Bucket List This: Fez, Morocco

Joanne Shurvell | November 22nd, 2016

The secret to a seamless stay in Fez, Morocco, according to Joanne Shurvell, is to stay at a luxury riad. Scroll through below as she gives a glimpse of the hotel and the city.

From the rooftop terrace of Palais Amani, we were mesmerized by the panoramic views of the Middle Atlas mountains that dramatically frame the ancient city of Fez, with its verdant hills and valleys nearby supplying olives, almonds, beans and peas to the medina.

The owners of our hotel, Englishwoman Jemima and her husband Abdelali, a Fez native, spent four years lovingly restoring the ruined building, maintaining many of the 17th-century riad’s features – including fine tiling, carved wooden doors and stained glass windows – before opening it as the Palais Amani, in 2010.

Jemima explained that the building was called a palace because it is much larger than a typical riad. Riads (from the Arab word ‘ryad’ for garden) are traditional Moroccan houses with internal gardens or courtyards. Over cocktails on our first evening we discovered that, after meeting in France where they still have a home, Jemima and Abdelali moved to London where they ran the Twenty Trinity restaurant and a catering business before embarking on their Fez adventure.

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As tempting as it was to soak up the spring sunshine on the plush terrace loungers, the city was calling. After all, we were right in the heart of the bustling ancient medina and there was much to be seen and experienced. With the help of a guide provided by the hotel, we ventured up the main street, the Talaa Kebira, and through many of the 9,000 narrow streets lined with palaces, mosques, fountains and mosaics dating back to the 9th century.

Although most of the religious sites are closed to non-Muslims, their beautiful exteriors with vast, colourful tiled arches, provide a wonderful impression of what lies within. As such, we were only able to admire al-Qarawiyyin university, the world’s oldest and the adjoining mosque from the outside.

Founded in 859AD by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, the mosque can accommodate up to 20,000 people at prayer at any one time. Nearby, we were allowed access to the fascinating Musee Nejjarine des arts et Metiers du Bois, a 14-century inn for carpenters, now a three-storey museum displaying native woods and tools. A rooftop cafe offered tea (fresh mint, of course) and views across the medina.

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Another distinctive scent emanated from Fez’s famous open air tanneries, where the same methods to produce leather goods have been employed since the 14th century, using the same pungent materials like pigeon waste and cow urine. From the terraces of the leather shops above, we watched men thigh deep in colourful vats of dye, dipping skins and then laying them to dry on smooth stones nearby. Visitors are advised to press mint sprigs against their noses to mask the stench from below but the smell didn’t seem too awful the day we were there and it certainly didn’t deter me from bargaining for the traditional Moroccan pouf I was determined to take back with me to London.

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By now, we were thirsty. We’d forgotten, however, that in a primarily Muslim country, actual alcohol is only served in hotels and, while the Palais Amani does have an alcohol licence, we found that the surrounding old city was pretty much dry. As we entered our hotel’s large wooden door from a narrow, dusty alleyway, we were greeted with what was to be the first of many cups of fresh mint tea, described by the hotel staff as “Moroccan whiskey.” Why not complete our day with just a sip more of tradition? Cocktails could wait. —Joanne Shurvell

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If you go

Stay: Palais Amani; [email protected]; +212 535 63 32 09; www.palaisamani.com

Book a tour: www.plan-it-fez.com. Fez Airport is located approximately 10 km outside of Fez. You can fly direct to Morocco via Air Canada, which launched its first African route this past summer with flights from Montreal to Casablanca and then take a connecting flight or train to Fez. www.aircanada.com.

Take a Day Trip: A terrific day trip is to the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, about 50 miles by car from Fez. Just as it is advisable to have a guide for the medina, it is sensible for a day trip out of town so we turned to the excellent tour company plan-it-fez. We were stunned by how well preserved and substantial the remains of Volubilis are, with complete arches to a courthouse and pillars of a temple still in tact, along with more than 30 colourful floor mosaics vividly depicting the exploits of Roman gods and goddesses, in what would have been large villas in the Roman city. —JS

At press time, according to the Government of Canada’s Travel Advice and Advisories website, there is no nationwide advisory in effect for Morocco. The government does, however, recommend exercising caution when travelling in most regions of of Africa. Check for updates and advisories at https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories