Meknes and Volubilis, Morocco

It is a wonderful feeling to have a blank travel canvas. To just have flights and nothing but flexibility in between brings an extra layer of excitement.

As we sat in our riad in Marrakech trying to decide where to go next our only real consideration was that we had a flight home from Gibraltar booked and 7 days to play with. So we had the entire northern half of Morocco to choose from, and had the border with Algeria not been closed we may even have considered going there for a look.

North of Marrakech we had the major cities of Casablanca, Fez and Meknes, as well as the capital city Rabat. The High Atlas mountains were close, the Mediterranean coast was easily reached, the Atlantic coast was a simple journey, and all sorts of intriguing towns were worthy of consideration. We even considered crossing the Straits of Gibraltar early and seeing some of southern Spain. With so many options it was tough to choose. After some deliberation we decided to start off by visiting the northern imperial city of Meknes, due in no small part to its proximity to the supposedly impressive Roman ruins of Volubilis.

Actually it didn’t really take that long to decide. We are the people that navigated part of Bolivia on the toss of a coin.

Morocco has a very good train network north of Marrakech so we bought first class tickets and set off. The train was excellent. Very clean and comfortable and we arrived in Meknes late in the afternoon. The journey took around 7 hours. There was some sort of drama on the train at one point and the older gentlemen in our compartment all got a bit agitated.  There was some wailing and police were involved. I went for a look but couldn’t fathom what was going on.

Our riad in Meknes was located in the souqs which were nearly as labyrinthine as those in Marrakech. Although the riad had put up signs to guide guests unfortunately one was missing and we became lost. So we had to pay a local chancer to take us the rest of the way. He seemed ready to assist us way too quickly so I am guessing he had just removed the sign.

After checking in and drinking the best mint tea of the trip to date we set out to explore, armed with quite simply the worst map I have ever been given. Fortunately the souq in Meknes slopes south to north which is useful when trying to navigate. Soon enough we found our way out of the souq to the main square and settled down for a late lunch at one of the many cheap but rather decent restaurants that compete for trade. This is the main square. Much quieter than Djemaa-el-Fna as you can see.

Main square at Meknes

The food was good and halfway through eating we noticed this chap hiding under our table.

Cat Stowaway

The rest of our day was spent getting a bit lost, eating little cakes and relaxing. We also arranged a driver for a trip to see Volubilis the next day. which is something I was really excited about. I love ruins. Siem Reap in Cambodia is the gateway to heaven as far as I am concerned. And these ruins looked right up my street.

Our driver arrived nice and early in the morning and led us to his trusty Mercedes 240. We paid good money to not share it with another 4 adults.

Meknes Taxi for Volubilis

The drive took about 40 minutes and the countryside was beautiful. The rolling green hills were such a contrast to the stark almost desert-like scenery of Tafraoute. Our first view of Volubilis was not a disappointment either.

Volubilis

Volubilis was built by the Romans from around the 1st century BC and grew to have a population estimated to be around 20,000. However because of its remoteness at the south western edge of the Roman Empire it fell to local tribes in the 3rd century BC and was never regained. It is currently only partially excavated and has suffered some earthquake damage over the years but despite this the ruins are stunning. I don’t have the ability to do them justice with words so here are some photos instead…

Volubilis 2

Volubilis 3

Volubilis 4

Volubilis 5

Volubilis 6

The setting helps to create a wonderful atmosphere at Volubilis. The lush green grassland, the rolling hills and the colorful flowers are a visual feast and also explain why the Romans chose to settle people here. The land is clearly very fertile, water is close at hand and the climate is excellent.

As usual we opted to not employ a guide and just walked around soaking up the views. Our guide book did have a little information in it though so we managed to spot some of the impressive water management and also some beautiful mosaics.

Volubilis mosaic 1

Volubilis mosaic 2

It was very hot at Volubilis on the day we visited so after 90 minutes we retreated to a small cafe under a tree. The cold drink was extremely welcome and soon enough our driver returned to take us to see the picturesque town of Moulay Idris.

Moulay Idris is named after the guy who is responsible for the early Islamisation of Morocco. So this is a very holy place. So much so that until fairly recently non-Muslims were not allowed to stay in the city overnight.

Before arriving we took a scenic drive up a large hill to get a great view of the town. As you can see it is rather fetching and spread across two hills.

Moulay Idris

We didn’t have long to explore and our initial efforts were hampered by an over zealous chancer. He was extremely keen to give us directions and guide us but he looked shifty and my sixth sense told me to get rid of him. Though without my rucksack I had to rely on my trusty glare. He very obviously followed us for a while but eventually he realised he was pissing me off and went away. But we still got to look around the town center which was very relaxed and I am told is free of carpet shops.

Moulay Idris 2

Moulay Idris 3

We didn’t have time to eat an early lunch so it was hard walking past the various restaurant and snack stalls. This is a good shot of some very tasty looking tagines.

Moulay Idris tagines

We then headed back to Meknes and had lunch on the square again before retreating back to the riad for a rest. We also picked our next destination, and not being known for hanging around we decided to leave the next day. That night we had our meal in the riad, having caught a whiff of their impressive culinary offerings the day before. It was a wise decision as they served us a rather nice tagine with beef, egg, prunes and almonds, plenty of olives and the obligatory bread.  I will spare you the photo though as I am now totally convinced that all Moroccan food looks awful.

Meknes is a really nice city. It is beaten hands down in every way by Marrakech as an experience, but if you don’t like crowds and hassle this could be the Moroccan city for you.

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