by husband and wife team Abdel Ali Baha and Jemima Mann-Baha. This former palatial home of one of Fez’s more prominent citizens had lain neglected and ruined for years until, after six years of painstaking renovations, Jemima and Abdel put a smile back on its face.
A pair of wooden front doors hides a quite astonishing interior. 18 guestrooms on two floors surround a rectangular garden full of citrus trees. In the centre, a glorious fountain offers local birds a refreshing cool bath while human guests sit and enjoy the relaxing sound of the courtyard water feature. Iraqi stained glass windows cast a rainbow of colours across it from the afternoon sun. It’s a serene scene in complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of everyday souk life one step outside the doors.
My junior suite is on the first floor, an elegantly long room oozing with traditional Moroccan styling. A luxurious double bed armed with crisp linens and topped with two pairs of Moroccan slippers dominates one end, while a spacious mosaic-tiled bathroom caps the other. A discreet door hides stairs up to another small bedroom, useful for a third guest. Each room is genuinely different in size and style, but all of them reflect a genuine affection for elegant local culture coupled with a dash of contemporary trappings.
The next morning I’m back in the garden for a four-course breakfast. Plenty of home and local market fare; fresh cheese, fruits, yoghurt, honey, hot bread and eggs. It’s an energy-packed start to get me through the morning joining Palais Amani chef Saida for a tour of the souk food markets. It’s a local food tour with a purpose; I’m gathering ingredients for my cooking lesson in the riad’s cookery school. Chicken, coriander, tomatoes, olives, paprika, cumin and aubergines are collected for a zaalouk starter and a chicken tajine dermera main. We cook up on the rooftop and with some gentle hand holding, I manage to put together a very passable repast. I know it’s passable because I devour it all down in the restaurant for lunch. Fortunately for me, the rest of my dining experiences at the riad are a lot less labour intensive delivered by a highly talented team of culinary wizards who make full use of the bounty of fresh produce lurking just outside the door.
The afternoon I spend back in the souk with a half day tour with guide Rachid, a local man who knows these narrow streets like the back of his hand. I’m aiming to navigate the souk solo before I return home and try to memorize every turn Rachid makes, but after five minutes I’ve lost all sense of direction. It is the full medieval experience; the sights, the smells, the colour and the sounds all merging together in the world’s biggest pedestrian zone.
It doesn’t disappoint and I return to Palais Amani with plenty of memories, not least is a commercial project entirely funded by the city for supporting women fallen on hard times who make a living hand weaving exquisite carpets
Upstairs the roof bar is doing good business with mood music, cocktails and nibbles. It’s early evening and sipping a drink, I wallow on cushions in a tented pergola enjoying a cooling breeze and watch swarms of swallows fly around the minarets across Fez’s dramatic skyline. The approaching sunset is a signal for the birds to drop down onto the citrus trees below filling the riad with birdsong.
That night I dream of leather tanneries and tajine pots.
I spend the morning exploring the souk on my own and manage to navigate to the Blue Gate and back before a quick lunch in a local soup in the wall in Place Aachabin. I feast on a delicious bessara, a broth made from fava beans, garlic and olive oil (70p including bread).
Back at Palais Amani I’m all set for a traditional hammam ritual. By candlelight, I’m taken on a journey of well being by therapists with fingers of steel. From body soaping to exfoliation, it is an epic experience that leaves my yin and yang in perfect harmony and my body bereft of stress.
Palais Amani is an extraordinary experience. It is a wonderfully luxurious retreat in an ancient city that offers so much yet still hides under the shadow of Marrakech as Morocco’s destination of choice.
Meanwhile, my man is back to escort me to my waiting taxi as the airport beckons. He takes my case with a knowing smile and I gladly follow this time without a care. After all, when you’ve navigated the souk on your own, you’re practically a local.
Tell me more about Palais Amani
Palais Amani 12 Derb El Miter, Oued Zhoune, Riad Fez- Medina, Fez- Medina 30000, Morocco.
Tel: +212 535633209
Rooms from €160 per night including breakfast.
The Fez Cooking School experience includes a tour of the food souks, tasting food along a two-hour tour of the medina, a cooking class with the newly gathered ingredients and lunch. €97 per person
Hammam experience from €60.
Listen to Andy Mossack’s Where in the World is Andy BBC broadcast live from Palais Amani featuring Jemima Mann-Baha
Getting to Fez
Air Arabia Maroc serves Fez from London Gatwick on Wednesdays and Saturdays
Getting to London Gatwick
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