Le Jardin des Biehn is in the western quarter of the UNESCO-listed medina of Fes. It's blissfully quiet since motorised traffic cannot negotiate the city's narrow medieval alleys. The hotel is a five-minute walk from the nearest drop-off point.
A green, serene oasis at the heart of the medina, once a summer palace of the Pasha of Casablanca, it's gorgeous at every turn, a romantic hotel packed with small delights that make your heart leap. Its centrepiece is a large Andalusian garden with tiled pathways overshadowed by figs, roses, geraniums, plumbago, aloes, oranges and grapevines. There's a plunge pool and an open salon with cafe tables and a fountain in the centre – proof that this is an authentic Moroccan riad (traditional-style house) – and beside it a small museum with curiosities from far-flung parts. The Biehn family, antique dealers from Provence, have injected their hotel with tutti-frutti colours and a funky vibe that meshes perfectly with the time-warped patinas of the palace. The rooms, the spa treatments in the hammam and the cafe would be a standout in any company, but it's the garden that lifts the place heavenwards.
Since this is a former palace, none of its 10 rooms are the same. Whimsy is the order of the day. Opening to the palm trees in the garden, "The Calif" is furnished with Moroccan and Uzbek textiles and an armchair that would make Louis XIV gasp. "The Sultanas" is a vast suite that opens to a wide, covered balcony with views over the rooftops to the Merinid Tombs in the distance. The bed in my room, "The Oriental", came from a house of pleasure in Guangzhou, the red armoire from Sichuan and there's a room-within-the-room, a lacquered maroon Chinese lair with a day bed. The hotel has recently added five rooms in a new wing in an adjoining building, still under construction when I visited in May 2018, however the character of the rooms in the original building is hard to replicate.
With sound effects provided by the local birdlife that finds the garden and the water to its liking, the riad's Fez Cafe sprawls onto a shady terrace in a blossoming riot of colour. The Mediterranean-Moroccan fusion menu is strong on salads, which come as a blessed relief if you've had one too many mounds of couscous in tagine land. Breakfast is included in the room tariff, featuring eggs, pastries and bread, fruit and decent coffee. Open from breakfast until dinner, the cafe attracts a fair number of non-residents.
Fes can only be explored on two feet but the city repays the dawdler. The riad lies within easy strolling distance of Talaa Sghira, one of the medina's major arteries, which ramps gently downward past a long line of colourful shops to the riverbed of Oued Bou Khrareb, passing the world's oldest university, several elegant madrassas and the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, founder of the city. At the bottom are the tanneries, one of the highlights of the city, but not for the nose. According to TripAdvisor there are 65 restaurants within 500 metres of the riad.
A relaxing enclave close to the heart of Fes makes this a miracle, yet you only have to stroll for five minutes to find yourself caught up in the sights, smells and sounds of a swirling world that comes from another time as much as another place. However if you want a hotel that runs like clockwork and staff who jump to attention at your command you might be disappointed.
Le Jardin des Biehn. Double rooms from €150. See jardindesbiehn.com
The garden, a succession of cool green rooms enlivened by the architectural flourishes of the Maghreb.
The front desk is sometimes vacant, some of the junior staff speak English only grudgingly, and breakfast could be brought forward to accommodate early risers. Is 7:30am unreasonable?
Michael Gebicki stayed at Le Jardin des Biehn at his own expense.