Why You Should Visit Fez in 2015

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Photo: Céline Clanet

For more than a decade, Marrakesh has been the Moroccan destination on everyone’s list, with its ever-more-luxurious hotels, nightclubs, and attainable whiff of the exotic. Fez, about 240 miles northeast of Marrakesh, was often an afterthought. Those who went there raved about the medieval medina—still totally inaccessible to cars, still genuinely Moroccan. But with few upscale places to stay, conservative Fez was never more than a quick stopover.

Times are changing. Slowly, quietly, a sophisticated scene is taking root in Fez, much as it did in Marrakesh 15 years ago. It started with expats and locals restoring riads, and continues as hotels, restaurants, and galleries pop up. So far, overdevelopment isn’t an issue. Whether this will last—especially with this year’s debut of an upgraded airport, set to accommodate 2.5 million passengers, five times the current volume—is anyone’s guess. Don’t wait to find out. For those who fell in love with Marrakesh before it became an international party hub, this is the moment to see Fez.

The biggest news is Hotel Sahrai. Opened by Fez-born businessman Anis Sefrioui six months ago, it’s perched on a hillside between the medina and the French-built ville nouvelle. Christophe Pillet designed the 50 contemporary guest rooms, many of which overlook an L-shaped infinity pool. The rooftop bar has quickly become the hippest place in town, while the Givenchy Spa is filled with light and intricate mashrabiya latticework.

It’s also worth spending a night or two in the medina to soak in its intense, lost-in-time ambience. Karawan Riad—a lavish renovation of a 17th-century house in the Andalous quarter—is the place to stay. The seven spacious suites offer a modern alternative to more traditional riad hotels, favoring sandstone walls and a neutral palette over the usual tile and bright tadelakt plaster.

Outside the southern wall, at the Bab Ziat gate, Palais Faraj is the bold vision of local entrepreneur Driss Faceh. Recognizing that Fez was on the cusp of becoming a hot spot, Faceh hired architect Jean-Baptiste Barian, a favorite of the Moroccan royal family, to transform the abandoned 19th-century palace. The spacious rooms echo Marrakesh’s legendary La Mamounia, with their intricate zellij mosaics and painted cedar ceilings.

Thanks to a handful of expats, the new Fez is characterized by experimentation—often on a delightfully small and idiosyncratic scale. Ute Schrader, a German-born, longtime Paris-based fashion publicist, closed down her agency two years ago and bought a house in Fez, steps from the ninth- century Kairaouine Mosque. She uses the beautifully restored home as a gallery (by appointment only; 33-6/8695-3743) to showcase emerging Moroccan and international artists. Her first exhibition, done in collaboration with Marrakesh’s Galerie 127, focused on contemporary North African photography. “I wanted to embrace young talent, and bring the same energy that Marrakesh has to Fez,” Schrader says.

On the culinary front, Restaurant No. 7 is making waves with a rotating series of acclaimed guest chefs, a novel concept for Fez. Set in striking black- and-white-tiled rooms, it is the brainchild of British food writer Tara Stevens and American Stephen Di Renza, who swings between Fez and Marrakesh, where he is the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle. The prix fixe menu is Moroccan-inspired, but this is not a place for tagines and couscous. Analiese Gregory, formerly of San Sebastián’s Mugaritz, recently dropped in and served dishes like olive-oil-poached salmon with green harissa broth. Paris Popup founders and former Frenchie chefs Harry Cummins and Laura Vidal are in the kitchen through January 31.

Stevens credits Mike Richardson with kicking off Fez’s revival. A former maître d’ at London’s Wolseley, Richardson opened Café Clock in Fez in 2007 and created “a spot where locals, expats, and tourists could all be together,” Stevens says. The café started off serving simple salads and camel burgers, but has become a social center, hosting readings and screenings as well as classes in Arabic and calligraphy.

“Fez is multilayered, multifaceted,” Stevens adds. “Every time I go out the front door, I discover something. This is a city on the cusp of change—and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

Ned’s tip: while you’re in Morocco, be sure to visit the wonderful city of Tangier. This ancient port, rich in history from the presence of the many civilizations that occupied it from the 4th century BC, became a refuge for various cultures between the period when it was a strategic Berber town, then a Phoenician trading center, to the independence era around the 1950s. In 1923, Tangier was considered as having international status by foreign colonial powers, and became a destination for many European and American diplomats, spies, writers and businessmen.

And the best place to stay if you want to experience the mystique of that era is the Hotel El Minzah, still considered the best in northern Africa. Along with the smaller but equally gorgeous and historic Grand Hotel Villa de France, it is part of the Le Royal Hotels & Resorts division of the General Mediterranean Holding group owned by businessman and philanthropist Sir Nadhmi Auchi.

And so to some exploration. The Grand Socco (official name Place du 9 Avril 1947) is the romantic entrance to the Medina, a large, sloping, palm-ringed plaza with a central fountain that stands before the keyhole gate Bab Fass. Once a major market, its cobblestone circle is now the end of the line for taxis, the point at which the modern streets narrow into the past. For the best ground-floor view, climb the steps at the highest point on the circle across from the large tan building (the police station), to what locals simply call La Terrasse. This is what you came for: one of those dreamy moments when you think you’ve entered a movie set.

Then on to the Kasbah. This museum is perfectly sited in Dar el-Makhzen, the former sultan’s palace (where Portuguese and British governors also lived). The focus is on the history of the area from prehistoric times to the 19th century. Placards are in French and Arabic so have your phrase-book handy. You’ll see some pre-Roman tools, a sculpture with scenes of a bacchanalian feast, 16th-century jewellery, an extraordinary floor mosaic from Volubilis and a fascinating wall map of trade routes past and present. Before you leave, don’t miss the exotic Sultan’s Garden off the main courtyard opposite the entrance. The museum is outside the medina – follow the perimeter all the way to the highest part of the city at the western end, enter the Porte de la Kasbah and follow the road along to the museum.

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