Volubilis and Meknes

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Africa » Morocco » Meknès-Tafilalet » Meknes
February 11th 2019
Published: February 12th 2019
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Enough of relaxation, it’s time to move on. Today’s highlight is Volubilis, the remains of a Roman city just outside Meknes. It started life as a Berber town, expanded and developed when the Romans, under Claudius in 43AD, annexed the province of Mauretania Tingatana and made Volubilis its capital. The Romans left in around 286AD but the town continued to be occupied long after the Romans left. A lot was destroyed in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and it fell into disrepair when it was abandoned, but the French excavated and restored some of it and it’s now a Unesco World Heritage site.

Once again, we haul our luggage through the alleys of the medina to where Hassan is waiting on the road for us. It’s very misty again, and remains so for all but the last 10 minutes of our 3 hour drive. The town streets are full of children trudging glumly to school with that Monday morning feeling so familiar the world over. The current King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, decreed some ten years ago that everyone should have access to water, electricity, and free education. Over 80% of the country now has water and electricity, and there are schools everywhere. They look as if they were all built to a plan, and are surrounded by walls coloured in blocks of pastel paint – perfect for primary school, a bit odd for secondary school.

Our route takes us back the way we came, until the last few kilometres. As ever, Hassan has the radio on low, and swaps channels endlessly to find a song he likes. They all sound pretty similar to us, and all conjure up images of belly dancing, and involve wailing voices and what sounds like wailing violins. It is surprisingly inoffensive when heard in country. We pass a few women picking oranges and plenty of people riding side saddle on their donkey, and loading up donkey with water containers at the communal pump in the countryside or the village. Why side saddle, we wonder? Would your feet hit the floor if you rode astride the donkey or is it just easier if you’re wearing a jelleba? Or is it because donkeys have been ridden like that since time immemorial?

We reach Volubilis and decline various guides keen to offer their services. We have a good guidebook and there are plenty of signs. At first we’re stuck behind a large group of American tourists, with a very irritating guide who sounds like Leo Getz from Lethal Weapon. His party ask a series of inane questions – ‘so none of this road is original, huh?’; “so did the Roman guys let the locals rule them when they were here?” – well yes, the road is original, and no the Romans were the conquerors. Dear me. But by lagging behind and exploring the lesser sights, we soon lose them, and have the place very nearly to ourselves. There is a triumphal arch (it's very modest presumably commemorating a modest victory), a basilica and a forum, and a number of high class villas that still have mosaic floors in situ. All have faded in the sun, and some are pretty damaged, but there are a handful of beautiful ones remaining, including one depicting Hercules and his labours. We spend nearly two hours wandering around, seeing far more than the guide takes you to, as he would whisk you around on one hour.

Back to the vehicle, and we head off for Meknes. Aziz says they will drive us round the main sights to allow us to get our bearings, then leave us to our own devices until check out the next day. The main sights seem somewhat limited – the blank walls of yet another king’s palace that you can’t visit, the manmade lake used as a reservoir, the medina ramparts and a couple of squares. The traffic is slow and it feels as if we’re being driven around to fill in time before we can check in, though that wasn’t really the case. Eventually we stop in a square and once again it’s ‘a short walk to your hotel’. A lady has come from the hotel to show us the way, and she leads us straight into the souks. They are very dark as they are covered, narrow, noisy and - for the first time – not for tourists. We turn left, right, right, left – or was that right? – and feel totally lost in no time. After what feels like 10 minutes but is probably only five, we reach our riad. We stoop to go through the doorway and find ourselves in a beautiful courtyard, with the building rising three stories above it. A palm tree pushes upwards towards the sky. We’re shown to our room then invited back downstairs for the obligatory mint tea. It comes with some very tasty little folded pastries filled with some sort of nut and honey paste, which we wolf down. It’s 2.30 and we’ve had no lunch.

We venture forth to explore with our map marked by the lady – there are no men in sight. Sara has already been adopted by Micky “le prince du riad”, aka the resident cat. He leapt onto her lap as soon as he saw her and has already sneaked into our room and had to be carried out by David, who looked about as uncomfortable with the experience as Micky. We successfully negotiate our way out of the souk and walk round some of the main squares. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal to see, and as ever here a number of the sites are closed to non-Muslims, but we enjoy the fact that Meknes is not a big tourist destination and there is far less hassle from people trying to sell you things or lead you to their restaurant. After a couple of hours reading our books on the roof terrace of the riad, we head back out for dinner. Our host recommended a restaurant called Ya Hala. We find the sign for it in the souk, but there is no menu or obvious entrance to be seen. We decide the door with the Tripadvisor sign must be the right one, and venture in. We’re met by a smiling young man who leads us into what looks like – and indeed was – the family's living room. This is very much a family run place. Mother does the cooking and her son runs front of house, such as it is. The menu is short. We order two hot starters, one of aubergine and tomato and one of pepper and tomato, with kofte meatballs to follow. The food is absolutely delicious, served with complimentary mint tea, and comes in huge portions, all for £9 each.

We decide we need a walk after all that food, and amble round the Place el Hedime, which is full of stalls selling shoes (lots and lots of them), clothes, lamps and pottery. There are several rather incongruous Ann Summers type outfitters with the wares hanging up. There are the usual photo opportunities with an emu, a snake charmer and miserable performing monkeys, but even these seem to be aimed at Moroccans rather than tourists (we seem to be the only ones). A group of musicians has attracted a large crowd, who join in with the chorus of various songs. We end up in the food market, which has stalls selling amazing fresh produce. The olive stalls have more varieties of olives than we ever knew existed, and likewise the date stalls. There are shops selling pastries and others with herbs. The meat market has every part of an animal on offer - huge haunches of goat hanging from hooks, goats or sheep legs, big piles of offal and unidentifiable insides, and goat heads sheared in half ready for you to take home and make soup.

Back across the square and we dive back into the souk, now moving with an easy confidence back to the riad, twisting left and right like natives. The stalls in this part are all selling mens' fashion apparel. This comprises impossible tight jeans in various designs and some delightful colours, and Armani and Hugo Boss knock off stuff in hideous vulgar bright patterns, all yellows and black and orange shades with monstrous oversized logos, that scream “look at me, I wear Armani (genuine, honest) clothing”. The stalls are all staffed by young likely lads around 20 years old, wearing this same kit, trying to look incredibly cool (though the girls walking past look singularly unimpressed). They all have ludicrous haircuts, with lots of Moroccan Brylcreem holding it in place, trying to look like some of the more absurdly coiffed footballers who grace the European leagues.

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