Capri had no pants. Bermuda had no shorts. Fez had one red velvet tasselled hat, spied on the head of a short porter haggling gently in the souk. “It is for ceremony,” said Eustus, a tall, dark man with a genuine smile and one of the mainstays of Palais Amani.
In the former capital of the Kingdom of Morocco, a fez isn’t a funny hat
Initially, the thought of going to Fez had me singing old Steely Dan songs and picturing Akbar & Jeff by Matt Groening. Then, I saw a man in a genuine souk wearing a genuine fez in Fez and I didn’t even think about Tommy Cooper. In the former capital of the Kingdom of Morocco, a fez isn’t a funny hat. Here, it’s dignified.
This isn’t something I expected from a country I visit often and yet remains, in my psyche, like an outtake from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Fez is different. It knows it’s prettier, more vibrant and less commercial than the rest of Morocco. Like Venice, Fez has a lovely surprise waiting around every corner. Like Essaouira, it’s arty and hip. Like Marrakech, it’s got a market to yearn for, but the souk here is less about touting tat to tourists and more about travelling back in time.
Once a country invests in its airport, you know something’s up. Fez’s local landing strip was upgraded – in a visually cool Islamic style – in anticipation of over one million people this year. In 2017, a fresh terminal ushered in new carriers, including Air Arabia Maroc, a native airline with the biggest economy seats into which I’ve ever plumped my rump – seats so roomy than I didn’t even touch the person next to me. Ever. Flying year round twice weekly from Gatwick, Air Arabia Maroc is giving Ryanair a run for its dirham. Either way, getting to Fez is surprisingly nice, even if you like travelling “affordably”.
Palais Amani is a tiled palace peacefully holding back the tide of traders and travellers who weasel past its hidden front door on a daily basis. Rebuilt from the 17th century original, this plush riad revels in sleek 1920s chic and is the former home of a successful textile merchant. Now a boutique hotel, it dazzles with hand-cut zellije tiles, stripped and oiled cedar beams and, in turns, air conditioning and good old fashioned fireplaces. Hand-woven soft furnishing, enormous cedar portals and luxurious Moroccan carpets you want to roll on are everywhere. Squat sofas give the weary shopper a soft place to plop. You can have a bath in your room, a shower in your room, or a room in your room: some suites have additional spaces for unruly children or bad lovers. Quarters are sprinkled with rose petals, refreshed nightly with fruit and sweets. There’s wine too – and a not-too-shabby champagne at the bar, perfectly chilled and nicely priced.
It’s a real beauty, with bone structure and breeding designed for eternity
The Palais Amani is no Moroccan pig wearing lipstick. It’s a real beauty, with bone structure and breeding designed for eternity. It already survived an earthquake in the 1920s. Orange and tangerine trees bear fruit – as every proper Moroccan courtyard should – that is served at breakfast. The swoop and tweet of sparrows brings the tranquil courtyard alive while, five times a day, the electric muezzin of some 250 mosques outside its walls make one aware of the ancient call to prayer. The calls intermingle, overlap and rasp like a steady, escalating yet distant siren, reminding you you’re not in Kansas anymore. This is Fez. It’s hot, friendly, fascinating and calmly exciting.
Or maybe that should be “excitedly calming”, given that its main doorway is smack-dab on the gateway to Africa’s largest souk. The labyrinthine Fes el Bali is so enormous even those who know the souk get lost within its ancient walls. The twisty turny aisles are fringed by literally thousands of shops, most of which are actual holes in walls. It is a car-free zone, with goods brought in by handcart or donkey – a joyful sight as they pass rapidly by the tiny doorways of shops and restaurants. Housewares, food, beauty products, clothing, toys, mirrors, handicrafts, artefacts and street food – the most exquisite sweets & savouries – dot the route. Slabs of grey stuff, heaps of spices or dyes and lumps of God Knows What are propped on an array of tired-looking tables.
It only takes a few moments, as your eyes adjust to the humid darkness of the Palais Amani’s underground hammam, to realise that that grey stuff you saw was actually a local cleansing clay. The smiling hammam lady is now spreading it luxuriously over your body in a swirling motion that makes you want to drool. Unlike the vigorous thwap of that two-woman plastic-bucket-wielding tag-team I experienced in L.A.’s Korea Town, this spa treatment is soothing and meditative – with a playfully kind aspect which embodies the whole of what Fez is about.
Along with Moroccan and unique Bergar-Jewish cooking classes and personalised yoga, Palais Amani seems spiritually suited to the city’s annual World Festival of Sacred Music every June. Above its 15 rooms and suites, the Palais can’t help but have a spectacular view over the souk and city. Along with the rooftop bar, Chef Houssam Laassiri’s reinterpretation of Moroccan cuisine is a treat for eyes and mouth. No tatty tagines dotted with dates here. Breakfast is a joy: a daily parade of unexpected and previously unexperienced delicacies: a gorgeous local soup, spicy eggs and local perky bread, all fresh and perfect in the land of overcooking. Shopping in the souk, tea in the courtyard and meditative hammam make for the perfect day. I don a silk dress, spritz some Thameen Carved Oud behind my neck and I’m ready for the perfect night: drinks with friends before a locally-sourced feast. C
Palais Amani, 12 Derb El Miter, Fez 30000, Morocco
+212 5356-33209; palaisamani.com
Karen Krizanovich smelled of Thameen Carved Oud and was flown to Fez courtesy of airarabia.com with the big ass seats