Meet in the middle in Moulay Idriss

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Africa » Morocco » Meknès-Tafilalet » Moulay Idriss
April 4th 2019
Published: June 11th 2019
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If one tells you the harira is cold, tell him to put his hand in it… ~ Moroccan Proverb

Today we were travelling east from Rabat to Moulay Idriss(via Meknes).

After our whistle-stop tour of Rabat, we made our way to the train station in the mid-afternoon. We rugged up against the city’s icy wind as we waited on the platform, then piled onto the train when it eventually pulled into the station. We had tickets with seat numbers, but the ticketing system is not followed on Moroccan trains, so people sit wherever they can find a spare seat. We stood for a while until people got off, then grabbed their abandoned seats before they were seized by someone else.

As families became fractured across multiple seats, tempers flared and angry words were exchanged, but nothing really changed. Some people stood, some sat in their seats and some sat in other people’s seats. A couple of guys were sharing a large paper bag of unshelled nuts which they’d emptied in a pile on the table between them. We ended sitting beside them and sharing the table – they were the only seats we could get. They would crack each shell with their thumb and forefinger, eat the nut and then placed the discarded shell fragments in a separate pile. As the trip progressed, the pile of discarded shells grew considerably.

We were heading inland to Moulay Idriss, a sacred village that serves as an important pilgrimage for many Moroccans. As we drew away from the Atlantic coastline, the landscape started to change. We gazed out the window at flat agricultural plains, with derelict buildings dotting the fields and looming hills on the horizon. Every so often we would pass through a small village with basic mortar dwellings that all shared the same distinctive ochre hue. The country’s rural poverty was very visible. After about an hour and a half we reached the hills that had loomed on the horizon, emerging on the other side to more agricultural fields and even more hills looming on the horizon. Orange and olive trees lined the train tracks, while cars shared the narrow rural roads with horses and carts. Farmers tended their flocks (primarily cows and sheep), while small children and playful dogs helped as best they could. The occasional opulent farmhouse and well-painted mosque were the only real signs of comfort and affluence.

After about three hours we pulled into the Meknes train station, clambered out of our carriage, carried our packs to a nearby taxi and headed off to the small hillside village of Moulay Idriss. The roads were basic (to say the least), and it wasn’t long before we were speeding up a particularly steep and winding incline towards our destination.

It was cold when we arrived – really cold! We dropped our packs at the bottom of the village where a few resident donkeys were waiting to carry them up the steep narrow lanes to La Maison d’hotes la Colombe Blanche (The White Dove Guest House), our homestay for the night. We weren’t overly happy about using the donkeys and we wanted to carry the packs ourselves. However, we weren’t sure where we were going, or whether we were taking a detour on the way, so we had to succumb… poor old donkeys! 😞

We made our way into the heart of the village through a labyrinth of steep narrow lanes until we arrived at our homestay. A nondescript entrance off a narrow lane belied what lay inside – a warm and welcoming homestay in the heart of Moulay Idriss. The place was basic but comfortable enough. Our room was freezing, so we had to pile three heavy blankets on top of the doona that was already on the bed. While it may not have been the most comfortable of beds, it mattered little. We loved the place!

We headed down to the communal dining area for dinner, where we snacked on bread, olives and harira soup (Moroccan tomato and bean soup) before large plates of kefta tagine (meat balls in tomato sauce with egg), vegetable couscous and chicken were placed on the table. The kefta was sensational! We sipped on mint tea and finished the meal with fresh orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. Yummo!

This had been a full-on day of travel. We left Casablanca (by train) at 9:45am, spent four hours exploring Rabat, spent a further three hours in a crowded train to Meknes and then another hour in a taxi to Moulay Idriss. We were exhausted, so we retired to our room at 10:30pm. However, there was no time to catch up on our travel notes – we were too tired, and it was too cold anyway…

Our sleep was broken thanks to what sounded like a local cat giving birth during the night… the sound was relentless and loud. As an unfortunate consequence, we woke late and didn’t have time to explore the village before breakfast. However, we were heading off on a guided tour of the village later that morning, so were weren’t overly troubled.

We gathered in the communal dining area for breakfast, where plates of freshly made msemen (flaky Moroccan flatbread) were placed in front of us as we sat down. There was an unlimited supply of fresh bread rolls, boiled eggs and condiments on the table, and we quenched our thirst with fresh orange juice and mint tea. It was such a hearty and delicious start to the day.

After breakfast we organised our packs and left them at the entrance of the homestay, where a few resident donkeys and their owners were scheduled to gather them on our behalf and carry them back down into the main village square. With an air of sadness we bid farewell to Mohammad (our friendly homestay host) and headed off on a walking tour with old mate – a very chirpy and slightly misogynistic local guide.

While his chauvinistic jokes eventually wore thin, his knowledge of Moulay Idriss was intriguing, and he certainly had a story to tell. And to his credit, he knew how to maintain interest in a story – well, at least for the first part of the tour! We wandered with him through the village’s rambling hillside lanes, marvelling at the colours and close proximity of the conjoined mortar houses.

I couldn’t help but notice how friendly the villagers were, especially the children, who mostly smiled and said ‘bonjour’ as they passed. We eventually emerged at one of Moulay Idriss’ highest vantage points, which afforded an incredible vista of the sprawling village below us. It also exposed us to an icy wind blowing from the fertile agricultural plains of Volubilis, which we could just make out in the distance.

We slowly made our way back down to the bottom of the village, and I couldn’t help but notice that our local guide fell silent during the descent – maybe he ran out of bad jokes. We emerged from the labyrinth of Moulay Idriss around 9:30am, finding ourselves in the midst of a small shopping square. And thanks to the incredible efforts of the resident village donkeys, our packs were there waiting for us!

After a quick wander around the shops, we bid farewell to the hard working donkeys, piled our packs into a waiting taxi and made our way towards the archaeological site of Volubilis.

Today we were travelling from Rabat to Moulay Idriss, by train and taxi.

It was a three hour train journey from Rabat to the least known of Morocco’s four Imperial cities, Meknes. We weren’t stopping to explore Meknes this time, but we would be doing so on the way back from Moulay Idriss the following day.

We stood in Rabat Station while construction was taking place all around us, with no real safety barriers in place. On the platform across from us, people were waiting for trains while a guy was welding right above them! No one seemed perturbed by the welding sparks flying about. 😊

The train was packed when it arrived, and we struggled to find seats. We had reserved seats, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking a local family to stand so that Andrew and I could have our seats. A couple of us felt the same way, so we were consequently all dispersed along the whole carriage, and it was a case of playing musical chairs until about 20 minutes into the journey when seats became available.

Even though the clouds were hanging low in the sky and we had patches of rain, the train trip was very picturesque. We passed through hills and valleys filled with gnarly wild olive trees, newer olive orchards, wheat fields and orange groves. The greenery increased dramatically the further we moved away from Rabat. And all the while there was a mountain range standing guard in the distance.

We passed small villages with square brick houses and olive trees in each yard, kids playing soccer on the muddy streets, clusters of date palms standing tall, and the ever present (and always visible) minaret of a small mosque.

We got off the train at Meknes and caught taxis to Moulay Idriss, our destination for the night. The hour drive was beautiful and interesting, even in the dull and dreary light. The area was heavily farmed, and tiny villages passed in the blink of an eye. Small flocks of sheep with their young shepherds wandered the fields and strayed across the road.

Moulay Idriss is a gorgeous little town cradled between hills full of olive groves. The town is named after Moulay Idriss, the great-grandson of Prophet Mohammed and Morocco’s first Islamic leader. His large mausoleum sits at the centre of the town’s spirituality and makes it one of the most holy pilgrimage sites in Morocco. Due to this holy significance, the town was closed off to non-Muslims until 1912. However, even after that restriction was lifted, tourists were not allowed to stay overnight until 2005.

We were dropped off in the main square because our riad (traditional Moroccan home) was up in the old medina (the old town) that wasn’t accessible by car. It was advised we send our luggage up the steep steps by donkey. A few of us preferred to carry our packs and save the poor donkeys’ backs, but Khalid (our group leader) suggested we help the local economy by hiring the men who had gathered around us with their donkeys. This wasn’t the time to discuss animal welfare, so we gave in and watched as our bags were loaded on. The donkeys didn’t look happy about it. I patted the head of one and stroked its soft but very cartilaginous ear… he seemed to like that. 😊

Our riad – La Colombe Blanche – was gorgeous. As with most riads, this was a converted traditional family home. It was set over three levels, and the usual internal courtyard had been adapted into a dining room. As soon as we arrived, we were warmly welcomed with a glass of mint tea and biscuits. Mohammed the owner and host was a bit of a comedian, but he made us feel very welcome. One of the guys in the group had a long beard, and Mohammed basically asked him if he was an extremist Muslim terrorist. We thought it was funny, but the guy and some of the others in the group didn’t think it was something to joke about.

We had been expecting shared rooms and toilets at this guesthouse/homestay, so we were very pleased to be allocated our own room with an ensuite. We were on the middle level (called the first terrace), and there were a couple more rooms on the rooftop (called the second terrace). Our room was a mishmash of bright traditional fabrics and even brighter ‘made in china’ fleece blankets. The light fittings would have made a red light district look tame. 😊

It was drizzly and gloomy, so the sunset view from the terrace was a total washout, but Andrew and I still went for a quick walk to explore the tiny streets around our riad. We made sure we returned in time for a much anticipated dinner. We started with khobz (traditional round leavened bread), plates of olives, taktouka (a warm salad of roasted bell peppers in tomato sauce) and harira soup (a minestrone-like hearty soup of tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and noodles). The harira soup was delicious and very substantial. I was already getting full from all the starters, when massive platters of the main course came out! The vegetable couscous with carrots, zucchini, turnip and fava beans was OK but not brilliant, but the accompanying chicken dish was tasty. However, the kefta tagine (meatballs in a tomato sauce with eggs poached on top) was utterly delicious. Dessert was a very simple but refreshing affair of sliced oranges sprinkled with cinnamon. Andrew ordered a mint tea, and I made the mistake of ordering a sparkling apple juice that I was curious about – it was basically sparkling sugar water!

We sat around after dinner and chatted for a while. This had been our first opportunity to really practice the pitifully few words of Moroccan-Arabic we had picked up… Salam or Ahlan (hello); Afak (please – yes this got a few giggles!), Shukran (thank you); La shukran (no thank you), and Smah li (excuse me) – the five essential words that help us ease ourselves into any country. There’s a funny side note to this language lesson… when we arrived, Mohammed our host kept saying maharba (welcome) to each person as he handed out the mint tea. Almost everyone thought he was saying ‘Mohammed’ and reintroducing himself… so they said their name in return. I wonder what he made of that. 😊

The dining room was cosy and warm, but as soon as we started ascending the stairs to the second terrace, the temperature dropped dramatically. We were very very glad we had three spare blankets in the room! I had a hot shower and scurried into bed. The mattress was like a slab of stone, but we were extremely tired and beyond caring.

We were rudely awoken at 3am by a wailing cat, and the wailing escalated into a ferocious cat fight that lasted an hour! I deduced that it must be a regular occurrence, because no one intervened or yelled out of their windows. When the alarm went off at 6am I could easily have slept for another couple of hours, but we had to be packed and down at breakfast by 8am to be ready for a walking tour at 8:30am. So we reluctantly left our warm cocoon of blankets.

Breakfast was a lovely spread of orange juice, mint tea, msemen (called Moroccan pancakes), fresh butter, delicious dark honey and apricot jam. There were also baguettes served with olive oil, olives and eggs. But I was too full to try it all. This was my first taste of msemen, and it was absolutely love at first taste! Even though these are referred to as Moroccan pancakes, they aren’t made from a batter. To me they were more like an Indian/Malaysian roti or flatbread. They’re made by kneading, stretching and folding dough into thin layers, which is then flattened into squares and fried in butter on a griddle. They were flaky on the outside and soft and slightly chewy on the inside. Served hot off the griddle, they were perfect with the freshly churned butter and local honey! I’m even drooling while I write this, but unfortunately we scoffed the msemen so fast we don’t have a decent photo of it.

While Mohammed had cooked us breakfast, his wife and daughter had cooked the delicious dinner the night before, but they hadn’t appeared out of the kitchen all night. When I asked if we could thank his wife before we left, Mohammed informed me that she was still sleeping, but that he would pass on my appreciation to her. I got the distinct feeling that she either didn’t like associating with tourists or it wasn’t deemed proper for her to do so.

While we gathered for our walking tour, the donkey man from the day before arrived at the riad to take our bags back down the steep steps. I chatted to him about his donkeys, and he told me that the one I was patting was particularly stubborn and would only work if he was treated kindly. He told me this in a grave tone, as if dealing with an off-the-rails teenager. When I asked if the donkeys had names – he burst out laughing and said ‘they are donkeys’. I called the one I was patting Benny, but he thought I said Brahim. He laughed again, repeating the name Brahim a few time and looked at me curiously. He wasn’t quite sure if I was joking or a total nutter. 😄

We said goodbye to our host Mohammed and started our walk with a local guide. We walked along narrow winding lanes of the old medina that led to steep ramps and even steeper steps. This wasn’t a town built for people with bad knees or weak lungs!

We were exploring a very local neighbourhood, and I loved having the opportunity to get an insight into traditional rural Moroccan life. While western clothing wasn’t uncommon, most people were wearing djellabas – traditional long hooded robes. They had long wide sleeves and looked to be warm and cosy. The women had brightly coloured djellabas, whether as the men usually wore them in darker and muted colours. They looked like Harry Potter-esque wizard outfits, but the occasional cream coloured one looked uncomfortably like KKK robes from the back…especially when they had the pointy hood on! ?

Moulay Idriss is classified as a holy town and is painted green (the colour of Islam), which made it beautifully photogenic even in overcast lighting. Typically, a holy town contains five elements – a mosque, an Islamic school, a fountain, a bakery and a hammam (public bath house). We walked to the large mosque and mausoleum complex that held the tomb of Moulay Idriss. As with many religious spaces in Morocco, it wasn’t open to non-Muslims. However, we could take in the minaret and some of the mausoleum’s architecture from one of the entrances.

When we got to the hammam our local guide explained that while the local men socialised in the town’s cafes, the local women congregated and gossiped in the hammam. Apparently this is also where women ‘check out’ their prospective daughters-in-law! The hammam is a nude experience, so I can only deduce that they are checking out the girl’s potential child-bearing hips! Our local guide was nice enough and was a good guide, but he made an assessment at some point that the group liked sexist jokes. He made a chauvinistic comment at the start which drew laughs from a few people, and this emboldened him to continue down that path. I kept my distance from him for the rest of the walk.

We kept walking uphill to a lovely viewpoint which showed how central the large green roofed mosque and mausoleum were to the town. We could also see the strategic way in which the old town had been built into the hills – those were times of invasion and conquest. The newer parts of town cascaded down the hills, merging with the olive groves and farms that hugged the slopes. We couldn’t stand at the viewpoint for long though, as a whipping cold wind was blowing through the hills and buffeting us.

We headed back downhill, looking into the bakery with its furnace-like wood fired oven on the way, and trying not to get in the way of locals beginning their day on the tiny residential lanes. We finished our walk in the town square which was surrounded by a portico of cafes and shops, all of which were only just opening for the day.

This was by no means a tourist town, and we only saw a couple of other tourists during our stay. This allowed us to walk around unhindered by persistent vendors, but it also meant that cameras were still eyed somewhat suspiciously. The local people were very friendly, but I still had to keep reminding myself that this was a conservative religious town that had only relatively newly been opened up to tourism.

We waited in the town square for taxis that would take us to the Roman ruin of Volubilis, and then transfer us to Meknes. The donkey man was there with our bags, and he chuckled while calling out ‘Brahim’ to the donkey. I think he’d finally decided I was joking… but I wondered what he would have thought if he knew I was quietly considering kidnapping Brahim and smuggling him back into Australia.

Next we travel over the ridge to Volubilis, the best preserved Roman ruin in Morocco.


11th June 2019

Moroccan pancakes
I loved both the msemen - I called them pancakey pastry - and the beghrir (the round spongy pancakes). Yumm, this is bringing back memories!
12th June 2019

Re: Moroccan pancakes
I had been curious about the 'Moroccan pancakes' before the trip, but had no idea they were so similar to the Indian / Malaysian roti canai - my all-time favourite Asian bread :)
11th June 2019

12th June 2019

Re: Interesting
Thank you for your nice comment :)
12th June 2019

Interesting and thoughtful for me
12th June 2019

Re: Interesting
Thanks for your nice comment :)
12th June 2019

Morocco is worthy of being on everyone's list, but few ever make it. We did it by motorhome a few years back and have always raved about it - great food, friendly and fascinating culture. Glad you're enjoying it for all its delights!
13th June 2019

Re: Morcco
I absolutely agree with you - great food and friendly people! We enjoyed it very much :)
18th June 2019

Magical Morocco
Bakeries, olives, coucous, tantine.... so many flavors, so little time. Great photos. Love Benny your donkey.
18th June 2019

Re: Magical Morocco
Thanks Merry. You're absolutely right about the many flavours of Morocco! Benny was such a cutie :)
18th June 2019
donkey man with brahim

Donkeys - so want them to speak
Whenever I see a donkey I expect it to start talking in the voice of Eddie Murphy. When that happens you have really succeeded as a film maker. By the way, nice to read about Moulay Idriss. Another place I still haven't been able to visit. /Ake
19th June 2019
donkey man with brahim

Re: Donkeys - so want them to speak
Hahaha Ake I thought I was the only one who did that, and I also say 'donkey' in that Scottish accent :D The film has certainly influenced us! Maybe I should get people to caption this photo with a typical Donkey wisecrack? :)
4th July 2019

Beautiful! I really loved Moulay Idriss, it seemed far off the regularly visited tourist spots, and for that way more authentic. Exploring the narrow green alleyways and enjoying the home stay food you have me craving the kefta meatballs, one of my last meat dishes before I went vegetarian!! You had Benny and I had Mooshie. Heaven for us donkey lovers!
25th August 2019

Thanks Andrea! It was great to get an insight into another aspect of Morocco... felt so privileged to be able to go there. Awww... I wonder if Benny and Mooshie know each other :D

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