It is magically cool inside Palais Amani, a 17th-century palace rebuilt in the 1920s with art deco touches, then lovingly restored again recently and reopened as a hotel. To appreciate just how welcome it was to be in its grand tiled courtyard planted with citrus trees and flowers, I’ll fill you in on how we got here…
Having flown to Morocco with the most budget of all budget airlines (don’t even ask), by the time we are tipped onto the runway at Fez, we are tetchy, sweaty and squashed. The hotel offered a luxury car service, but for reasons I now cannot explain, we opt for a taxi to the medina. Learn from our mistake. Unless your idea of fun is veering all over the road in an ancient jalopy held together with packing tape while the driver uses one hand to hold the mobile he’s shouting into and the other to operate a steering wheel that’s playing chicken with oncoming traffic. When we swerve into a car park just inside the medina, our taxi is instantly a magnet for every hawker, restaurant owner and passer-by it would seem. It is hot. And dusty. And chaotic…
Like a mirage, a smiling man in a Palais Amani uniform materialises next to us to take our bags. We follow him up a narrow side alley, take a couple of quick twists and turns until he opens an unremarkable carved wooden door; it proves a portal to another world. There’s the sound of birdsong and the trickle of water in a fountain. We are greeted by fluent-in-English Mehdi, a charmer with a movie-star smile. Refreshing glasses of sweet mint tea appear along with a plate of cookies (this happens whenever you settle anywhere in the hotel for more than a few minutes; not that such service shows up as extra on the bill). Stress falls away. Shoulders drop. Red, sweaty faces fade to a pleasing pink. Mr Smith jokes that perhaps we did die en route from the airport after all, and when they show us our room we’re confident we’ve found heaven.
What can I tell you about the Grand Suite? Our first London flat would fit into the bedroom, with room to spare. The light hanging from the high ceiling is the size of a small car. A double-height stained-glass window looks onto the courtyard; the bed is huge and there are separate his-and-hers walk-in dressing rooms. Mr Smith spends an amusing few minutes unpacking his weekend bag, giving each pair of boxers its own separate shelf, while I fall back blissfully onto a bed made up with downy soft pillows and crisp white Egyptian-cotton bed linen.
This vast room is flanked by a huge luxurious bathroom and a lounge. Everything is stylish, comfortable, tasteful, with lovely touches such as traditional leather pointy-toed slippers left as gifts, and fresh rose petals strewn across the bed and the big-enough-for-two tub. Other rooms are smaller, but all betray the same romantic eye for detail. Misriah 2 has its own terrace perfect for dinners under the stars.
When we’re called for the treatment we’ve booked, we’re led down candlelit steps into the dark, scented, sensual world of the hammam. Two ladies wordlessly lead us through three candlelit chambers, then gently pour warm water over us, giggling. After an hour of being massaged and scrubbed on marble slabs, we move to beds in a cosy room upstairs, shampooed, showered and so relaxed that we can barely move. We don’t walk to dinner – we float.
The medina is still there, just outside the hotel walls. From our bed, we can just hear a family putting their kids to bed in an adjacent house. Tear yourself from comfy recliners on the top terrace and you’ll see washing lines strung up on neighbouring roofs, strips of meat pegged out to dry in the sun alongside the laundry. Dusk is best of all, when the sound of swooping and chattering birds roosting in the trees is drowned out by the call to prayer. It would be easy not to leave the luxury of Palais Amani at all, but eventually we do, armed with a map and a card bearing the name of the hotel in Arabic, and an instruction to get lost in the labyrinth and have fun.
Much has been written about the sights, smells, colours of the souks – but its not until their intensity washes over you that you understand why these stalls selling fruits, spices, bags made from butter-soft suede, carpets and cooking pots are so special. As we work our way up the steep hill, the occasional open gate gives us glimpses into stunning mosques and gardens. Fez is more laid-back than Marrakech, and in some ways more beautiful. A great place to wander, and soak up the atmosphere, on the way back down a street selling modern shoes and jeans, we follow signs to the Ruined Garden. These take us to a courtyard recreated as a restaurant; here we share a platter of salads, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a couple of beers. Later someone tells us it’s owned by a former maître d’ of the Ivy in London; while we can’t vouch for that, the welcome was certainly as warm.
Close to the hotel, we get hopelessly lost, ending up at the tanneries with their extreme smells and animal skins being transformed into quality leathers. We find someone willing to guide us back, and soon enough we’re stepping out of the dust, heat and confusion back into a world of beauty and calm. Weeks later, and my skin is still soft from the hammam, my shoulders still relaxed, and we feel as though we had the honeymoon we missed first time around. Palais Amani is the gift that keeps on giving.