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Magical Morocco, Part III: Meknes, Casablanca and Home

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: March 2007



Continued from Magical Morocco, Part II

Meknes
We left Fes the next morning and took a one-hour train ride to Meknes, another of Morocco's four imperial cities (the other two are Marrakech and Rabat). Our home for the next two nights would be the Ibis Moussafir, located between the medina and the modern ville nouvelle (new town). Unlike the other places we stayed, this one seemed largely geared toward the business traveler crowd and made little effort to seem "Moroccan" other than the vaguely kasbah-esque exterior and a 1930's vintage Meknes poster on the wall of our room. Otherwise it had the vaguely bland feeling of just about any Western chain, which was actually sort of relaxing after some of the overwhelming things we'd seen in Fes.

We decided to spend the afternoon with our Libyan friend at Volubilis, an ancient Roman city about a half-hour outside of Meknes. We teamed up with two German guys to share a grand taxi, which made for a bit of a squeeze with four of us in the back seat. It was a bit warm at first, so we asked if we could roll the windows down. There was no handle on either of the back doors, but the driver did have a spare handle that we passed among ourselves (and had a pretty good laugh over).

Volubilis is a large site with an impressive basilica andtriumphal arch. There were also many well-preserved mosaics. The rest, sadly, looked a bit like one pile of rock after another; I always have trouble visualizing what a city would have looked like based on just its foundations. The setting was lovely though, a green plain surrounded by olive trees and farmland. Several donkeys roamed freely among the stones, eating the orange and yellow flowers that grew there.

Near Volubilis is the little mountain town of Moulay Idriss, so we took a little time to explore that a bit. We mostly followed our taxi driver, who seemed to know everybody. The main attraction here was a mosque/mausoleum where Moulay Idriss I is buried. As usual, it was closed to non-Muslims. We were able to approach and see a bit of the mosaic tiling in the massive entrance hall, but otherwise not much until we climbed (and climbed and climbed) up to a nearby terrace to get a view over the city. From there we could see the green roof of the mosque and even get a peek at the prayer mats in the courtyard.

On our way back down all the stairs we'd climbed, a couple of young local women came out of a side street and made as though to pass us -- though they seemed to be in no great hurry. They did eventually move on, but our cabbie said they were actually prostitutes who were interested in the German guys. Ha! I never would've realized that on my own -- wonder how you can tell? Their appearance didn't seem that different from that of any of the other local women.

We headed back to Meknes and split with the German guys, and then SO, our Libyan companion and I headed into the medina to explore a bit. The medina here definitely felt different than the one in Fes -- it was much quieter, and the merchandise seemed quite a bit newer. (Picture stall after stall of sneakers and jeans -- I felt like I was in a mall at one point.) There was a lot less hassle there too; shopkeepers happily gave us directions without angling for a purchase or a tip.

We spent a little time at Place el-Hedim, an enormous square surrounded by souvenir shops and tea salons. Street performers drew almost exclusively male audiences in the center of the square, while a number of women were sitting way out under an archway on the fringes. I couldn't help wondering what sort of rules governed the places women are and aren't allowed to go in Morocco...

We wanted to eat dinner at Restaurant Zitouna, a palace restaurant serving the usual Moroccan favorites (couscous, tajine), but it wasn't open yet, so we settled down on a step in front of a nearby mosque to wait it out. It was peaceful enough until a group of local boys -- maybe 10 years old or so -- came up and started giggling and staring, obviously quite curious about us. One smaller boy, probably no older than 5, came right up and sat on the step next to me. There was some back and forth in Arabic between our companion and the older boys until a local woman walked by and shooed them away. The youngest boy, however, seemed quite reluctant to leave. He was adorable, and I was feeling rather charmed by his big, innocent smile -- until he said something in Arabic that really upset our friend. Apparently the kid was trying to prostitute himself. I can only hope he didn't actually understand what he was saying, that he was simply repeating something he'd heard elsewhere, but either way I found this to be one of the most shocking experiences of the trip.

The boy finally ducked off into a nearby doorway, and the door of the mosque behind us opened for evening prayers, so we headed over to the restaurant for dinner. We decided to share several plates: vegetarian couscous, chicken tajine and a dish of various local salads (the herbed carrot salad was my favorite). These were followed by coconut cookies and a truly enormous plate of fruit (bananas, oranges, strawberries, apples) -- plus the requisite mint tea. We had a good laugh when our friend got his English and Arabic mixed up, telling us "You can just take those cookies home in your bag" in Arabic within earshot of the waiter. Oops! (We did sneak a banana, an orange and two cookies out, since they'd end up in the trash otherwise.)

The next day, SO and I explored Meknes a bit on our own. We found the medina to be less interesting than the one in Fes, since much of what was for sale there was modern and quite cheap-looking. There was a lot of European-looking clothing, gadgets (cell phones, TV's), shoes (both traditional leather slippers and brilliant white Nikes), plastic junk, etc. Parts of it felt like a mall, while others felt more like a flea market. That stuff was in Fes too, but Fes had more traditional handicrafts as well. The funny thing is that the merchandise for sale in Meknes is probably much more useful to the locals, while I got the feeling that the folks in Fes would never buy a lot of the beautiful, traditional (read: expensive) goods for sale in parts of the Fes medina.

One good thing about Meknes was that because it was less touristy, the locals really seemed to just want to go about their business rather than hassle the visitors. We had several people greet us with "Bonjour" on the street as they passed, just to be friendly and not because they wanted anything from us. We were approached a few times by hustlers, but in general were left alone; it was pretty nice.

We started our day with a visit to the Dar Jemai Museum, just off Place el-Hedim. The building itself is beautiful, with the usual richly tiled inner courtyard and a peaceful garden populated by random swarms of mosquitoes and a very friendly cat. We'd actually seen dozens of cats by this point, and though I wanted to pet them all, I hadn't -- you never know whether they'll be friendly or healthy. But this one wouldn't take no for an answer -- he leapt right up onto the bench where we were sitting and started nuzzling up to us, eventually climbing into my lap! Even SO gave in and scratched his head a little.

Other than the cat and the courtyards, the museum also had a number of traditional local artifacts (jewelry, weapons, clothing, cedar chests, etc.). But the piece de resistance was the second floor, where we found an exquisite stained glass window, some beautiful calligraphy (mostly Koranic verses, it appeared) and an amazing salon decked out in colorful pillows and Oriental rugs -- it looked like a receiving room for a sultan! Every inch was decorated with mosaics and painted carvings.

After we got out of the museum we crossed over Place el-Hedim to visit the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, a 17th-century sultan who made Meknes his capital city. We were excited to learn that not only were we allowed in, but the visit was also free -- although we couldn't get all that close to his actual grave. There were several herds of tourists already there, and the area where we all had to take off our shoes before entering the area where M.I. was buried stank to high heaven with the odor of all those feet! It smelled worse than any locker room I've ever been in. No wonder the local attendant was burning incense. Odor aside, the mausoleum was gorgeous and well worth seeing despite the tourist crowds.

We had lunch at Restaurant Oumnia, which we'd never have even noticed, much less tried, had it not been mentioned in our guidebook. It was actually part of a family home -- the whole gang was eating lunch together in another room when we left. We shared a plate of couscous and topped it off with bottled water, mint tea and cookies for about $7 total.

After lunch we walked to the granaries of Moulay Ismail, Heri es-Souani. These enormous stone vaults apparently stored grain and hay for the sultan's 12,000 horses. Today they're partially restored, so we were able to walk around the cavernous chambers and marvel at how cool they felt; the stone walls and tiny windows work to keep the heat out. Beyond the restored vaults were quite a few in ruins, which had their own sort of haunting beauty. Beside the granaries was a large lake (manmade, I believe), where both tourists and locals were hanging out.

We walked back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner at La Coupole, a pretty fancy French restaurant in the new area of the city (the waiters were in tuxes). We both got seafood and enjoyed the classy white tablecloths and candles (though we could've done without the music -- sappy instrumental versions of pop songs and show tunes).



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