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Hats off to Fes
"Miss India, would you like a Moroccan husband?" came the question for the fifth time that day, as we hurried down the smooth, worn paths of the medina, threading our way through sand-coloured alleys, past stalls stacked with freshly baked bread and shops crammed with the bright blue and white crockery local to the area.
"Where were all these marriage proposals when I was single?" I demanded, but my friend was too busy snapping away at yet another ornate, exquisite doorway - one of many that we'd passed along the way - to answer.
It's impossible to talk about Fes, the oldest of the imperial cities in anything other than stereotypes of what you'd expect from Morocco.
It is the spirit, style and soul of the country distilled, its bazaars are the blueprint for Aladdin's cave, and there is no question of authenticity - the energy and life crackling within the walls of the medina isn't just for effect.
Like most ancient cities, Fes has an old and new part - the old is located within the medina and is the only place you should stay while visiting. And like Marrakech, where you stay is very important, because while Moroccan cities can be intoxicatingly different and exciting, sometimes they can also be overwhelming.
The courtyard at the Palais Amani
Our oasis was the Palais Amani, a beautiful converted riad tucked away just inside one of the medina's entrances. We made our arrival at night with no idea of what to expect, and as our driver hoisted our bags on his shoulder, we delved down a narrow alley.
The feeling that comes over you upon first entering the medina is quite unlike anything you might have experienced. It's like stepping into a bubble as the sounds of the modern world recede behind you, and a maze of streets holding the promise of adventure stretches before you . Declared a UNESCO site in 1981, it's the largest living Islamic medieval city in the world, and no cars are allowed.
This ancient walled city was built in around AD800, and even now, as you enter, it feels as if you have passed through a wormhole, and crossed into a different time and place, as it were.
The walls are high, the streets narrow and each is crammed with its own row of shops. Ornate, carved doors often open into vast spaces, and yet you might also find that behind a small, non-descript door lies a magnificent restaurant, tumbling over three floors. As you walk on, your nose might be filled with wafts of mint tea if you're lucky, or the ripe smell of a donkey if you're not.
And heaven help you if you don't get out of the way when a courier carrying a giant bundle or a seller pushing a cart barrels towards you.
On first arrival, we had no idea of where we were going - a state of being that would persist for days as the medina doesn't actually have a proper map. "It's hard to map an area," said Chriselda, manager at the Palais Amani, "when the streets have no name." (And we don't think she was quoting U2 either - they literally have no name.)
In the same way that nothing prepares you for the medina, nothing quite prepares you for the Palais Amani. We'd been told it was 'amazing', but that adjective doesn't even come close.
You pass through a heavy door attended by a smiling watchman into a dark entrance, which then opens up into a genuine, Moroccan paradise.
And I don't use the word paradise lightly - after a Ryanair flight and a short tumble through the medina's alleys, you'll weep when you see the calming scene of orange trees, jasmine and a mosaic water fountain arranged in a large rectangular courtyard.
Staying in a restored riad is a great way of experiencing the best of Moroccan life because it allows you to experience and absorb your surroundings without being hassled by street sellers.
Most places, like the Palais Amani, take the restoration of the original architecture very seriously, and at this hotel there are faithful touches such as detailed tile-work, exquisite screens and large bathrooms you can get lost in.
It is no coincidence that there is a lingering hint of art deco in the decor - the old palace was rebuilt between the 1920s and 30s. But, the restoration that co-owner Abdel has undertaken is impressive, the work took three years and great attention to detail has been given to the original Moroccan architectural features.
Those vast ceilings, the stained glass touches, the gorgeous mosaics that run through every aspect of the hotel - they all speak of loving care.
The magnificent Grand Suite (or Room 12) occupies an entire wing of the first floor, but even the smaller rooms on the ground floor, located around the courtyard, are very roomy. In the room I was given, the space feels like a self-contained apartment - there is a double bed, a small bed on the mezzanine level, a little lounge area and a dressing area.
Even without the attentions of Abdel, a reassuring figure often seen in and around the courtyard, you are made to feel as if you are staying in someone's (very lavish) home by staff who are helpful without being intrusive.
The restaurant is a draw even for those who don't stay at the hotel, and although it only serves one option for each course for dinner, and it's a fixed menu, it's evident upon the first bite as to why. Each dish is a gorgeous blend of French and Moroccan food, and portions are slightly pared down - the benefits of which are only evident from the moment you eat outside the hotel.
In Fes, portions are huge, prices are cheap and three course menus are mandatory. Of course as newcomers, we had to find out the hard way, and after the second course we needed to be rolled down from the rooftop terrace where we were dining and carried back home. My stomach was at bursting point.
The other great thing about the hotel was that we got the chance to meet the very sweet and shy chef Hossaim, who taught us how to bake bread.
The sun shone strongly through the open windows and fortified by cups of fresh mint tea, we commenced work. Alright, admittedly Hossaim had to help us (a lot) but we got to nose around in the kitchen that had produced such amazing chicken tagines and lamb pastries, and learn how to make the traditional bread that had graced our breakfast table every morning.
Palais Amani can arrange other courses for its guests - we also did one on calligraphy, which was interesting but felt more like a session at school - we much preferred getting our hands stuck in dough.
You can arrange for guides to take you around the medina (and doing so is strongly recommended because getting lost is pretty much a certainty), but we managed to convince Abdel that he'd like nothing better than to escort us around.
We visited the nasally challenging tanneries - grouped together in a large area filled with vats of dye and stinking fluid used to treat the skins, where men work extremely hard - and then visited the leather shops where the goods are sold. Another expedition took us to a vast cavern filled with rugs and gigantic lamps, and later on, we were beckoned down a hay-strewn, narrow slope which turned out to be the place where scrawny men fed the furnaces that heated the local hammam.
A word of warning, however. Shopping is one of the greatest pleasures in Fes, but as the only flight from the UK is via Ryanair, luggage allowance will be an issue. It may seem galling, but I'd advise paying a little bit extra for a larger baggage allowance. Of course, that only extends to small goods - if you're single and female, taking back a husband may be a little more complicated.
Stay there: Double rooms and breakfast at the Palais Amani start from £160 for two sharing. Call +212 535 633 209 or visit the website.
Workshops: The two-hour bread and pastries workshop starts from £65.45 and includes an apron and spice basket to take home. A two-hour beginners calligraphy workshop costs £52.33.