A Tranquil Oasis Amidst the Madness
A five star hotel, looking like something out of a Merchant Ivory film, the Palais Amani is an absolute oasis amidst the humming madness of Fez Medina outside
Review by Andrew Threlfall
Fez should not be confused with Fes or rather is it…. Fes that should not be confused with Fez? Who knows? Maybe it’s all Tommy Cooper’s fault for wearing the damn hat and throwing so much mystery at the word before Brits even started travelling there in good numbers.
My point is that the metropolitan area of Fez, Morocco’s second largest city (Casablanca with five million is by far the largest off) of 1.5m would appear to absolutely NOT be the reason people fly in. In fact the taxi journey from the long awaited Fez Airport terminal opened two years ago by King Mohammed VI, at a not inconsiderable amount of around 471 million dirhams mirroring possibly the best budget airline in the world AirArabia, is in stark contrast to the area known as Fez Medina, within which lies the jewel in Fez’s crown, the sumptuous Palais Amani.
Fez, the city, is bit of a mess. The Médina around the Amani however, is both spectacularly confusing (it has 10,000 separate streets making it the largest of its kind in all of Africa), and a hugely rewarding experience. But key to this – absolutely key – is finding your way back through those narrow “streets’ to the tranquillity, undoubted opulence and normalcy the Palais Amani offers. To the extent that I would only actually recommend a trip to Fez if you stay in this hotel. Nowhere else. Seriously. Yes it’s five star, yes it looks like something out of a Merchant Ivory film, but it’s fairly reasonably priced and an absolute oasis amidst the humming madness outside.
By admission, I’m the kind of person who enthusiastically advises travellers to the Caribbean to forget about all-inclusive hotels. When I went to Montego Bay, now the murder capital of the West Indies, I made sure that I left the hotel every day and walked the streets. Interaction is key and in the Médina you’ll experience it to the max. Now I’m not advocating taking unnecessary risks, and certainly Fez immediately puts you on red alert to the many youthful scammers and pickpockets, but there is a certain way to do this city, sorry this Medina, we have forgotten about the wider metropolitan city remember, and the end result can be one of the most rewarding North African experiences you could ever wish for. Which at the start of the year when I was there hopefully includes soaring temperatures and blue skies as Europe freezes.
A half day foodie guided tour of the Medina, where an English-speaking guide will accompany you to pick up the freshest and most invigorating ingredients, followed by a cookery class is a great place to start. Armed with spices and lamb, and refreshed by a pit stop at one of the many wonderful mint tea shops, it’s a two hour whirl around dangling camel heads and snakeskins before heading back to the, phew….relative solitude of the Amani to cook up a meal with the Fez Cooking School, situated on the hotel rooftop which enjoys a spectacular panoramic view of the rooftops and echoes to the sounds of afternoon and evening prayer from the impressive Kairaouine Mosque (Djemaa el Kairaouine), the second-largest mosque in Morocco.
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Kicking back after the most wonderful day and all important rooftop sunset photography, it’s easy to see why the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant kept coming back to Morocco for the sounds and smells of the Medina. There is something else here too. The local tanneries a few metres from the Amani. Built in the 11th century, they have continued to operate in the same fashion as they did in their early centuries. Make sure to take photos next to the round stone vessels that are filled with dye or white liquids for softening the hides. Maybe it’s all the older Muslim men who seemed to walking around in hooded cotton cloaks, but the scene wonderfully reminded me of Tatooine, the fictional desert world orbiting twin suns in the Star Wars’ galaxy’s Outer Rim.
The hotel also offers a free (based on a minimum two-night stay) and very luxurious hammam and scrub which can actually be done, surprisingly, semi naked with one’s partner. The exfoliation and massage was excellent and again a great juxtaposition to the less than perfect lack of cleanliness in the Médina (‘Flies with your croissants sir?’). The purification process left body and spirit refreshed and ready for another dive into the medina for present shopping.
Morocco is not, at times, an easy place to visit because sometimes the cultural differences can feel restrictive to a Westerner, but a combination of the Palais Amani and an airline offering incredible deals as little as £75 one way from Gatwick direct to Fez really has opened up hitherto unforeseen possibilities.
Enquiries: Palais Amani, 12 Derb el Miter, Fez 30000, Morocco / +212 5356 33209 / www.palaisamani.com/palais-amani