Make a move in Meknes

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April 5th 2019
Published: August 25th 2019
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Little and lasting is better than much and passing ~ Moroccan Proverb

Today we were travelling south from Volubilis to Meknes.

After wandering the windblown ruins of Volubilis in the late morning, we jumped into a taxi and headed to the imperial city of Meknes. We’d passed through the city the day before on our way to Moulay Idriss, but our experience had been limited to the train station. We only had a few hours to explore the city this afternoon before continuing on to Fes, so we were hoping the weather would hold out. The dark rain clouds that had been threatening at Volubilis were becoming more and more ominous…

It was raining by the time we arrived. We dropped our packs in the storage room of a local hotel, jumped back into our taxi and sped through the city to Agdal Basin, a picturesque man-made lake that was to be the starting point of our walking tour. Adjacent to the lake stands the ancient Heri es-Souani, a labyrinth of granaries and stables designed for Sultan Moulay Ismail, the 17th century king of Meknes. Despite the subdued afternoon light, the distinctive ochre hue of this impressive Kasbah continually reminded me that I was deep within the heart of northern Morocco.

This was ancient Moroccan architecture at its absolute best. Thick impenetrable walls, huge wooden doors, sublime arches, giant vaults and a nifty underground water reticulation system – all designed with food security in mind. It felt like another world, and there was a tranquil atmosphere within the old granary walls that I’d never experienced. I could have wandered the dim cavernous corridors for the rest of the afternoon, but our time in Meknes was too short for aimless rambling.

We made our way to the stables at the rear of the complex, and the passing of time had not been as kind to this section of Heri es-Souani. An 18th earthquake destroyed the roof, leaving the supporting arches to stand without purpose through the ensuing years. The arches are in varying states of decay, and while they offer striking visual perspectives for patient photographers, they are slowly succumbing to the elements. We experienced this first hand during our visit. We had been warned not to stand ‘under’ the arches, as falling debris can be dangerous for those without safety helmets. I heeded the warning and stood ‘between’ the arches, but a sudden rock fall landed right at my feet. It was only after I cleared the dust and grit from my eyes that I realised how lucky I’d been. Had I been standing a metre to the left, the falling rocks would have collected me…

It was time to leave the stables! As we made our way back through the granary’s hollow corridors, I found myself staring blankly through perfectly carved arched doorways into dark rooms and vaults and adjoining passageways. This truly was a beautiful place.

We left the granary and walked a few kilometres along the Kasbah walls until we reached Bab el-Mansour, the city’s iconic gateway that leads into the medina. It was raining a little more heavily by this stage, which made photography difficult. Do you take the risk and get water on your lens while you try to take photos in the rain, or do you opt for a more risk-averse approach and wait until the rain stops? I chose the risk-averse option. Ren threw caution to the wind. The result? Ren captured some atmospheric photos of the gateway. I captured nothing…

Anyway, the rain had well and truly settled in, so we hurried into the medina and snaked our way through a maze of narrow sodden lanes to our lunch destination – a tiny hole-in-the-wall eatery that specialised in camel burgers! We crammed into a cafe just across the lane and warmed up with hot mint tea as we waited for our burgers to be cooked in the eatery’s kitchen (there wasn’t enough room left to sit in the eatery itself). They weren’t terribly appetising to look at when they arrived – basically just a small burger in a large bun – but after a generous sprinkle of hot chilli powder, they were a taste sensation. Or maybe I was just cold and hungry. Regardless, I’ll always remember my first camel burger as a delicious experience, even though I felt more than a twinge of sadness for the poor old camel I’d just eaten.

After voraciously consuming one of Morocco’s iconic fauna for lunch, we retraced our steps through the medina until we arrived back at Bab el-Mansour. The rain was now very heavy, and the wind was very cold. Not for a minute did we think we’d experience this type of weather in northern Africa. Snow had been forecast for the Middle Atlas overnight, and this vast mountainous region lay just south of our next destination – Fes. It was definitely getting colder…

We sheltered as best we could in the shadows of Bab el-Mansour until a taxi arrived. We jumped in, dropped by the hotel where we’d left our packs a few hours earlier and headed to the train station. Our time in Meknes had been short, but it had been a fantastic experience.

Today we were travelling from Volubilis to Meknes, by taxi.

I don’t remember much of the 30 minute taxi ride from Volubilis to Meknes, as I was having a lovely chat with Tracy and Anja in the back of our taxi. Given by now we had all realised that Morocco had a meat-heavy cuisine, we had a very interesting discussion about being vegetarian / part-time vegetarian, and the implications of that choice while travelling.

Meknes is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of Morocco’s four Imperial cities, Meknes was the second one we were exploring (we’d already visited Rabat). In the 17th century, Sultan Moulay Ismail reportedly turned Meknes from a regional town into a spectacular Imperial city, building his version of grandeur with a labour force of slaves and prisoners. He was a contemporary of Louis XIV of France, and was apparently ‘inspired’ by Louis’ penchant for lavish buildings in Versailles. By all accounts, he wasn’t a very nice man.

We were dropped off at a hotel where we would store our bags for the day (we were catching a train to Fes later that evening). After a much needed toilet visit for all of us, we met our local guide for the day. I took an instant liking to the softly spoken Farid, who also had a cheeky sense of humour. It was a city walking tour, but with rain threatening we caught taxis to our first site – the royal granary and stables in the Kasbah (a fortified section of a medina).

We first walked to the manmade Agdal Reservoir built by Sultan Moulay Ismail to give Meknes a source of water if they were ever under siege. On the banks of the reservoir there was an unusual bronze sculpture titled ‘Waterman’. It paid tribute to an old practice in big cities – old men selling cups of water to thirsty people – that had died out many years ago. It was an interesting sculpture with disproportionally large hands and feet, but it was most noteworthy for being one of only a very few statues in Morocco. It’s very unusual to see the likeness of a man/woman cast in a Muslim country because representations of the human form is haram (forbidden) in Sunni Islam. Despite the religious precariousness of the statue, it was obvious that locals saw it as a good luck symbol – the statue’s hands were a shiny hue from where people had held them and made a wish.

We then entered the ancient Heri es-Souani complex, the Sultan’s impressively massive granary and stables. Farid was visibly excited about the architecture of the ancient granary, and I could see why. We walked from a small antechamber into a large hallway that led to enormous empty vaults. Thick walls with small windows and underfloor water channels had regulated the inside temperature and helped with air circulation around the stored grain. There was a room with a well (fed by the Agdal Reservoir just outside the walls) where the water would have been drawn up by horses.

I loved the surreal feeling in the granary… it was vast and dark, and the tall pink limestone walls glowed atmospherically in the yellow illuminations from small random wall lights. The original ornate wooden doors leant haphazardly against dusty walls, and the beautiful horseshoe arches (the iconic Moorish arch, also called a keyhole arch) revealed the outrageously thick walls. Farid suggested that this was one more indicator of the paranoid state of the Sultan’s mind.

We then walked through the complex to the ruins of the stables. The now open air structure was made up of rows of high walls with an infinity of archways. The stables had the capacity to hold 12,000 horses and was quite mind blowing (although I did question why horses would have needed such ridiculously high ceilings). The dilapidated stables obviously needed some love and attention – simply clearing it of weeds and shrubs would have been a good start.

Farid warned us not to stand under the arches of the stables, and I thought he was being overly cautious. However, not 10 minutes later a large chunk of rock and sand dropped on a group of young Moroccan kids. It missed Andrew’s feet by centimetres and spattered us with debris and fine dust! Ironically, Ineke and I were more protected from the rock fall than Andrew because we happened to be standing under the arches right then. We exited the stables soon afterwards. 😊

We left the Heri es-Souani complex and walked through the Kasbah, past the Kings Palace and along the old city walls to the rest of the medina (the old town). It had started raining so our raincoats and umbrellas came out, but we kept walking. The rain turned the pale pink limestone city walls a deeper red colour before our eyes – it was a very beautiful effect.

I almost made a cultural faux pas as we walked, nearly suggesting out loud that it was early April and they hadn’t taken down their Christmas street decorations yet… luckily, I caught myself before I spoke. I realised in the nick of time that the decorations depicted the green star of the Moroccan flag surrounded by red crescent moons. I suppose it pays to be aware of the filters through which we see the world before we make idiots of ourselves! 😄

We stopped at a shop that sold Damascene artwork, an ancient art form brought to Meknes by the Jews from Spain. It’s a process where an oxidised dark metal object is scored, and silver or gold thread is hand beaten into the metal in very intricate inlayed patterns. A guy at the shop demonstrated the damascening process to us, and as is always the case, he made the skill look so much easier than it really was. Damascening is now a unique art to Meknes, and it would have been nice to buy a small souvenir or piece of jewellery, but it really wasn’t to our taste.

We continued walking into the medina and eventually faced the beautiful and impressive Bab el-Mansour gate – thought to be the most beautiful city gate in Morocco. Unfortunately it was still raining and we couldn’t really get any good photos of the intricate details of the colourful zellij (mosaic ceramic tiles) surrounding the gate. However, the immensity of the hulking wooden gates was clearly visible. This gate also contained marble that had been plundered from the ruins of Volubilis.

It was a Friday afternoon (the time of main Muslim prayers on the holiest day of the week), so the city was very quiet. The outdoor market in the large Pl el-Hedim square in front of the gate was deserted, so we kept walking into the souqs (markets) through a small gate and towards our lunch spot. Most of the shops were still shut for prayers, but Farid led us to a hole-in-the-wall bbq stall, where the owner was expecting us.

We were at this specific stall to try the local speciality of camel burgers! Most of the space in the tiny stall was taken up by a wood fire and grill, so only a few of us could fit into the seating in that stall. The rest of us squished into a mint tea stall across the lane. The mint tea was brewed as we watched and it was such a soothing and warming drink after our walk in the rain.

After much anticipation, we were served the camel burgers, and I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised! I was expecting a very strongly flavoured meat, but it was very similar to beef or veal. The tiny burgers had been grilled on an open flame and were very smoky and delicious. It was served in a khobz roll (traditional round leavened bread) with sliced tomatoes. We were also offered three different spice shakers which held salt, chilli, and cumin with herbs – all of which really enhanced the flavour of the burger.

Even with the abundance of camels in Morocco, camel meat is still considered a rare delicacy. This really surprised me given how tasty it was, and also because camel meat is supposed to be leaner, lower in cholesterol and richer in protein than other red meats. If presented with the opportunity, I would most definitely have a camel burger again.

We walked back to the Bab el-Mansour gate, but it was raining even heavier now, so our cameras stayed protected inside our bags. We sheltered in the side wing of the gate as Khalid (our group leader) called taxis for us. It felt like we waited an eternity in the cold rain until our taxis arrived. It seems a rainy Friday afternoon is never a good time for taxis no matter where in the world you are! We drove back to the hotel where we had stored our bags all those hours ago, and got organised to catch an evening train to Fes.

Meknes definitely has plenty of charm as a city! We didn’t have long to explore it, but despite the rain, I really enjoyed discovering this quiet city very much. Having just come from Volubilis, I was also aware that by comparison there were very few tourists around… and local tourists far outnumbered us at the Heri es-Souani complex.

It appears my reports on the group dynamics have been interesting to others who travel as we do… so it’s probably time for another group update: The group had started really gelling the previous day during our homestay in Moulay Idriss (it never fails to surprise me how quickly we can become comfortable with each other when we have shared interests). The vast majority of the group were fun, easy to get along with and great company. We seemed to share the same values and sense of humour, and there had already been many moments where we were quick to laugh at each other or at ridiculous situations. We had also started making sport of picking on the two New Zealanders (Anja and Ineke) who despite being outnumbered, could admirably give as good as they got!

Regardless of all the comradery, it would be unrealistic to think that a bunch of strangers would all get along without any hitches… Firstly, two older women in the group were travelling with luggage that was way too big for them to handle on trains. To their credit they weren’t making a big deal about it, but Andrew had started staying at the back of the group and helping them with their suitcases. It was very nice of him to do so, but it got slightly annoying for me when managing our packs, seats and luggage racks etc. Yes, I know I’m being petty, so I’m hanging my head in shame and getting over it because they are both lovely people.

Secondly, a couple (mentioned in the Rabat blog) had made it very clear that they felt zero compulsion to be part of the group when it didn’t suit them, and they were also quite happy to stay seated on trains when older local women and young mothers with children were standing! We had noticed slight aggressions between them and towards others from the first day… and then there was an ‘incident’ in Volubilis. One of them got over-the-top angry that they couldn’t sit together in the taxis from Volubilis to Meknes (for a 30 minute ride!), and she was a total cow to Andrew about it. Andrew and I had also been separated (the taxi that I got into filled up with others), but it was no big deal… we were all going to the same place. But this person got aggressive and blamed Andrew for ‘taking’ her partner’s seat! Oh the inhumanity of having to catch separate taxis for 30 minutes! I had said I wasn’t going to judge them too early, but stuff it, I’m absolutely totally judging them now. And I’m going to blatantly rip off the Mr Men / Little Miss series and refer to these two as Mr Rude and Ms Scary. 😊

And lastly, one of the group members had a bit of a nasty fall on the uneven paved paths in Volubilis. She hadn’t managed to break her fall in time and had a very bloody nose as a result. Our room in the Moulay Idriss riad had been next to the steep stairwell and I had seen and heard her stumble a few times… there was talk it was because of jetlag, but I’m going to call her Little Ms Whoops – because I have a feeling bandages are going to be needed at some point on this trip!

Next we travel northeast to Fes, the oldest city in Morocco.


26th August 2019

I wanna go!
Gorgeous architecture, intriguing food (camel burgers indeed), history—what a great exploration!
26th August 2019

Re: I wanna go!
Terry we would highly highly highly recommend a trip :)
27th August 2019

Rabat or Meknes?
Hello travellers. We have discovered we have to decide between Rabat and Meknes for time restraints. From looking at guides and even your blogs, I am 80% towards Rabat. What is your knowledgeable opinion?
27th August 2019

Re: Rabat or Meknes?
Hi Solomon. Personally, I would pick Rabat too. While Meknes was lovely and charming, I felt a bigger connection with Rabat. Trip planning is such an exciting part of the travel process :)
27th August 2019

The proverbs are very good and I will 'borrow' this idea from you!! There is lots of inspiration to travel back to Morocco
28th August 2019

Re: Quotations
Hi Lucinda, thanks for your lovely comment. We normally only post one proverb for each country (in our first blog), but Morocco seemed to have so many great proverbs that we decided to post one per blog :)
27th August 2019

Heri es-Souani
Happy to see the photos of the Heri es-Souani since we missed seeing it in Meknes - Peregrine removed it from the itinerary last minute. Still annoyed about that :( . Anyway, interesting group dynamics! Mr. Rude and Ms. Scary sound like a total drag. Re Morocco having a fairly meat-heavy cuisine, if I didn't eat fish I would have been well and truly sick of vegetarian couscous and vegetarian tagine whiile in Morocco - the Berber omelettes were a really nice change. :)
1st September 2019

Re: Heri es-Souani
And yes, Mr Rude and Ms Scary were a total drag... and they got worse :)
27th August 2019

Heri es-Souani
Happy to see the photos of the Heri es-Souani since we missed seeing it in Meknes - Peregrine removed it from the itinerary last minute. Still annoyed about that :( . Anyway, interesting group dynamics! Mr. Rude and Ms. Scary sound like a total drag. Re Morocco having a fairly meat-heavy cuisine, if I didn't eat fish I would have been well and truly sick of vegetarian couscous and vegetarian tagine whiile in Morocco - the Berber omelettes were a really nice change. :)
27th August 2019

Re: Heri es-Souani
The Heri es-Souani complex was a clear highlight of the Meknes trip Lori, so I can understand being annoyed about it. I remember reading your blog about how they tried to substitute it with a museum that was closed for renovation! I don’t eat that much meat normally and I struggled with the meat- heavy diet. We didn’t encounter the Berber omelettes until further south... after which I had it at every opportunity :)
7th September 2019

Morocco remains one of our favorites
Moroccan people are wonderful. Each town has a different personality. The heritage sites and the architecture are amazing.
8th September 2019

Re: Morocco remains one of our favorites
Yes, it's moved high up our list of favourites too. The diversity kept things very interesting as we moved through different areas. Thanks for following and commenting.

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