Are foreigners still buying houses in Fez? Just a few years ago, medina houses were being snapped up by people coming to Fez, encouraged by the low prices of property and also by the multitude of cheap flights, especially from the UK.
Then the bubble burst, the flights dried up, and buyers started to realise just how much that house was going to cost to restore (roughly about three times the purchase price).
Recently the Wall Street Journal carried an interesting article by Paul Ames:
"On holiday?" asked the young man, toweling down after a steam in the neighborhood hamam. "You should come and live here in Morocco, it's the best place to be, peaceful and the sun always shines."
I hesitated to agree, but then I'd just been prodded, pummeled and scrubbed by a one-eyed, monolingual masseur with an impish grin and long bushy beard who soon made me regret that I hadn't learned the Arabic word for "gently." By the time my tormentor had brought a second glass of sweet mint tea and the therapeutic effects of his robust rub down began to engender a warm, fuzzy glow, my outlook mellowed.
As I strolled back through the feast for the senses that is the Fes medina, watching the fading sun bathe countless minarets in golden light, it was easy to see why a growing number of westerners are setting up home in Morocco's spiritual and cultural capital.
"I was looking for somewhere culturally very different and this place just seemed extraordinary. Fes has this kind of essence about it, it grabs you and holds you," says Mike Richardson, a former London maître d' who moved to Fes four years ago. Mr. Richardson now runs the Café Clock, which has developed as a social hub for the expat community and hip young Fassi, as the city's inhabitants are known. It serves up exhibitions of Arab calligraphy, live Gnawa music and cross-cultural cuisine including the notorious camel burger.
Dating back to the 8th century, the old city of Fes is the Arab world's largest intact medina and is believed to be the biggest car-free urban area on the planet. Clustered around the great Al-Qarawinyn mosque, this tangle of tiny alleys, dark tunnels and exuberant souks was long viewed by Europeans as a remote and exotic destination. Ryanair's opening of direct, low-cost flights a few years ago to over a dozen cities on the other side of the Mediterranean has made Fes accessible. With an abundance of affordable traditional courtyard-houses, Fes suddenly found favor with westerners seeking a place in the sun.
"There was a gold rush," says David Amster, the American director of the Arabic Language Institute in Fes. "It got way out of control. Some people bought houses after only being in the city for three hours," adds Mr. Amster, who has lived in the medina since 1996. "It was like meeting somebody in a discotheque; you talk for a while and then wake up married, a mistake. Fes doesn't suit everybody … if you're interested in partying or fun in the sun, Fes is not the place."
Instead, Fes is a time capsule. Despite the countless satellite dishes clinging to the flat rooftops and the souks selling cell phones, Paul Bowles's description of 1950s Fes as "a medieval city functioning in the 20th century," still holds resonance. Lose yourself in the maze of medina lanes and you pass traders and artisans working in tiny storefronts: carpenters knocking together gaudy bridal thrones around the Nejjarine square; metal workers hammering at copper plates in the Seffarine; dazzling displays of olives, spices and citrus alongside baskets of live snails and the occasional camel's head in the R'cif food market.
Before Morocco won its independence in 1956, Fes was a divided city. Arabs mostly lived in the old medina, Fes el Bali, and its 13th-century offshoot Fes Jdid, which also enclosed the Jewish quarter or mellah. Europeans inhabited the broad avenues of the Ville Nouvelle, built outside the city walls after France took control of the country in 1912. As the French departed, rich and middle-class Moroccans abandoned the medina to move into their spacious apartments and plush colonial villas.
Many of the dars and riads—elegant traditional homes built around patios, fountains and gardens—were divided up among poor families. They could enjoy carved cedar-wood ceilings and walls adorned with intricate mosaics of zellige tiles even though they were squeezed into single, sometimes squalid, rooms. Many such families now aspire to sell their homes to outsiders.
"They dream of selling this place so they can move into modern apartments in the new suburbs," explains Hafid El Amrani, whose restoration company is working on an early 19th-century dar currently inhabited by seven families. "Ideally, they'll find somebody who will buy the whole place for €220,000, perhaps to turn it into a guest house."
The work is being financed by a government fund that is helping poor local families restore historic homes in the medina. Mr. Amster says over 500 of the 9,000 courtyard houses (they are called a riad when the central patio includes a garden, a dar if not) have been restored and taken over by outsiders—either foreigners or Moroccans from outside the medina—to be used as vacation homes, boutique hotels or full-time residences.
Mr. Amster's own website offers advice on how to buy and restore a house, from the bureaucratic requirements for bringing funds into Morocco to tips on negotiating a good price with local craftsmen (www.houseinfez.com).
"When I first came to Fes, there were no other foreigners living in the medina," says Mr. Amster, who has since restored three traditional homes. "I came here to teach, but it was very difficult to find a place to rent in the medina, so I bought a massriya (an independent apartment within a traditional house). It needed some work and lots of patience, but you could see from the beginning that it was stunning."
The upsurge of interest in traditional homes has been a boon for the carpenters, painters, tile makers and other craftsmen of the medina whose skills were in danger of dying out. Although the recession has taken some of the fizz out of the Fes real estate market, locals complain that prices are still up to three times what they were before boom. Bargain hunters can still pick up a small dar ripe for renovation for less than €30,000 or a riad with guest-house potential for €150,000.
Many adopted Fassi look with concern at Marrakech, claiming that the much greater influx of foreign residents and tourists there has changed the nature of the southern city.
"Fes is not a pleasure ground like Marrakech, which is getting hen parties and stag parties. I just don't think Fes is ever going to have that sort of thing going on," says Mr. Richardson, the café owner. "The people coming here are looking for a more intellectual pursuit; they want it to be authentic. Anyway, the medina is big enough to swallow us all."
The View from Fez asked local agent Fred Sola, of Fez Real Estate, what the market is like today.
"We don't see English people any more," reports Fred. "It's mostly the French who are interested. We have regular requests and are involved in a few transactions. So after a couple of years of no action, things are moving a bit."
"Because local owners are not in debt with their houses," continues Fred, "they're happy to wait until the price is right, so prices are stable. But we don't have the lower entry prices that we saw a few years ago. There's nothing under Dh300 000 (around 27 272 Euros) and you don't get much for that. I don't see that prices will go higher in the near future."