Fez – Morocco's oldest and arguably most fascinating imperial city and its cultural, craft, and culinary capital – may have been eclipsed by Marrakech's chic riads, luxury palaces and sophisticated eateries until now, but things are changing.
A case in point is Riad Idrissy. After a meticulous six-year restoration, it opened in March in the heart of the labyrinthine medieval medina. Entering the riad's triple-height courtyard, its Fassi (native to Fez) architecture, complete with exquisite zillij terracotta tiles, stucco work and carved wood, is a visual feast.
A narrow staircase leads up through the 400-year-old building to the roof terrace where sundowners are served every evening.
The four spacious suites are decorated with antique wooden furniture, rich fabrics and offbeat objets d'art that the designer-manager picked up on his travels around Morocco. The riad's comforts are contemporary, with rain showers and mist-free mirrors in the bathrooms. There are no televisions or telephones but there's Wi-Fi throughout, a kaftan and babouche slippers to waft around in.
We stayed in Shoowaf on the first floor, formerly the head of the household's room, with ornate painted cedarwood ceiling and shutters, and bright kilims on the tiled floor. Opposite is Maktaba, with a four-poster bed complete with steps to clamber into it. Mensah, at the top, is large enough for families with views over the medina to Mount Zalagh, and Makarbas on the ground floor leads straight into the courtyard.
A hamper with tea and coffee is left outside your room each morning as a preamble to breakfast, which can be taken in the Ruined Garden restaurant next door, set in the romantic remains of a crumbling riad that Idrissy guests have exclusive access to until noon. In cooler months, breakfast is served in the opulent salon off the courtyard, or on the Evita Balcony. This first-floor terrace, reached through the library, overlooks the garden.
The jams and preserves are made in-house and change with the seasons. We tucked into fruit salad with home-made yoghurt, Moroccan breads straight from the oven – including large doughnuts and crumpets – washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and mint tea.
The riad has been restored by entrepreneur John Twomey (who also refurbished and runs the historic and hipster-friendly Ten Bells Pub in Spitalfields, east London) and Robert Johnstone, who describes himself as a designer, cook and gardener. John bought the crumbling riad in 2006 and, when Robert moved to Fez in 2010, he spent more than a year designing the interior.
The spirit of Fez, the largest continuously inhabited medieval city, is alive in the medina's ancient alleyways, souks and fondouks (workshops). Go exploring on foot and be prepared to get lost. This northern Moroccan city is home to the world's oldest university, the Al-Karaouine founded in AD859; the stunning 14th-century Medersa Bou Inania; and the pungent but colourful tanneries, along with workshops of other traditional craft-makers. Stop off for a tea at Thami's (00 212 535 640 130) near the Bab Boujloud for a spot of people watching.
You can discover Fassi flavours, which include Persian, Indian and Andalucian influences, on a tour with a Fez food expert. Plan-it Fez (00 212 535 638 708; plan-it-fez.com) offers itineraries taking in a communal bakery, street-food tastings and the honey souk, or try your hand at traditional cooking in a family home. Tours start at 950 dirhams (£70).
The Pit Stop
The Ruined Garden (00 212 649 191 410; ruinedgarden.com) serves a lunchtime spread of classic Moroccan street food and salads with Mediterranean and Sephardic influences from 150 dirhams (£11), using ingredients found in the souk that morning. The cooked-to-order street food – including sardines marinated in chermoula (garlic, paprika, cumin, olive oil and lemon juice) with a polenta batter – stays true to its roots.
The dining room of the beautifully restored Arab-Andalous Palais Amani (00 212 535 633 209; palaisamani.com) offers a daily changing three-course set dinner for 395 dirhams (£29). The local chef takes seasonal produce and presents traditional recipes in a contemporary way in dishes such as tagine of beef, artichoke and pea.
Riad Idrissy, 13 Derb Idrissi, Sieje, Sidi Ahmed Chaoui, Fez Medina, Morocco (00 212 649 191 410; riadidrissy.com). B&B doubles start at €90 (£73), including sundowners.