Morocco: The soul of the medina

Looking to buy in an untouched corner of North Africa? Then head for Fez, suggests Sonia Purnell
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The Independent Online

Guarded by the Middle Atlas mountains, just four hours on a plane from London, is the most complete medieval city in the Arab world. Unlike the bohemian tourist playground of Marrakesh, Fez seems suspended in an ancient century long before the advent of easyJet, electricity or iPods.

Two hundred thousand people live in its extraordinarily beautiful medina city - Fès el-Bali (old Fez) - and until recently hardly any of them were Western. But now its unique sense of history (it was once the imperial capital of the Moroccan empire) and its insulation from the modern world are attracting buyers in search of the "authentic" Moroccan experience.

Mostly French, but with a smattering of Brits, they are also drawn by the low prices. It is possible to buy a slice of medieval Morocco here for as little as £28,000 (but you may need to spend at least the same again to make it habitable). Marrakesh would probably cost several times as much.

Yolande Burgin, from London, has travelled throughout the Middle East but has decided to buy a house in Fez because "it's completely different from anywhere else I've been. It feels like it's still right at the beginning, very untouched", she says. "It's a working medieval town. I have walked through the medina for a day and not seen one other European. There is just so much going on - processions, dances, music - that you just know has not been put on for tourists. I see my house there as a resource, somewhere to go for myself and my friends." Burgin has put in one offer on a large house in the medina that was not accepted, but has now raised her bid and is waiting for news. "I'm flying out again next week. It's difficult to know about prices as there's no tariff like in the UK, where you know you have to pay a certain sum for a four-bedroom house and more for a five-bedroom one."

"Anything in the medina is for sale as long as you can agree a price," says Andy Corrigan, a musician also from London, who has just returned with his partner, Jane, from a house-hunting trip to Fez. "You can ask anyone, from the carpet-seller to the café-owner and they all have some crumbling riad somewhere they're delighted to try to sell. You have to haggle. But unless you want to buy an enormous place and start up a hotel, we found that it wasn't worth spending more than £56,000 for something quite spacious."

Apart from asking around, other buyers hunt down the local simsars, house-traders hidden away in tiny offices off many of the 9,000 medina alleyways. They announce their existence by displaying large keys over the doorway, but some speak only Arabic, others just a little French. Even so, the Fassis (people of Fez) did not acquire their reputation as astute businessmen for nothing. The simsars know that the word "riad" carries magical connotations for some Europeans.

"Often they're just houses with a courtyard and a pot plant but that would put another £7,000 on the price," warns Corrigan.

There are an estimated 300 abandoned palaces and smaller, part-abandoned properties that the Government is keen to restore.

A French-owned estate agency, Carre d'Azur, has English speakers as well as locals on the staff, and is one of the first to cater for the foreign market and provide a one-stop shop of legal, architectural and financial advice for overseas buyers. Beware, though: the title of property is frequently complex and incomplete and planning permission for alterations or restorations may be necessary. But the effort is worth it. One house in the Nouariyn quarter, on the market for £42,000, boasts beautiful ornate carved wood, a marble-floored courtyard, old tiling, and gorgeous, decorated seating alcoves. Upstairs in this well-preserved home are three bedrooms and three other living rooms.

In the Roman quarter is another courtyard house for sale for just £62,000 that is in need of work but offers exquisite fine carvings, doorways, painted ceilings and ornate ironwork.

Building work is never easy in Fez - not only are there only a few craftsmen left, but the lack of access makes transporting materials a feat of ingenuity.

Carre D'Azur 00 212 5593 0292;