The Moroccan sacred city of Fez is the unlikely setting for some sinfully luxurious accommodation - its traditional riads (boutique hotels) are great places to stay. Here are five of the best
The Moroccan class system is something of a postcode lottery – either you’re Fassi (from Fez) or you’re not, and if you’re not, there’s no point talking about where you are from. Nobody cares. Fassi women are the most beautiful, Fassi food the most delicious, Fez itself the most ancient seat of learning in Morocco, and by association its people are the best educated.
It’s hard to deny that the city has a certain something; a spiritual intensity not always apparent in the seedy hugger-mugger of Tangier or in the increasingly Westernised Marrakech. Its monuments, such as the ancient Al-Karaouine mosque and university, are so venerated throughout the Islamic world, and its medina so thoroughly fortified from outside influences (within 15km of crenellated city walls), that Fez has resisted change for centuries. Its infinite cobweb of tiny alleyways teems with human and animal life, and it’s hard to imagine that these devout men were dressed very differently, or that these donkeys looked any less cheerful, five hundred years ago.
Behind countless inconspicuous cedar doors lies a new reality, however. Elaborately designed town houses bursting with intricate zellij tiling and stucco work and arranged around pretty, peaceful courtyards lie behind these blank walls, their windows facing inwards, a million miles from the hustle of the souk outside. For decades the vast majority of these riads have lain empty or crumbling, despite their UNESCO recognition, but in recent years many have been turned into tiny and exotic boutique hotels, overwhelmingly by foreigners who arrived here on holiday and loved Fez so much they had to own a tiny part of it.
The locals seem remarkably unperturbed by this latest invasion of the infidels. Abdou, keeper of the extraordinary, derelict Dar Glaoui palace, explains that without an injection of foreign cash, half the medina is in danger of collapse. Not only that, but these dewy-eyed expats insist on the finest traditional craftsmanship and create work for hundreds of artisans. They carpet the rooms with killims, restore the geometric patterns of the woodwork, add stained glass, decorative tiling, fountains and trees. Once the labourers have played their part, teams of cooks, chambermaids and gardeners are put together. Everybody wins, not least the tourist.
This is one of the smaller and more affordable riads, but guests want for nothing, from an excellent breakfast on a rooftop terrace to delightful touches in the rooms: soft babouches, bath robes, organic rose-petal soap, agave silk bedspreads and a nod to Western ways with iPod docking stations. The room on the roof is the most private, being the only one not to face into the interior patio, and has a log fire for chilly winter nights. Double €85-€100.
Riad Al Bartal
Near Tizwa is the elegantly characterful Al Bartal, where quirky antique-filled rooms with four-posters and colourful, spacious bathrooms are ranged around a courtyard filled with plants. There is an impressive library of books on the region (along with some blockbusting holiday reads) and the French owners go out of their way to make guests feel comfortable, while maintaining a discreet distance. The roof terrace has panoramic views and is a lovely spot for a sundowner. Double €75-€120.
This grand Riad, in the oldest part of the souk, is almost impossible to find, but worth every twisty dead end. The easiest way is to get to the Bab Rcif and throw yourself at the mercy of a small boy in need of a few dirhams. A former palace, it has been restored with unfussy splendour; rooms big enough to get lost in need only minimal furnishings, the geometric complexities of their woodwork, polychromatic ceilings and meticulous tiling providing a timeless artistry. For all its stateliness, the Seffarine is a friendly place, where guests end up befriending one another over breakfast or hanging out together on the roof terrace. Doubles from €70.
Riad hotels almost always provide fabulous value compared to European equivalents (where such a thing exists), but even by these standards this is a terrific bargain, with double rooms priced from €26 to €52. It’s a modest riad, sure, but that doesn’t rule out sumptuous zellij tiling, colourful woodwork, a shady terrace and a typically warm Fassi welcome.