An oasis of peace among hectic Fez Medina, I discover Palais Amani’s world of calm elegance
Regarded as the historical and cultural capital of Morocco, Fez is finally breaking out of the shadows of its more well-known southern neighbour Marrakech and having its own moment in the African sun. Thanks to new flights from across Europe and a new internal flight from Marrakech, this vibrant northern city is more accessible than ever. Known for its vibrant car- and moped-free souks and stunning architectural heritage, Fes’s star is deservedly on the ascendant.
This is my first visit to Morocco and with adrenaline-fuelled excitement, I’m gazing out through double-height windows across a stunning palace Riad courtyard from my second floor luxury suite.
But this is no ordinary suite – I’m luxuriating in the impressive 100m2 Grand Suite at the beautiful Palais Amani – an oasis of calm located just inside Fez Medina. Encompassing the entire south wing of the first floor, the suite’s highlight features include his-and-hers dressing rooms tucked discreetly behind the capacious superking bed, Berber carpets, sparkling stained glass windows that capture the mid-afternoon light, a massive plunge bath fit for a ménage à quatre, vintage tiled flooring and an ante room with desk, sofa and TV. Nespresso with complimentary Vivalto and Lungo pods are standard. As is a welcome kettle and complimentary water.
And it’s this jaw-dropping tranquil spaciousness that beckons my Ryanair-scrunched body to stretch and dance and whirl like a dervish. This suite is easily four times the size of my London flat. Ceilings are a vertiginous 10m tall. I feel like I’m in a cathedral.
Located at one of the most significant entrances to Fez Medina, the Palais Amani is a former 17th-century palace. Rebuilt in the 1930s, this stunning listed building with its Art Deco touches has undergone complete refurbishment and is breathtaking. Home to 15 suites and bedrooms, it offers guests a tranquil spacious haven – an elegant mix of traditional and modern aesthetics – replete with restaurant, roof top bar and cookery school and spa-hammam.
I’ve arrived by taxi from the new Fez-Saïs airport. A massive light and airy space with beautiful Moorish design and just a 30-minute taxi ride from the Riad. Collected by a uniformed Palais Amani host from the Oued Zhoune car park just 50m from the hotel (outside the car-free Medina), he helps me with my luggage up a narrow alleyway and we enter via an inconspicuous door.
Wealth is reserved for the inside of houses in Morocco and the Palais Amani is no exception. This opulent building’s focus is inward: every window and door and plaster filigree looks towards the beautiful garden and fountain with its mosaic tiles, hand-carved panels, and chirruping birds who also inhabit this sanctuary. I savour a refreshing mint tea before exploring the Medina.
It’s the beginning of Ramadan and many of the shops are closed, however this hasn’t reduced the number of people meandering among the 10,000 narrow alleyways. I’m initially overwhelmed by the movement, sounds and aromas. The Medina alone has around 9000 shops… this rabbit warren of streets is replete with stray cats and kittens, foodstuffs, caged chickens, overladen donkeys (if you’re an animal lover or rescuer then look away), slabs of meat and fish on counter tops, flies a-buzzing. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Some locals are happy for you to take photos; others eschew being part of yet another influencer’s Insta feed and will wave you off with a stern look. I pass groups of Chinese tourists their noses covered with sprigs of mint or wearing face masks. As its Ramadan – no eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset – there are fewer tourists. My best advice is to walk slowly, savouring the visual, aural and auditory feast in front of you. And practice your bargaining chops with humour and grace. It’s an important part of Moroccan culture and the storeholders expect you to enter the game too.
Shops I visit include L’art mauresque at 50 Rue Jamma Laranja lablida and there are many stalls selling argan oil too – head for Herborite Divan for good products. My guide takes me to a superb carpet shop – Dar Ibn Khaldoun at 45 Derb Ben Chekroune Lablida. Expect to be shown myriad varieties of silk and Berber wool… all for a fraction of the price you’ll see in London showrooms. But be prepared to bargain hard.
The owner is charm personified and he knows how to get a deal. Unless you are a serious buyer/collector, eschew the mint tea offered and decide on your budget before you even enter the emporium. Begin your offer some way below that until you reach your desired price. And don’t go above. For lamps and tea pots head for Le Tresor Mirinides owned by Youssef Lamrini.
Unless you’re feeling unadventurous, don’t bother with a guide (he’ll only take you to friends selling carpets, scarves etc) and instead venture out and explore the Medina yourself. Located inside the ancient walled part of the city Fez Medina is Africa’s largest and its alleys are filled with food stalls, pop-up counters, established shops selling spices and new fusion restaurants. It’s perfectly safe – I was travelling solo. And since it’s pedestrian and donkey and carts only, you won’t be looking over your shoulder every two seconds to avoid mopeds and carts as I did in Marrakech. It actually feels like Marrakech probably was around 20 years ago. So visit Fes now before it bends to the demands of tourism.
The special Ftour or Iftar – the meal that breaks the daily fast – is served at Palais Amani between 7.30pm to 8.30pm. I choose from the à la carte menu and eat in the shady cool courtyard with birds my aural accompaniment, alongside a fine Moroccan Volubilia – my first taste of Moroccan wine. Restaurant Eden at the Palais Amani prides itself on using fresh, local provenance and the menu reflects this with my delicious entrée of beet apple and nut salad, followed by fish of the day with slow-cooked veggies tagine style, finishing with a delicious tarte au citron for dessert.
Watching the sun set from the Palais Amani rooftop with the aural backdrop of the muezzin call to prayer (Adhan) was intoxicating. An ancient call (five times a day) that ignited long-distant memories of another time and place.
I found myself on the rooftop again the following morning when I joined the Palais Amani’s cooking lesson – at their new purpose-built Fez Cooking School with superb views over the Medina and beyond. The school offers visitors to Fez a unique insight into this magical city combining a foodie tour of the medina followed by a cookery class.
Once at my cooking station (gas hob, thank God) all my ingredients are laid out ready. Charming Head Chef Hassim gives me a Fez and apron and I begin prepping the beautifully colourful fresh veggies which I then stacked wigwam-like in my tagine. Cooking the aubergine on a raw flame until it crisped then scooping out the warm insides was amazing. And I proudly ate my creation on the roof terrace – such fun!
Earlier I’d joined Chef Hassim for a fascinating and fast-paced amble through the souks, gathering prime ingredients among the 10,000 alleyways. The cooking school is available to all guests and includes a two-hour tour of the souks, including a breakfast soup treat, a mint tea expert and plenty of stalls selling cakes.
All guests on the Cookery Break take home a Palais Amani apron, a mini basket of spices and detailed recipe sheets to recreate the new recipes back home. Cookery classes include: Tajine and side dishes (€97 private or €77 part of a group) or Moroccan breads and pastries (€67 private). Palais Amani can also arrange wine demonstrations and tastings, city tours and even classes in henna painting. As well as recommending trustworthy craftsmen in the souks.
In addition to the Palais Amani’s own restaurant Eden, there are excellent local restaurants to explore too. At nearby Dar Roumana (+212 (0) 535 635524), French chef Vincent Bonnin, who trained at Michelin-starred restaurants, dishes up two- and three-course menus of prettily plated Mediterranean-inspired cuisine.
The menu changes daily, based on what looks good at the market that day. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, and it’s best to book in advance. In the heart of the medina, NUR (+212 (0) 694277849) offers a contemporary take of traditional Moroccan meals from the Middle Atlas Mountains. Take a seat in the chic black-and-white dining room; dishes change daily depending on what fresh fare catches the chef’s eye at market.
There is a small café on a square near the Chaabine that is on the first floor overlooking a newly restored Fondouk; the tea is brewed in a large copper urn with huge bunches of mint and alarming amounts of sugar, but the smell is wonderful like mint imperials spearmint and almost as vivid green when poured from a height into a large glass.
Moi Anan, a tiny Thai restaurant (and boutique) in the medina that has delicious dishes should you fancy a break from the local delicacies.
Very close to the Palais Amani is a bazaar called Ali’s Art gallery. It’s very Tardis-like in that once through the doors it goes from floor-to-floor and room-to-room each overflowing with the most incredible works of art, furniture, jewellery, mirrors; an absolute Aladdin’s cave.
Farther afield, don’t miss the extraordinary Roman ruins at Volubilis – the best preserved in North Africa, boasting amazing mosaics – while the Atlas Mountains offer inspiring hiking trails and unbeatable views across the desert back to Fez, as well as the opportunity to visit a rural mountain village or two. And of course the enigmatic blue city of Chefchaouen is a must-see.
An oasis of peace among hectic Fez Medina, Palais Amani’s calm elegance, tranquil courtyard and rooftop, as well as superb service and outstanding rooms and suites makes for a truly memorable stay in Fez.
Where & How
Where: Palais Amani, 12 Derb El Miter, Oued Zhoune, Hay Blida, Fez Medina, Morocco
How: Phone +212 5 35 63 32 09, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit palaisamani.com.
Getting there: Direct international flights to Fez from many European destinations. Taxis from Fez Saïs Airport take around 45 minutes. Fez station is 15 minutes’ drive from Palais Amani and linked to Tangier, Casablanca and Marrakech.
Cost: Rooms rate includes breakfast. From €160 for a regular room. Grand Suite from €350.