Even before they came to Morocco last Christmas, David and Sally Arnold knew they wanted to buy a house in the country.
”I wanted a project,” Mrs Arnold explains. ”I am an interior designer and I am getting a bit old. I want to sort of retire, and I haven’t done up a house for myself in a long while. So I thought this might be a challenge.”
Five months and six visits later, the couple signed the contract on their new property, a traditional dar in the old medina of Fez, the walled medieval city classed by Unesco as a world heritage site.
The house, which cost £24,000, is built around a courtyard overlooked by four balconies. They reckon it will cost as much again to renovate and that it should be ready by Christmas.
”What I like about Fez is that it is completely different,” adds Mr Arnold. ”To me it is medieval theatre. The clothes, the culture, the style of communication; it’s better than television.”
European buyers, mostly from the UK, have been descending on Fez snapping up old dars and riads, attracted by low prices and by the magic of the medina.
”Two or three years ago there was nothing happening in Fez,” explains Frederic Sola, whose agency, Fez Real Estate, organised the purchase for the Arnolds. ”But now it is definitely the coming place in terms of property. Those who missed out on Marrakesh are looking here because of the lower prices. But prices are rising quickly.”
Sola says that 80 per cent of his buyers come from Europe, but that well-off Moroccans are also starting to return to the medina.
Once the capital city of Morocco and a centre of learning and the arts, Fez’s medina was abandoned during the 20th century by the old Fassi bourgeois families who built its splendid houses, and who are still a pillar of the Moroccan elite.
They moved to Rabat, which became the capital under the French Protectorate, and later many of them also settled in Casablanca, the kingdom’s economic hub. Their empty houses and palaces were sold or let to country people who have generally been too poor to maintain them properly.
Most of the properties now being sold in Fez are in need of restoration to return them back to their former glory. The plain exteriors of the houses of the medina often hide richly decorated interiors with fountains and walls covered in zellige (mosaic), lace-like plaster detailing and exquisitely painted doors and ceilings. Fortunately the decorative arts of zellige, wood and ornamental plasterwork are still very much alive in the city.
With direct flights from several European cities, including a recently launched service from London, buyers are flocking to Fez lured by its beautiful houses and by the rhythm of life in the medina. The narrow labyrinthine allies of the walled city are barred to vehicles. All goods and building materials are carried on mule back.
”Life here is simple and the people are nice,” says Loulou Himbaut, a Frenchwoman house hunting in the medina. ”At home in France, everything is complicated.”
Jean-Claude, her 45-year old husband, says he wants to retire from running his own company in Normandy and move to Morocco ”to spend his days in the sun”.
Sola is the grandson of a French postal worker in Fez and surrendered to the old city after 15 years selling government bonds in Paris and London, and running his own head-hunting business. He was so enchanted by Fez when he bought his own riad in 2005, that he decided to live in the medina and run a real estate company.
His property, which he had originally intended to be ”a house to party in,” became Riad Laaroussa, an elegant guesthouse that is now managed by his sister, Isabelle. ”I found the thing that makes me happy to get up every day,” he says. ”Also I am really in love with old houses, and I had a good learning curve in Riad Laaroussa. It took 18 months to do it up, with 30-50 people working on it, so now I also offer a renovation service to clients.”
Sola seems to relish the medina style of doing business, where houses are often owned collectively by large families and every member has to be brought on board before a sale can be made. Each individual needs to sign the agreement before the adoul, the notary who registers the sale and gives the new owners the title to their property. It can make for lengthy argumentative meetings, with individual owners holding out for last minute demands.
”When there are 15 owners, you become a minor part of their story,” he says. ”Sometimes there are, for instance, two brothers who do not like each other and have not talked for years. Then there is a lot of electricity in the room.
”With the Arnolds’ contract, we had to cross town in a large procession with all the owners and the adoul to get the signature of a sick member of the family. Then I had to count out and hand in cash to each of the 15 sellers his share of the price, an exact sum of 45,333 dirhams.”