The city of Fez is rife with the one thing you seek to escape on holiday: chaos, chaos, and more chaos. And yet, that’s exactly where I discovered the ultimate oasis of calm while traveling through Morocco. Enter: Palais Amani, a luxury riad discreetly located within the labyrinth of a medina – Fes el Bali – that Fez is famous for.
Out of sight? Sure. Out of mind? Never.
Need to Know
Ironically, the approach to Palais Amani fills most guests with a sense of apprehension – you’ll have to call ahead for a porter to meet you at the narrow passageway that leads to the hotel, you’ll enter the medina through one of its lesser known gates, and you’ll find yourself trudging up several time-worn steps before you arrive. But what all this does is only add to the wonder that greets those stepping in through the heavy wooden doors: a tranquil courtyard accented with lush trees, a mosaic fountain, the sound of birdsong, and the scent of orange blossom wafting through the air.
This boutique hotel was once a 17th century palace that was destroyed by a landslide, partially rebuilt in the 1930s, and then painstakingly renovated by master artisans at the turn of the century – hence the divine mash-up of Andalusian, Art Deco, and Fassi aesthetics. The detailing throughout is nothing short of impeccable; look closely and you’ll appreciate everything from hand-cut zellige tiles and hand-carved cedarwood to the gorgeous carpets and ornate lanterns that Morocco does best. As for the big picture? Palais Amani boasts a fine-dining restaurant, a renowned cookery school, a luxurious hammam, and a rooftop that just about everyone falls in love with – but more on that later.
With a grand total of only 18 rooms and suites, guests at Palais Amani are guaranteed a level of privacy – a literal luxury after a day spent exploring the bustling medina outside. There are six different price points to choose from, but regardless of where you end up, you’ll have access to all the creature comforts expected of a modern boutique hotel alongside traditional furnishings and unexpected extras, such as comfy babouches and stained-glass windows. Not every room comes equipped with a flatscreen TV, but rest assured, you won’t care – or even notice for that matter.
What you will notice, however, is the service excellence. A second helping of the coconut macaroons that welcomed you upon check-in, getting an unruly stain off a cream-hued sweater, booking bus tickets to Chefchaouen – no request is too big as far as the hotel’s staff is concerned. If you prefer your hotel stays with a side of luxe, the ‘Grand Suite’ – complete with his and hers walk-in wardrobes, breathtaking views onto the garden and beyond, and a salon – is the one to book.
Fez is widely regarded as Morocco’s culinary capital, so this is where it gets really good. Eden – the signature eatery at Palais Amani – introduces diners to the diversity of Moroccan cuisine, but with a contemporary interpretation, in a chic and dimly lit setting. It is a destination in itself, so a meal here is mandatory for hotel guests and non-residents alike. Our recommendation? Skip the à la carte menu and opt for the ‘Market Moroccan’ concept instead.
This frequently changing bistro menu is the definitive way to take in the abundance of fresh, seasonal produce that is practically on the property’s doorstep. Entrées might feature the likes of stuffed artichoke with spring vegetables or beetroot carpaccio, while heartier fare such as ‘Bream Tajine’ or ‘Kabab Maghdour’ is served as the mains. Staying back for dessert at Eden is non-negotiable – oh, and if you see poached pear anything on the menu, order it.
Palais Amani is also home to Fez Cooking School, so if you prefer to get your hands a little dirty while exploring a country’s cuisine, start here. Not only will you take a tour of the nearby food market with a chef who grew up in the medina (read: access to the foodie spots that tourists won’t find), but you’ll also interact with locals and source ingredients by sifting through sacks of olives, lemons, and figs before donning an apron. On the roster will be Moroccan staples such as zaalouk, chicken tagine dermera, and baghrir, all of which you’ll tuck into on the rooftop terrace later. And considering Morocco is a country where even the finest of fine-dining restaurants can’t compete with home cooking, this makes for the ultimate onsite experience.
In the silent glow of candlelight, far from the madding crowd outside the riad walls, awaits Les Bains Amani. The spa treatments here are centered, for obvious reasons, around the subterranean hammam – this ancient ritual is as synonymous with Morocco as mint tea. Our neck of the woods is more than familiar with the various steps of this deep-cleansing process, but for those who are new to it, here’s what to expect. You’ll divide your time between a hot room, an exfoliation room, a shower, and a relaxation chamber. Modesty isn’t a part of this equation, but a therapist will help put you at ease and guide you every step of the way, much to the relief of first-timers.
Depending on which treatment you choose, a ghasoul hair mask and vigorous body scrub using a kessa exfoliation glove will complement the hand-and-foot bath, clear water rinse, and body steam bath – brace yourself for the most intense sweat session of your life with this one. The signature treatment is the 90-minute ‘Amani Unwind’, which combines a traditional hammam with a full-body massage featuring organic argan oil from a cooperative located in the Ourika Valley. Even better? You can choose to have your massage at the tented pergola on the roof.
Dining on a leisurely breakfast under the citrus trees in the courtyard, curling up with a game of chess by the open fireplace in the salon, photographing the endless shades of green in the 600-square-meter garden – it really is the simpler moments that will linger in your memory. However, they’ll all pale in comparison to taking in the panoramic views of the walled old city from Palais Amani’s incredible rooftop terrace. Make time for tapas and a sundowner here and, when you do, be sure to get a sense of the medina’s scale based on the sheer number of satellite dishes in the distance. From up above, they may just be the only indication that Fez isn’t standing still in the ninth century.
For the more culturally inclined, the hotel can arrange activities ranging from calligraphy classes and henna rituals to Moroccan dance and drum-making workshops. Palais Amani has also partnered up with multidisciplinary art studio Craft Draft, giving guests easy access to sessions on bookbinding, brass etching, leather embossing, oud music, and Islamic art.
Leaving behind the impossibly peaceful riad for the absurdly atmospheric medina feels daunting, yet exhilarating. Twists and turns followed by some more twists and turns and even more twists and turns – that’s Fes el Bali in a nutshell. There are nearly 10,000 alleys and little-to-no signage, but the good news is that plenty of tourist attractions are easily accessible from Palais Amani. Start with the 11th century Chouara Tannery, which is only five minutes away on foot. A word (or two) of advice: accept the sprig of mint handed to you, slow down to observe the fascinating process of leather dyeing, and haggle hard on the way out. Further west – about 14 minutes away – more opportunities to shop can be found at the oh-so-hip Médin’ART, a concept store stocking boho accessories and souvenirs with an edge.
The beautifully restored Foundouk Nejjarine is on the way, so make a pit stop to view everyday objects from eras past before exploring Merenid architecture in all its glory at Medersa Bou Inania. Arriving at this madrasa also means you’re now only two minutes away from the famous “blue gate” or Bab Bou Jeloud. Both Café Clock and The Ruined Garden are in the vicinity and, while they’re as different as night and day, it would be criminal to pick just one – the former hosts a rowdy sunset concert loved by tourists and residents alike, the latter is wonderfully charming on account of its soothing ambience. Along the way, you’ll navigate through everything from Google Maps and the crumpled map in your handbag to teenagers eager to help you in exchange for a tip. You’ll walk around in circles, you’ll lose all sense of direction – just go with it.
For more details or to book a stay at Palais Amani, Fez, click here.