Marrakech may have snaffled headlines and tourist dollars for the last decade or so, but with new direct flights from London (departing at a civilised hour) it’s Fez that should be discerning Esquire readers’ go-to Moroccan city break. And what a city. The former capital has existed for over 1,000 years and is home to the world’s oldest extant library and university, as well as a car-free 860-acre medina (old town) that pretty much transports you to the medieval era. Into this time warp town has dropped a crop of new riads and restaurants enabling visitors to enjoy an alluring blend of contemporary cool and timelessness. In short: it’s one of the world’s great urban experiences.
Riad Fès is tucked away down a tiny alleyway deep in the medina, but a veritable Tardis lies behind its heavy wooden door. It has 26 rooms and suites, a lap pool fed by a fountain and a stylish roof terrace with views over the medina and out to the Atlas Mountains beyond.
Robert Johnstone, once of London’s Ivy and Wolseley, has created the perfect oasis/lunch spot at his Ruined Garden restaurant. Eat under the citrus trees and jasmine as tortoises potter by. No booze is served but it’s still a top spot for a long, lazy lunch.
Nur restaurant, run by top chef Najat Kaanache, wins awards and raves for its 10-course dégustation menu, a modern take on traditional Moroccan food: eg, a deconstructed tagine is served on a meringue slice. The presentation and stylish setting also make it a dining winner.
Fez is a religious city so drinking haunts are few. The best late-night snifter is at The Rooftop bar in new boutique Hotel Sahrai, with night-time views of the medina, great cocktails, comfy sofas and a live DJ. Mb Restaurant Lounge in the French colonial-era Ville Nouvelle is likely the slickest restaurant in town. People watch with a mighty fine margarita from up in its Lounge Bar sited on the mezzanine floor overlooking the dining room.
Wander into the El Achabine quarter and ask for directions to El Merktane second-hand clothing souq where you’ll find all manner of Moroccan ‘antiques’ and items including, of course, rugs. Haggle hard and take your time.
Moroccan dish tagine. Sorry, but it’s wrong on a lot of levels (mainly for including apricots with meat) and because its sheer ubiquity eclipses several other Moroccan dishes that are actually decent. Fez is the place to try maakouda (fried potato cakes with cumin, garlic and hot sauce) and briwat (sweet or savoury spring rolls). Be brave and buy street eats.
Get lost in the medina. No need to make that a conscious decision, as with over 9,000 streets and alleyways to explore it’ll happen surely enough anyway, and regularly does to Fassis (Fez residents) too. As you gradually find your way back out of the labyrinth, make the most of the opportunity to absorb a way of life and a location in many ways more medieval than anywhere on earth.
Visit the tanneries for a photo opp, looking down over huge colourful liquid-filled pots where leather is dyed as it has been for centuries. Beware, the stench will knock you out—even with a judiciously offered sprig of mint leaf to sniff on.
The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 2018 (from 22 to 30 June) is a great incentive to explore the city at the same time as enjoying concerts, a number of them free, in ethnic and spiritual folk music styles from across the world including bagpipe bands, Chinese opera, and artists from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Bali, India and more.
Further afield, and if you’ve got time, visit any or all of Volubilis, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun and Meknes, a nearby excavated Roman city, holy town and walled former Moroccan capital respectively, which make for a fascinating educational day trip.
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Top image: The Menara Gardens at the gates of the Atlas mountains, west of Marrakech. They were established in the 12th century by the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu’min.
This story was originally published in the May issue of Esquire Singapore.