Sunday, April 11, 2010

Meknes, Volubilis, and Moulay Idriss, Morocco

Our arrival in Meknes was anticlimactic.  The weather was gloomy, misty, wet and grey.  We’d made an advance reservation at a riad, and when we were showed in, the corridors were dim and the stairway narrow.  The central courtyard was covered, not open to the sky as in our Fes riad.  The rooms upstairs were cute but smelled damp.  We were the only guests in the large sprawling house and had our pick of the rooms.  Many rooms were dark even in midday but we chose a bright room with big stained glass windows overlooking the alley at the front.

As we settled in over the next two days we slowly discovered the riad’s hidden charms.  There was a lovely sunny terrace on the roof, with a fabric tent in the corner providing shade for a colorful outdoor couch.   The friendly owners, Simon the Brit and his French-Moroccan wife Mona were incredibly helpful and generous.  Even the main room, which I found too dim at first, grew on me.  We ate our breakfasts there, surrounded by a riot of blue and white tiles, blue and white cushions, crystal chandeliers, and thick red rugs.

After a mediocre lunch at a touristy table overlooking Place el-Hedim, we ducked into the shady market tucked away in the rear of the plaza.  We immediately came upon mounds of handmade chocolate bon bons.  The man working at the stall pressed a free sample into each of our palms and we were hooked.  We bought ten candies, each of them filled with sweetened ground almond paste.  Nearby there were buckets of black soap for sale.  I have no idea what it’s made of but it looks like something you’d use to get dirty, not clean.  It’s goopy and sticky, the consistency of warm taffy.  We passed heaps of fava beans in big pods.  A cardboard box of baby chicks dyed blue and purple.  A bin of turtles crawling sloooowly over each other.  A chameleon gripping the bars of his birdcage, eyes swiveling to watch us.  At the back of the market, there’s a row of butcher shops, each fronted by an enclosure of chickens scratching at the floor.  A butcher with a knife in one hand reached across the counter and grabbed a chicken by the neck.  I hurried past, not wanting to see what I knew would happen next.

We spent a few hours wandering the back streets of the Meknes medina.  In the ville nouvelle, we’d seen boys wearing Levi jeans and slicked back hairdos and girls wearing their hair long, carefully curled and coiffed, without a headscarf.  In the medina however, modern dress was much less common.  Men and women alike were wearing jelabas; heavy robes with roomy sleeves and pointed hoods.  The men wear simple tan or brown robes with the hoods over their heads.  The women have tassles hanging down their back from the points of their hoods.  Most of the women’s robes are made of heavy brocades and tapestries, fabrics we’d use at home to upholster a couch or make thick curtains.  The robes are shapeless, and not particularly flattering.  I suppose that may be the point.  Both men and women shuffle around in backless leather slippers.  So basically, everyone gets to wear the equivalent of a bathrobe and slippers all day long, every day.  Comfortable, but not a fashion statement I’m longing to adopt myself.

The next day, we hired a taxi driver for a day of exploring nearby sites.  It was a hot, cloudless day, and our first stop was Volubilis.  Only a handful of other visitors were exploring the Roman ruins with us.  As we poked around the remains of a city that once housed twenty thousand people, green spotted lizards darted away as we turned each corner.

Black and white storks were nesting in a tangle of twigs balancing on the top of a Roman column.  In the underside of the same nest, a whole flock of tiny brown birds twittered away in the shade.  Brilliant orange wildflowers were growing between the toppled rocks.  We saw ancient olive presses in the ruins; evidence that the economy of this region hasn’t changed in thousands of years.  Some of the homes, though they had no walls, still had mosaic tile floors, pictures of horses, fish, trees and snakes made from tiny pieces of cut stone.

Mohit bought a hat from a vendor prowling the outskirts.  We’re calling it his Jason Mraz hat.

We left Volubilis and drove through the countryside, up a rutted winding road into the hillsides of fig and olives trees, surrounded below by fields of wheat.  We passed an old man in white clothes and a white cap riding a donkey side saddle.  As we approached Moulay Idriss, Morocco’s holiest city, the hillside was paved in white gravestones, all oriented toward Mecca.  Our taxi driver told us that people who cannot afford the pilgrimage to Mecca make a trip to Moulay Idriss instead.

We stopped for lunch on a terrace overlooking the town and we both enjoyed heaping plates of couscous topped with pumpkin, fava beans, chickpeas, cabbage, and raisins spiced with cinnamon.

We topped off our stay in Meknes with a wonderful private dinner cooked by Mona at the riad.  Before dinner, we opened a bottle of wine and Mona brought an unexpected tray of snacks to the lounge area just outside our room; crunchy toasted chickpeas, local olives, and some crackers.  The local Meknes wine was surprisingly good, for being made in a country where alcohol isn’t openly consumed.  We made our way downstairs and Simon brought in salads of shredded carrot in a sweet vinegar dressing and sautéed spinach with garlic.

The main course was a delicious steaming bowl of harira, a soup made with chickpeas, lentils, and fourteen spices.  The soup was served with tasty little meat and onion pastries and a tray of eggs sprinkled with salt and cumin.  Dessert was a plate of sweet figs and something fried and soaked in syrup that reminded me of jelabis from India.  It was by far the best meal we’ve had in Morocco, and served in such beautiful and peaceful surroundings.  As my sister told me on Facebook today, we have it rough.


  1. Hello!

    I found your blog while planning my trip to Morocco which will be, by the looks of it, very similar to yours. If you wouldn't mind sharing some advice I would greatly appreciate it! Please let me know. I am arriving to Fez and planning to fly out of Marrakech. I would be there for 10 days and want to cover a lot... How did you get from Meknes or Fes to Merzouga? and is it worth going to moulay idris? I was planning to escape for a day from Fes to head to Meknes and Volubilis (giving half a day for each or half a morning to Volubilis)... is it too much to try to do Moulay Idris/Volubilis and Meknes before 6:30pm?

    If you have time to answer this great and if not, Amazing blog! and enjoy your travels...

    Best of luck and thank you,


  2. Daniela-

    Lonely Planet's description of Meknes convinced us to include a stop there, but honestly we thought it was the most missable city of all that we visited in Morocco. There's really nothing to see/ do there that's unique. Volubilis/ Moulay Idriss is definitely doable in one day as they are very close together and both are small.

    Chefchaouen was a bit out of the way, and wasn't hyped up much in the guidebooks, but one of my co-workers who is married to a Moroccan recommended it as one of her favorite places in Morocco- and we'd have to agree! Incredibly beautiful, laid back, and like no where else in the country. And the long bus ride gives you a beautiful glimpse of the countryside.

    To get to Merzouga from Meknes, we had to take a morning train back to Fes, pick up a rental car in Fes, and drive to Merzouga (we made the 12-hr drive in 2 or 3 days, with stops along the way). After Merzouga, we continued along to see Todra and Dades Gorges (both wonderful!), eventually dropping the rental car off in Marrakech. We actually met a guy from the rental car company in the train station parking lot- he'd taken the train down to meet us and was going to drive the car back to its home in Fes. There are rental car companies in Meknes, but none of them would let us drop the car off in a different city.

    Have fun! And take lots of pictures- Morocco is a beautiful country!


  3. My wife and I are planning a trip to Morocco in April of this year and are interested in traveling this route. Would be interested in finding out more about the roads and how long we should take to do this loop. If you would be willing to communicate by phone or email, that would be great.