Where is it?
Within the steep walls of the ancient Medina and about half an hour’s drive from the airport, now served by direct Ryanair flights from Stansted. You will arrive late – after 11pm – but what comes next is more magical for it. You are dropped off at one of the huge portals to the Medina and met by a member of staff who takes your bags and leads you into the dimly lit maze, traversable only on foot. After several twists and turns and a sharp left, you step into a lamp-lined passage to the hotel, part of the Relais & Chateux group of luxury hotels.
Arriving in the lobby at night is like stepping into a towering jewellery box. Sapphire and white tiled pillars glint in the candlelight as a fountain splashes away and incense circles the foyer. Built in the 18th century by a perfume merchant with European sensibilities – hence the height – this extraordinary palace forms the heart of the hotel. The current owner, an architect, bought the property in the 90s, intending it to become a museum. In the end, he purchased the four adjoining buildings and the 32-room hotel was conceived.
Each property has its own style, taking cues from the period in which it was built, but all follow the defining layout of a riad; a courtyard formed of intricately carved arches, a fountain and adjoining rooms. The decorations are considered – antique furniture, brassware and ceramic urns – and everything is so precious, right down to the tiled floors, that the staff carry linen in wicker baskets to avoid damaging the floors.
Moving from house to house, you stumble on the highlights. One of three bars is set in an open-air marble courtyard carved in the Moroccan Baroque style, with a long aquamarine fountain. Then there’s a sun-trap of a garden with lemon trees, palms and a star-shaped pool scattered with rose petals at its heart. The pièce de la resistance is the roof-top bar with a glass wall that allows 180-degree views of the Medina. Order a glass of the house Moroccan white and watch the ochre jumble of houses turn a smouldering red in the sunset
For a boutique hotel, the spa has an impressive range of treatments. A traditional hammam is a must. You will be steamed, soaped, scrubbed, shampooed, oiled and doused with water. It’s bracing stuff, but you can collect your thoughts afterwards swaddled in a robe, spritzed with orange blossom water and sipping sweet Moroccan tea. Other treatments include spice scrubs, wraps, hot stone massages and a sauna in an infrared cabin.
Another of the hotel’s open courtyards has a swimming pool and loungers, with a compact gym in an adjoining room for a pre-dinner workout.
Food & drink
The small restaurant has both Moroccan and French-style dishes, but a trek around the Medina will put you in the mood for the hearty local fare, cooked by chef Abida. The fava bean soup followed by couscous of the day won’t leave much room for the orange, almond and saffron tart, but sharing the Moroccan salad selection – smoky aubergine, spinach and preserved lemon and spiced cauliflower to name a few – followed by the slow roasted lamb mechoui for two is best complemented by the sweet, sugar and cinnamon-dusted pastilla. Abida also offers private cookery courses with ingredients sourced from the Medina.
The breakfast buffet is a mainly light French affair, with excellent breads and pastries. Explorers with larger stomachs can order eggs and Moroccan pancakes.
The hotel can organise guide to take you into the Medina if getting happily lost does not appeal – but be sure to sort out the finances before you set out; it’s likely your guide will hit you with unexpected fees at the end. Ours, Mohammed, marches us through the Blue Gate, or Bab Boujeloud, and pauses at an urn of couscous steaming over whole sheep’s heads – wool and all. Round the corner blood is running down the street from some freshly slaughtered chickens, and a butcher is stretching out a stomach lining on his shop dedicated to the delicacy. In short, this is a living, working Medina – you won’t find snake charmers here for the tourists as in Marrakech – and proof that Fes is the spiritual home of Morocco.
Everyone seems to know Mohammed, and he passes us from friend to friend. We visit the home of a former government minister, to see his spectacular tiled courtyard and roof-top views. Then onto a rug merchant for mint tea and a tour of the looms (don’t feel obliged to buy anything) and a restaurant for a traditional lunch.
Each quarter has a mosque, school, fountain and bakery, but be sure the take in the gems: the jewel-coloured tilework of the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II, containing the tomb of the reputed founder of the city; the many white arches of the Karaouiyine Mosque, considered to be the oldest university in the world; and capture the shafts of sunlight through the wood lattice in the students’ rooms of the El-Attarine Medersa. But the best picture you will take all day is at the tannery, where the city’s buttersoft leather is prepared. You will be given a bunch of mint to mask the stench of the pigeon faeces and lime used to strip the hide, but the view over the round pits brimming with dyes will overwhelmed you; all the warm colours of the Medina are concentrated here.
‘Traght’ which is up on the roof offers one the best views of the Medina from its front door. Inside it is exquisite. Carved and painted wood panelling line the entrance and around the large bed, and it is furnished with dark wood antiques and rugs on the marble floor. When we arrive there were club sandwiches and sweetmeats waiting on a brass table. The bathroom is striped, black and white marble with local mud mask and black soap and there’s a private terrace with a sofa and lounger for hot days.
Travellers in search of the real Morocco who want an authentic but luxurious experience.
Rooms at Riad Fès start from £190, riadfes.com