The pick of Fez riads

by Sally.Davies

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.

Riad Tizwa

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.

Dar Seffarine

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.

Dar Bouânania

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.

 

 

Sally.Davies

I came to Barcelona ten years ago for a long weekend, and showed a horrible lack of originality in deciding I couldn't leave. I made it back to London for as long as it took to pack up my things and hand in notice to my landlord, and that was that. Fortunately I was able to take my job with me – I edit Time Out's guides to Spanish cities and work as a freelance journalist for newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, the Observer, the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph.

My Barcelona

Where I always grab a coffee: there are lots of terrace cafés along the pretty Passeig del Born, but my favourite is Rosal (no.27), which largely escapes tourist notice. Autumn update: though it's kept the name, Rosal has recently been subsumed by the faceless tapas bar next door. I'm back on the prowl for a regular haunt. Watch this space.

My favourite stroll: I’m lucky to live near the Parc de la Ciutadella, a storybook park with a boating lake, ducks to feed, a Gaudí-designed waterfall, playgrounds, sculpture and a thousand trees under which to read a book on hot summer days.

Fiction for inspiration: Cathedral of the Sea is never going to win any great literary prizes, but it’s a rollicking beach read, with a plot verging on Gothic and a fantastically detailed portrayal of the Born neighbourhood in medieval times, and particularly the construction of the 'People's Cathedral', Santa Maria del Mar.

Where to be seen: With a mixologist and DJs imported from London, the Eclipse bar on the 26th floor of the W Hotel is the current hot ticket.

The most breathtaking view: One for the brave, this one, because it does have a bit of a wobble when there’s a wind up, but the Monument a Colom (Columbus Monument) at the bottom of La Rambla has unmatched views over the city and out to sea.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Again, it would have to be the Parc de la Ciutadella, although the gardens of the Antic Hospital in the Raval are also a lovely retreat from the crowds along La Rambla.

Shopaholics beware: Passeig de Gràcia has most of the flagship stores for Zara, Mango, Diesel et al, along with some very gorgeous designer stores. It’s also a wonderful place in which to simply stroll and take in the Modernista architecture; even the lamp-posts are works of art. For quirky boutiques and eccentric specialities, though, you'll need to lose yourself in the maze of the Old City.

City soundtrack: There’s a Raval-based band called 08001 (the Raval’s postcode), made up of a floating membership of great musicians from around the world. Its mestissa (ethnic fusion) sound is very typically barcelonin.

Don’t leave without... fer vermut (‘doing vermouth’). Sunday morning, tall glass, red vermouth, lots of ice, slice of orange, splash of soda water, a saucer of boquerones (fresh anchovies) and a couple of friends. My favourite Spanish habit.