We planned to spend the majority of our time in Morocco exploring a number of the country’s cities: Tetouan, Tangier, Fez, Marrakesh and even a few hours in Casablanca. Although we did want to spend most of our time in cities, we also wanted to sample a few other parts of the country. We decided on a four day trip, beginning in Fez and ending in Marrakesh during which we hoped to:
- See and learn the histories of the historic cities of Meknes and Volubilis;
- Travel to the southern part of the country to “experience” Berber Country” and the desert with a night in a Berber tent (although we decided that we have already taken more than enough camel rides to last the rest of our lives); and
- See the sights and get a chance to explore the beauty of the country’s mountains, deep gorges, small mountain town Kasbahs and tiny villages of both the Mid Atlas and High Atlas mountains.
Since there are no trains through this region, and we didn’t want to drive, we decided to invest in a car, driver and guide to take us through a customized itinerary based on a trip offered by Over Morocco. We were driven by Moha, a very personable guide who speaks very good English and who always went out of his way to make sure we got the experience that we wanted.
The next few posts detail our stops and experiences.
Volubilis, which was originally settled in the 3rd century BC, is a 42 hectare site that originally housed about 15,000 people. It was annexed by and adopted as one of the most important regional capitals by the Romans in 45 AD. Over the next three centuries (prior to Rome’s withdrawal) a forum and many grand public buildings and residences were constructed. Although only a portion of the site has yet been excavated, it is still more than worth exploring (especially for the mosaics) and when combined with a trip to Meknes (see below). Among the sites we found most interesting were the:
- The 26-foot tall Triumphal Arch and the Basilica, which have been restored to provide a close representation of what they looked like in Roman times. The arch, which unfortunately, lacks its original carved frieze and especially the chariot with six horses that graced the top, was dedicated to the Emperor and his mother for granting citizenship to the city’s residents, and especially for exempting them from taxes. The Basicila, which was the meeting place for the city’s rulers, is next to the forum (the public square) with its patio lined with sculptures of important Romans (the statues which have been found and reconstructed are now in museums).
- A number of large patrician villas, where we could still see the outlines of rooms, courtyards and pools in which they collected rainwater. Best of all, many of them have wonderfully restored mosaics on their floors. Among the best examples are in the House of the Bathing Nymphs, House of the Labors of Hercules, House of the Knights, House of the Columns and House of Dionysus and the Four Seasons.
Many tell stories, such as a detailing of Hercules’s 12 labors, one of nymphs seeking to catch a glimpse of the bathing Diana, and a humorous portrayal of a champion horse rider riding a donkey backwards.
- Gordian Palace, the Capitol and the House of Columns for their remaining Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, including a selection of Corinthian columns with some straight, some fluted and others spiral.
- Remains of aqueducts, public fountain, public latrine (which, we were told, had marble seats which patricians had slaves warm for their use) and the rest of the underground plumbing system that used lead pipes to bring water directly to the homes of the patricians;
There are also foundations of homes from plebeian settlements and a museum (not yet open) that has a display of capital columns from the site.
Since only about one-third of the site had yet been excavated, many evidences of this early city remain to be found. Archaeologists, for example, know there must be a coliseum, but have so far found no traces. And with most excavation now being done by vacationing students, it will take a while before experts can gain a full picture of the city.
After leaving Meknes, we make a short stop at Moulay Idress, where we made our way through a food market walk to the Moulay Idress Shine of which non-Muslims can take pictures from the outside, but not enter. This moderate descendent of Mohamad, who many thought should be the successor to the prophet, was forced out in a power struggle and settled in Morocco, where he was accepted as Emir, before being assassinated.
Then we were on to Meknes, which spent most of its early years (until the 17th century) as a small town of no note. Its fate changed dramatically when Moulay Ismail, the first Alaouite sultan, chose Meknes as his Imperial City and wasted little time or money in creating a city the fit its new status. And since he was a champion of dramatic Moorish architecture, in creating the Imperial City section of the now large city of Meknes.
The Imperial City is entered from the medina through Bab Mansour el-Aleuj, a tall, 52-foot gate that was built in 1672 and is supposed to be one of the most dramatic and have some of the most beautiful tile and mosaic decorations in Morocco.
The Kasbah, the fortress that protects the imperial city, has a double set of walls that surround wide avenues and large plazas that are occupied by gardened grand palaces and large administrative buildings. It is divided into three complexes, with Dar el-Kebira and Dar el-Makhzen being of the greatest interest.
Dar el-Kebira, a complex that Ismail had built for himself, contained dozens of rooms that were linked via a tangle of alleys, is now in relative shambles and the remains have been divided into shanties. It is entered through a large plaza that contains some interesting souks, especially the interesting spice, olive and date souks. Beyond that is a long street containing a medina beginning with a large selection of clothing, shoes and toys, followed by food and then fabrics, before it gradually peters out into homes and shops.
The remnants are Ismail’s mausoleum, a mosque, a pavilion and a large gate marking the complex’s entrance:
- The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, a three-room suite built in the 17th century for Ismail, his wife and his son with burial chamber, a carved and painted door, a star-shaped fountain and all decorated with Zellij tiles.
- The mosque (Lalla Aoida), built in the late 17th century;
- The pavilion (Koubba el-Khayatine) originally used to receive diplomats (seeking to pay ransoms to win the freedom of Christians) and especially the vast complex of underground dungeons in which Christians and other political prisoners were held and tortured.
The district also had its own Jewish quarter. While the Jews have left, there is still a Jewish cemetery and a school and synagogue that used to educate students from all across northern Africa.
Dar el-Makhzen, which is dominated by a monumental gate (Bar el-Makhzen), is divided into eight parts—each of them is of massive scale. A few of these are accessible to the public, including
- Water storage basin that collected water from aqueducts to irrigate the gardens and supply water for the residents;
- Water House with 15 barrel-vault-roofed rooms with horse-driven water wheels to pull water from underground;
- Grain stables which, before its roof collapsed in the 1755 earthquake, were temperature controlled to keep the grain from spoiling.
We then had a huge, good three-course lunch (not by choice, but it seems that meals tend to be multi-course) at Restaurant Salma, beginning with bread, olives, white beans, lentils and eggplant. Joyce had the Western menu, beginning with an omelet, then some good lamb kefta with rice and French fries, and finishing with crème caramel. Tom had the Moroccan lunch, beginning with a Moroccan salad (tomato and cucumber salad, marinated carrots and more eggplant), pigeon pastille (one of the better pastilles we have had), followed by a selection of fruit.
After lunch, we stopped at a shop, L’Art des Villes Imperiales, that had a nice display of local art, Berber jewelry and rugs and especially a display showing the making of Damasscine, consisting of an iron substrate into which lines are scratched and silver threads are hammered in.
The Drive to Southern Morocco: From Meknes to Erg Chedi
Our next major stop was the massive sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. Reaching this destination, however, required our driver Moha to engage in one of his assigned labors: drive the roughly 500 kilometers to our next destination.
Since we didn’t leave Meknes until late afternoon, we could only make it partway to the Southern Moroccan dunes. We passed a number of beautiful overlooks, went through a UNESCO-listed cedar forest and passed the home (but did not see any of the residents) of a tribe of Barbary Apes from which those of Gibraltar came.
We spent the night in the town of Midelt, a rather nondescript former garrison town for the French Legion that is located between the Mid Atlas and High Atlas mountains. Our Hotel Taddart was claimed to be the best in town, but was 1 star at the most. Our included unappetizing-looking buffet dinner (it was the only option we had) contained dry tough chicken, fresh cucumbers, beets, some breads, fruit. The fruit and the cucumbers were the best part as we essentially limited ourselves to the Moroccan equivalent of a salad bar. Along with a bottle of nondescript, non-vintage CP Cabernet. Breakfast buffet had bread, coffee, tea, juice and hard boil eggs. Thank goodness it also had yogurt and cereal. No fruit. It was at the same poor quality level as dinner. Surprisingly, we slept better than we thought we would on the big pillows and hard bed.
Although the hotel had little to recommend itself, it did have a nice display—including in the rooms in the form of bathroom counter, bedside table and desktops—of local fossil art, polished stones that highlight fossils from the days when this land lied beneath the sea. We were told that this was the best hotel in town. Probably, but still not a place we’d ever recommend. At least it had intermittent wifi in the lobby (meaning it only worked if not too many others were trying to use it).