A Moroccan Adventure – The Northern Highlights

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Africa » Morocco » Rabat-Salé-Zemmour-Zaer » Rabat
August 18th 2018
Published: August 19th 2018
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Rabat – Capital city with a thousand cats (& kittens). A Travel back in time experience…….

The Start - Flying out London Stansted to Rabat

We fly from Stanstead Airport with Ryan Air to Rabat – they only fly Tuesdays and Saturdays which is a bind as we will arrive in Morocco in the last two days of Ramadan. So being in the country for the end of Ramadan and Eid itself we thought, should be an interesting experience. The plane leaves 45mins late and is ok, despite the irritating screaming kids whose Moroccan parents don’t seem to give a toss about the noise they are making. The flight time is about 3Hrs.

In Rabat, Passport/Immigration Control is fast and efficient and could have been quicker had the airline given out the Landing Cards to fill in on the plane. One great piece of good fortune as we exit the small but clean and smart airport is bumping into a Maroc Telecom desk giving out free SIM cards with 20 Dirhams credit on. Wow! We get one each for C’s phone and our iPad which has a SIM. However, we’ll need to buy Data separately. 20D for 2G for 7 days – amazing value.

We had pre-ordered a taxi via our Rabat Hotel as we arrive late in the evening. However, no one shows up and after checking high and low the driver eventually shows up. It takes about 15mins and cost 200 Dirhams (we guess we paid way over the odds).

It’s 8.30pm and the roads are empty, and everything looks clean and immaculate. We stayed at Riad Meftaha, by the Medina for 3 days – it’s traditional and very colourful, tucked away in a small alley & central. It makes one realise that perhaps Spanish cities would not be so beautiful without the Moorish influence of colourful ceramics. The breakfasts are hearty & varied Moroccan style - dates, Olives, Figs, Yogurt, Feta style cheese, eggs and an array of awesome bread

Having checked into our colourfully tiled room on the ground floor, we rush off to explore the medina a bit and get some food as it’s dinner time. During Ramadan, there is no time difference with the UK. It’s bustling in the Medina, though many shops are closed. We find a small cafe for some kebab & couscous, not brilliant. Later we end up at a local Coffee/Tea spot in the medina and enjoy our first mint teas. C was the only woman, though we sat outside due to the heat & it was fine.

Visiting Morocco is like travelling back in time it seems. Rabat, the capital city, is a real mix of very old and crumbling splendour with some new urban planning and infrastructure. It is also a very good and gentle introduction to Morocco – relaxed and hassle free unlike Marrakesh.

Mohammed V Street is the main drag through the Medina and goes into the new city. The main Train Station is at the end by the King’s palace. We try and buy our SNCF 1stClass tickets in advance for all our train journeys but are informed that we can’t buy tickets till the day of travel for Eid & the day after (though we get all the others ok). This makes no sense on reflection as there was no exceptional demand on the day. Prices though for the trip to Asilah seem relatively higher - probably due to travelling on Eid itself. We pay by our UK Credit Card.

We discover that loads of restaurants, cafes & bars including those in hotels are closed for Ramadan. We check out the main Medina where 80%!o(MISSING)r more of the shops are closed and make our way to the Kasbah.

The Kasbah Des Oudayas, offers a picturesque view of the North Atlantic coast. Located on the edge of the old city, from here you can take a path from the walls down to the beach, ramble through the beautiful 17th Andalusian gardens or marvel at Bab Oudaia, the Kasbah’s elaborate 12th-century door. It’sthe most beautiful Kasbah we saw during our travels. It’s at the entrance to the estuary and surprisingly a café is open where we have some snacks and mint tea. Later we walk back to the Riad along the sea front. There are 3 tourists sunbathing & people surfing, which is big here. There is an impressive and very crowded cemetery across the way.

Central Rabat is quite walkable, and this is complemented by 2 tram lines which can get you across the city easily at 1.60D a ride. Just south of the city is Chellah (where it’s advisable to get a taxi to for 15D). It is the site of the ancient Roman settlement known as Chellah Gardes – Sala Colonia. The remains date back the Merenid settlement that flourished in the area during the 13th century.

Next, it’s a trip to see the Mohammed V mausoleum. It’s pretty impressive with very smart uniformed guards at the gate on beautiful Arabian Horses, and around the mausoleum entrances, in royal uniforms. In front of the mausoleum is Le Tour Hassan (Hassan Tower)a 44m (144 foot) tower built during the reign of Almohad ruler Yacoub el Mansour in the late 12th century, though not completed as the ruler died.

Rather than take the tram, we walk back along the promenade along the estuary. It’s full of fishing boats and beautiful views of the ramparts and Kasbah. Sale (a suburb of Rabat) is across the water and boats row people across at various points for a few Dirham. There are a lot of people fishing for their supper it seems.

What’s interesting about photography in Morocco, is how the older generation (men and women) seem to dislike being photographed – even in a street scene, whilst the younger generation, come over and ask for their pictures to be taken.

With a lack of choice of places to eat – we decide to eat in at the Riad’s own restaurant. It’s 130 Dirham pp for 3 courses – relatively expensive by local standards. The setting was lovely though the food was plain. After dinner we take a walk in the Medina & enjoy the cool air. It’s much quieter and it’s the main prayer time. There seems to be Mosques every 50 yards in every street. It will be interesting to see how things change tomorrow evening at the end of Ramadan

What has surprised us is the level of poverty & number of people begging everywhere (some by selling paper tissues in exchange) and unlike most other countries they tend to leave tourists alone and ask for help from locals only. We weren’t sure if this was a by-product of Ramadan (as giving alms during this period is an important function) or not? We are also surprised by the number of blind people begging, and people with various disabilities in wheelchairs being pushed through the medina or used as a way of begging. Clearly with no welfare system in place it may be the only way to survive, which is rather sad & discomfiting to witness.

A couple of other surprises. Firstly, the ridiculous number of stray cats and kittens around – some in a very poor condition, that mess (& sadly, die) everywhere and no one seems to care. On the other hand, we hardly saw a dog. Secondly, the number of motor bikes, cars and trikes driving through the narrow streets of the Souk and Medina. People though are generally very helpful (with the odd exception). It feels hot even in 21 degrees C here – yet people dress with traditional gear over normal clothes.

There was a mini Carrefour by the medina, which made getting some supplies of food, drinks & essentials easier. We were very impressed with the Moroccan breads, which so varied. Smoking bans are few and far between including in restaurants.

We travel to Sale on the last day of Ramadan by tram. It’s a poorer suburb of Rabat, just across the Estuary, and a lot of people commute into Rabat for work from here. It’s Medina is old and falling apart, though the walled area makes it look impressive from the outside. There are some great views across to Rabat, especially from a well-cared for and impressive cemetery. Also, people seemed friendlier & said hello a lot in French. We walked through the medina and saw the Grand Mosque (externally as non-Muslims are not allowed in) and the Madrassa, which is very ornate, though small. Entry was10D each – not sure it’s worth it.

Asilah – a beautiful bit of Spain by the sea & a town of fabulous Street Art

Eid – al Fitr Mubarak. It’s the end of Ramadan and people are in festive mode – it’s also a 3-day public holiday. We make our way to the train station early, & as we walk along we notice a mass of people off to the Mosque and a lot of people begging near mosques.

We get our tickets easily enough and still can’t figure out why they don’t sell tickets in advance as there doesn’t seem to be any rush of people to travel. Unfortunately, the train is delayed and also changed at the last minute (so we could have missed it had we not kept asking people). There was plenty of space on the train including in 1st Class. However, as our first experience we felt that the standard was worse than 3rdClass on Indian railways especially the toilets and there’s no aircon working.

The train makes slow progress and takes 3 hours to Asilah. The landscape is rather uninteresting till we get nearer Asilah, where it’s much greener with some rapeseed like yellow crops & undulating landscape. On the trip we met a couple who’d relocated from Iceland recently and were taking a trip to Fez for the holiday period. They have settled in Casablanca. We also met a radiologist from the local hospital returning home after a short break with her family in Rabat. She quickly rushes to the front of the exit and gets us into a cab (as there aren’t many at the station) and pays for our fare too. Wow Moroccan hospitality for you.

We make our way to Christina’s House pre-booked – a lovely little Moroccan hostel in a small alleyway. Melissa meets us and gives us the low down of what to do, where to eat etc. Asilah used to be a Spanish port and people speak Spanish here.

We walk into town – it’s quiet and most shops closed – we are not sure if we’d get any lunch till we hit the Medina Wall where a host of eateries are doing a brisk business. We end up enjoying a Tagine with cous cous (a Friday treat in Morocco) & local fried filet of Merluza – really nice for 110Dirhams

Next, we tour the Medina, walk along the harbour wall and look across to the picturesque city fortress wall and beach. The Medina is lovely within the fortress with many walls having colourful painted murals – a local tradition. Apparently started by one of the mayors, the streets are whitewashed annually (though the best murals are retained) and local artists decorate the medina with their artwork. Again, there are cats & kittens everywhere (no dogs) and cat pooh all over the narrow lanes. Civic pride obviously not big in the medina despite it being the main tourist attraction.

World Cup fever hits town - Egypt vs Uruguay (0-1) in last minute of the game, & Morocco vs Iran (0 -1) in the 95thminute of the game. All cafes and restaurants were showing the games – attendance 99%!m(MISSING)en.

We spend Eid evening by the sea front – it’s full of local families with corn on the cob, bbqs (managed by men) and small steamed snails (managed by women) stall holders & kids running freely. A young girl Ikram decides to chat to C in French and walks along with us – her Mum ran a stall and seemed unconcerned. Morocco is generally very safe. We learnt that aside from French, Arabic and Spanish the children are taught Russian – which says something about the country’s view of the future. Surprising though as we would have thought Mandarin would be more helpful as China seems to be ‘taking over’ (or investing heavily in) Africa…….?

Dinner is at Restaurant La Place for some lovely Fish Tagine & a Morzia (meat, prunes, honey & almond Tagine) with some local red wine from Meknes – not bad as our first Moroccan wine experience.

The next day we spend more time in the Medina & enjoy lunch at Amigos by the Medina wall – Grilled fish & Calamary with amazing fresh Mango juice (17D). On our final night, we go for drinks to Restaurant La Place and dinner at Restaurant Dar El Maghrebia, a traditional Moroccan place and lovely food - they don’t serve alcohol.

Tanger – the city of Matisse, Rock Stars & Hollywood legends

We arrive for the train from Asilah to Tangers. It’s not on show on the TV schedule, and on asking we are informed that it’s running very late (3 Hours), the guy checks with someone on his mobile and says that it’s coming in about ½ hour. We are resigned to wait and go to the platform to sit in the shade when suddenly the train arrives and it’s on time!

The standard of 1stClass carriage is better, though not the toilets, an on arrival we get a Taxi to Dar Rif (our pre-booked hotel) in the Medina. It’s 30D from the station to Hotel Continental, a sort of focal point at the head of the medina.

It seems that Tangier has a ‘hangover’ from the Eid celebrations, as things are not back to normal yet. Our hosts at Dar Rif are really helpful & knowledgeable. Breakfast is a lovely Moroccan mix of yogurt, olives, various breads, fruit etc. Exploring the Medina, we come across amazing murals on side street – like a community art project. Very colourful and innovative. However, the Kasbah - an extension of the medina, is not as nice as the one in Rabat. Eventually we make our way to Café Hafa (highly recommended by Dar Rif), apparently everyone including celebs come here. It’s got great views, is packed as it’s Sunday and serves tea and a limited choice of light food. They have no menu.

Surprisingly, Tangier is quite hilly in parts and the Medina, Kasbah and Ville Nouvelle are on the up. It’s also a city where people speak more Spanish & English then French. Itis a true port town with all of the international, cross-cultural influence and great seafood that implies. Sip on a fresh-squeezed orange juice on a balcony in the old Kasbah, take in the views over the Strait of Gibraltar and Southern Spain, feast on a tajine pescado (fish stew with roasted tomatoes, a specialty of the region), and take a seat at one of the many cafés and bars.

In the last few years, the King has taken a great interest in promoting Tangier as a high-end tourist destination. There is a new luxury port abutting the ancient medina of Tangier where yachts belonging to the rich and wealthy port as part of their tour of the Mediterranean Sea. Much of the medina has been recently restored. Many of the main streets and boulevards have new palm trees as part of a city-wide beautification project. Even with all of this renovation and restoration, there are still many historical and cultural monuments preserved in and around Tangier to discover… not to mention a lot of beach!

We stop at Petit Succo (small square) for a Coffee at Tingis (Anthony Bourdain RIP was here). It’s an institution. We move onto the Grande Succo with its Retro Cinema and onto Place de France. The Café de Paris is a relic more forgettable rather than grand or memorable – the guide book harps back in time to a forgotten age of Hollywood films.

In the evening, we find a small street food stall just outside the medina wall doing fresh BBQ chicken, kebabs & Totilla and it’s the best food we’ve had in Morocco so far & all for 60D – Wow.

Having decided to get a CTM bus to Chefchauen and whilst on our way to catch a cab to the CTM bus office at Tanger GR to book, we tried on spec, to see if a local agent could book us tickets. They referred us to an agent across the way by the harbour and a lovely lady did everything for us, including the onward journey to Fez and we didn’t get charged any commission. She was also most helpful as she was from Chefchauen and gave us some local tips.

We walk up to Place de France and go to find the Liquor shop – directions for which we discovered in a local travel blog. FYI - It’s up a lane directly behind you if you look to the sea from the lookout point with the cannons, go past the Western Union site and take the 2ndturning on the right, and it’s a little shop opposite the Carousal Pub. Local beer, wine & whiskey is cheap. International booze more expensive than back home. Liquor shops are closed for Ramadan & Eid so bring your own if travelling at that time.

While checking out a café in the LP guide for lunch in the area, an elderly lady suggests we go elsewhere a block away – The Boulevard Commercial Centre and we end up in La Terasse with awesome views of Tangiers & enjoy a seafood pizza & salad for a reasonable 115D. Later as it’s Father’s Day back in the UK, we Face Time with our daughters Sarah & Louise & their kids, which is nice.

We have a fabulous dinner at the Rif Kebdani (a place owned by the Dar Rif). They do a mean Seafood tagine & Lamb + prune Cous Cous dish. The food and service were great, so we went back there again on our last day for lunch to share a grilled mixed seafood platter -130D fabulous & great value.

On our last day in Tangier (on reflection 2 days would have been enough, we check out some of the Ville Novelle and find the Ibn Battuta Mall with a Carrefour in it, so buy some supplies for our lunch tomorrow as we will be on the bus to Chefchaouen. Then off to the liquor store for stocking up and a trip around the Medina for the last time taking pictures. We enjoy a coffee at Bar Central in Petite Socco (cheaper than Tingis). Our final dinner here is back at the small shack for a BBQ of Tortillas, Meat & Chicken Kebabs in a roll and some merguez sausages – fabulous eating with the locals for 70D.

Chefchaouen – the beautiful blue town in the Rif mountains – aka ‘Chef’ or ‘Chaouen’

It’s a taxi (12D) to the CTM bus station, where we depart at 12.15pm. Luggage is checked in and cost 5D for 2 bags & you get a receipt. The Bus Station is very clean with tidy toilets but no toilet paper – so come prepared. The journey to Tetouan is straight forward. An hour on roads better than European A roads or motorways. The landscape changes from Tangier urban sprawl to rural orchards, donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, horses etc. Tetouan is a real surprise of a town. It’s bigger than expected, clean and quite picturesque. The images of it on the net don’t do it justice, which is why we passed on it.

After Tetouan, the roads are more winding across the Rif mountains. Surprisingly the houses more Spanish hacienda style. We pass rivers, lakes and a lot more greenery than we had expected in Morocco. We arrive at 3pm and surprisingly there are no Petit Taxis to be seen anywhere. We start the climb to the town centre and a cab pulls up and agrees to drop us of at The Hotel Parador (central square) for 15D – a bargain as we were advised that they might want 50D whereas the local going rate was 20D.

It’s 30 degrees, but the blue beauty of the location takes our mind off it. We check into Hostal Gernika (owned by a Spanish lady from the Basque country) and discover we’ve left our LP Guide book on the bus. So, after a futile search for a replacement – we give up and download the latest version of the LP guide on Kindle – so a brief respite.

We spend the rest of the afternoon & early evening taking pictures and admiring the beauty of the place. We’ve never come across a place like this in all our travel around the world. It’s seems to be in the middle of nowhere yet has so much to offer.

Dinner is at a very small place recommended by our host Anna Maria – Chez Fouad – just off the main square. The little man does only a few dishes, so we try anchovy tagine & kefta with egg tagines. The former was fabulous and a real surprise. 70D for 2. It’s so good we go back for lunch another day.

Chefchaouen is known as Chef or Chauen depends on where you are & who you speak to. It’s considered calm and quiet – though our experience was different.It’s a small mountain town far enough off the beaten track to dissuade most tourists, which makes it ‘quiet’ enough for those visitors brave enough to venture to the edge of the Rif Mountains. That’s the official line, but we found tourists from almost every part of the globe and it’s not ‘quiet’ – people, including children don’t go to bed before 1am when suddenly, all goes quiet.

It’s also a place with many mosques whose imams start signing at the same time & not always in tune using load speakers!

The narrow, Chaouen-blue pedestrian streets give way to small squares and good views over the lush valley. It is however, quieter compared to the busy medinas of Fez and Marrakech. It has enough of what is quintessentially Moroccan to be of interest to travellers. Nature lovers will enjoy the easily accessible day hikes into the mountains. And shoppers will enjoy the hassle-free shops for everything from hand-spun pottery to artisanal soaps made right in the city.

Located just outside the medina walls, to the east, “Ras el Maa” (or “Head of the Water”) is a small (overrated by guidebooks) ‘waterfall’. Many locals gather here during the hot months to cool off and, sometimes, to do laundry. There is a small café, which has tables and chairs set up in the water. They primarily serve Tagines for lunch & frown at tourist who just want a drink. During other times coffee & tea is available.

The main Square – Plaza Uta El Hamman – comes alive after sunset and is packed with local families and tourists enjoying the cool breeze and local atmosphere. The Kasbah is the smallest ever and doesn’t offer much other than to look picturesque as part of the square.

We visit the Market (Souk) day, just outside the medina walls. It’s a really interesting to observe locals trade. There are many people in traditional tribal robes – all camera shy, unfortunately. The air wafts with the smell of fresh mint. Later we make our way to the Hotel Parador, where most taxis operate to and from. They have a bar - open to all and we enjoy a cool beer – local Flag - 25D each for 33cl – a nice change. The football world cup games are being shown on the TV and the views from the hotel terrace, where there is also a swimming pool, are quite lovely.

We enjoy a fabulous dinner at Lala Mesouda – Tanjiya (Marrakech style Tajine), white beans, spinach & aubergine with hot sauce (a first), Olives and bread with 2 mint teas. So good we go back again.

Fez – the ancient medina - an imperial city of 9000 alleyways & a lot more

Our CTM bus arrives 45 mins late – given that it started from Tetouan it’s pretty poor show - even allowing for Moroccan standard time. Even the bus controller is angry. Eventually we are off and 4.30 hours later we arrive in Fez.

By prior arrangements with our Riad, we are met by a Dar Idrissi rep at the bus station and pay 60D for a taxi and once dropped off at a particular entrance gates of the Medina, we are met by the Riad Manager Kibir, who speaks very good English and is most helpful. It is quite a lovely Dar (Riad) – a 300 years old merchant’s house. We are given a good map of the cities (Fez is actually 3 cites in one – the Ancient – the Old Medina and the New Medina (which in itself is 700 years old) and then there’s Modern Fez.

Life in the Medina is like walking into an ancient civilisation with mules & horses. Though a modern addition is the scooters which seems ridiculous as the alleyways are quite narrow and crowded with people.

It looks like we have arrived during the Musiques Sacrees du Monde Festival. Which is a festival celebrating global, gospel music and the big attraction will be the Soweto Gospel Choir from South African (though after we have left). We do see a couple of acts on stage as it’s pretty open. Fez obviously likes music as you hear a variety of traditional Moroccan, US Blues surprisingly & Reggae being played as you wander the streets of the medina. The Kasbah, alongside though outside the Medina is quite small and the square outside operates as a market place during the day and evening.

We find Fez slightly underwhelming at first, perhaps our expectations were too high of what it might be like – this magical, mystical place where you were bound to get lost in the medina (we didn’t) and sellers are frenetically after your money (they weren’t). However, after a day to adjust our expectations we enjoyed it

The Qarawiyyin Mosque & University is the heart of Fez Medina, with a steady stream of worshippers flowing in and out all day. The mosque is so large that, coupled with the general close proximity of buildings within the Medina, it is not easy to view the mosque as an independent structure, or see where one building begins and another ends. From a distance, viewed from the surrounding hills of Fez, the mosque is unmistakeable, with its green pyramidical roof setting it apart from its surroundings. The busy, narrow streets of the Medina outside, contrast heavily with the light, airy space of the mosque courtyard. There’s a sense of calm, as well as laid back nature of worshippers. Founded by Fatima al-Fihri as a madrasa in 859 AD. The Qarawiyyin eventually became one of the leading centres of learning in the Islamic world. Operating as both a mosque and university, the building was expanded several times over the centuries and can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers. It is considered one of the oldest continually running universities in the world.

Located in the Souk al-Attarine, the spice and perfume market, from which it takes its name, the Madrasa al-Attarine was founded by Uthman Abu Said in 1325. In close walking distance to the Qarawiyyin, the madrasa contains rooms for teaching and a small mosque, set around its central courtyard. The prices for spices etc are much higher here than in Meknes – so bargain hard.

Little has changed in the process of dying leather at the Chaouwara/leather tanneries of Fez in more than 500 years. The tanneries are surrounded by shops selling leather goods; here visitors are offered the chance to view the tanneries from above from a balcony or roof-top. Shop staff give an overview of the dying process, as the distinct odour of leather and dye fills the air for a small tip.

The Zawiya (tomb) of Moulay Idriss II who was ruler of Morocco from 807 to 828 is located here. He is credited as the founder of the city of Fez and considered its patron saint. The building, housing a mosque and the tomb of Moulay Idriss, dates back to the 9th century. Many consider it a blessed place, visiting the site for baraka (blessings).

On one of the hilltops that surround the Old City stand the tombs of the Marinid rulers. Although the tomb ruins are not themselves particularly noteworthy, the view offered from the hilltop makes the uphill climb worth the effort.

Shaykh Tijani (1735–1815) was a prominent scholar and founder of the Tijani tariqa (order). The zawiya was (and still is) a meeting place for his students and followers of the tariqa. It is also his burial place. The building has an exterior decorated much like the courtyards of Moroccan madrasas, with glazed tile-work and carved stucco and wood.

The Madrasa Bou Inania was built by Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris between 1350 and 1357. Unlike most other Moroccan madrasas which only contain a small mosque, the Bou Inania is a complete mosque in itself, along with its own green-tiled minaret. The last madrasa to be built by the Marinids, who were known for their artisanship. The Bou Inania became an important religious institute in Fez and Morocco as a whole. Inside, its courtyard is decorated with zellij tile-work and carved stucco that is typical of Moroccan madrasas, along with cedar-wood on the tops of walls and ceilings. Arabic calligraphy is inscribed throughout. Opposite the madrasa is the Dar al-Magana, a water clock also built by sultan Abu Inan. The clock, no longer in use, once signalled the hour of the day when metal balls were released from twelve small doors, into brass bowls on the lower beams.

You can walk from the Medina to the new city with its well-manicured gardens, near the royal palace (which is off limits to visitors). Fez benefits from the patronage of the king as the queen is from here. Close by is the Mella or Jewish area with its Cemetery (entry is 20D) which is quite interesting from a historic perspective of the Moroccan people and their religious tolerance and way of life. The old Jewish houses are quite unique for the country with wide wooden balconies where apparently the women sat and watched the world go by. There are largely jewellery and mixed fruit and nuts stall here. Our favourite find was walnut stuffed dates – delicious. We visit the cemetery which has the tomb of a young girl considered a Jewish martyr, who refused to marry the Sultan & was beheaded.

On our first night we dine at Cinema, a local place in the guide book – a pizza & Tagine. It’s ok but not a recommendation. During our stay we lunch a couple of times at the famous Café Clock, slightly trendy, on 3 levels and the roof top has nice views of the medina. It’s definitely touristy, though a good place to eat and/or drink. We were surprised to find US Country & Western music being played – some on request by a customer. Though each evening they host live local traditional music. We did try their ubiquitous ‘Camel Burger’ – a bit dry, though their Lamb Beldi Burger was awesome.

We try out local street food – bread filled with grilled mixed mince, one with merguez 10D each and one with steamed meat & tongue 20D, which was absolutely fab. We tried lunch at ‘Fes Made in M’, sitting outside, which served a variety of local breads, cheese & eggs with Khlii (dried beef) which was pretty good.

In the new city, where you pass the Royal Palace, and Jewish Mella & cemetery, there is a Carrefour with a separate shop for alcohol. We decide to stock up on some for the remainder of our trip – Flag & Casablanca beers, some Pastis for a change & red wine from the Meknes area – which kept us going.

Meknes – imperial city, quieter and nice

We take the train to Meknes from Fez where the train starts – so it is easy to get seats. Beware that Meknes has 2 stations and the second Gare el Amir Abdelkader, which is smaller, is best for the centre. Note: some trains only stop at the main Meknes Gare, so check.

It’s a short taxi ride to the Medina (10 to 15D). We are dropped off at Bab Assis, the main entrance to the medina, which is relatively small. Our Rhiad Zahraa Al Ismailiais well signposted. The location is very central & everything is in walking distance. There are no city maps available anywhere. The Tourist office in the main square next to the medina is in ruin and used as a local toilet it seems. We find a little café by the square & enjoy some local sandwiches.

Meknes has a number of places of architectural and historic interest, including Heri es-Souani and Borj Belkari Tower. The former was once a royal granary and stables, while the latter was a lookout tower in the city’s defensive walls. There’s a Grande Mosque, though non-Muslim visitors aren’t allowed inside.

Bou Inania Madrasa is an interesting building, originally used as an Islamic school. The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of Meknes’s major attractions. A grand building, it is the final resting place of Moulay Ismail, the sultan who established Meknes and a man that is still said to have been one of the nation’s most powerful leaders. Because of the site’s significance, non-Muslims are allowed to look inside, although they cannot go close to the actual tomb. Unfortunately, the building is being renovated and won’t be accessible for a year or so. The Imperial city (royal palace) itself is off limits, though used regularly by the King & his family.

Meknes is like a little Marrakech without the hassle. The main square - Place Hedim - is Meknes’s version of the famous Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech. It’ssurrounded by historic buildings and narrow alleys that lead into bustling markets. It is especially lively in the evening time, when you’ll find an assortment of snack vendors, snake charmers, monkey performers and stalls selling fresh juices, music, and carnival-like games and competitions - locals trying to hook a bottle on a fishing rod.One evening we go up to the café on the corner of the square and get some good pictures from the Terrasse. People come to enjoy a drink (non-alcoholic of course) and people watch. Entrance is15D which is deducted off the bill.

A local attraction and means of transport are calleches- horses drawn carriages that take you on a ½ hour tour of the highlights – though most of the local businesses warn you against taking them as they are expensive and just drive past areas of buildings of interest.

In the new city area is the former prison of Habs Qara, where the sultan Moulay Ismail held prisoners far away from the public eye. It is said that the prison held up to 60,000 people - slaves, prisoners of war, and political prisoners.

Meknes’s souks aren’t as extensive and hectic as those in Fez or Marrakech, they are however, ideal for those who want to purchase local souvenirs, spices, ceramics, argan oil etc and see how people traditionally shop and sell. As with most places in Morocco, haggling is essential. Prices are generally more reasonable here.

From the guide book we find Ya Halla – a house converted in part into a restaurant and run by the family. Mum is the chef and son the service provider. It’s a great house with fabulous home cooking to order at a very reasonable rate. As it’s so good we return for our last night’s dinner having ordered in advance and they had the meal ready as soon as we arrived.

We take a Taxi day trip to Volubilis and Moulay Idris arranged by the Riad. It’s a standard 350DH in a Grande Taxi. The term ‘Grande’ is slightly misleading as we ended up in a semi clapped out old Mercedes (most Grande Taxis in Meknes are.) However, this added to the ‘adventure’.

Volubilis – a day trip

Volubilis, an ancient Berber and Roman site in the mountains, was the Mauritanian capital, founded in the 3rd century BC, and became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and has many fine buildings. Good remains survive in this site, located in a fertile agricultural area. Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisi dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.

It’s just 30 kilometres outside of Meknes and is a UNESCO-listed site. You can see stone carvings, statues, mosaics, extensive foundations and numerous dividing walls, an ancient bathhouse, a section of an aqueduct, and more. Information boards around the complex explain the significance of different sections. There are guides, though locals warn against using them as they aren’t qualified and charge a lot. We found the guy guarding the site from misuse a useful font of information

After a brief stopover at Moulay Idris – we drive back. Unfortunately for the driver, he was stopped by the local police & paid some money. He claimed that he has to bribe the police (100D) for an easier life – he shrugs it off as a way of things here.

On our return to the Riad, there is a surprise; a performance by a Meknes Group of traditional music in the central courtyard of the place for the benefit of a tour group. It’s all very colourful & we were brought tea and biscuits which was actually prepared for the tour group – great hospitality.

We venture outside the old town walls to see parts of the ‘new city’, and the old prison. Friday is generally a bad day for tourists as shops & some eateries don’t open & banks etc close early. There are definitely more people begging near the mosques. We are informed that there is no welfare provision, and poverty is dealt with within the family or community, however, there is a view that people getting more selfish – a challenge for the government. We were told that locals felt that all politicians (from the elite in society) were all corrupt and primarily look after themselves and their own and don’t care about the common people.

Rabat & Home:

We decide to catch an earlier train than we are booked for, as the trains have been so unreliable, and we couldn’t afford to miss our flight home. So, we travel 2ndClass with our 1st Class tickets. Surprisingly the trip is the best and 2ndClass was much better than expected (left the 1stClass standard of our initial train ride in the shade).

We make our way to lunch at Tajine wa Tanjia by the main station in Rabat, which was closed during Ramadan when we started our Moroccan adventure here. It was one of the best meals we had in Morocco and a great way to end our trip. Luckily, the bus transport to the airport leaves from just across the way from the main station for 20D each – it’s a great ride in.

It’s the quarter finals and France beat Argentina 4-3 in the World Cup. The flight back is delayed an hour, though thankfully quicker (2hrs 45mins) & uneventful. We get back to Stansted near midnight and the scrum to get back to the car park is a pain.

On reflection, it’s been a great adventure, well-paced and we had some good experiences & will be back next April to do the Southern highlights, starting in Marrakech, including a trip into the Sahara Desert in April’19, so for now au revoir Morocco & thanks for the memories.

General Tips for Visitors:

Money Exchange Rates: There is a limit on how much Dirham you can bring into the country. However, we got a much better rate of exchange here than in the UK. Just bring enough to cover your taxi to your hotel or pay the hotel to arrange a pick up.

Note: - The British £ is not in vogue in Exchange Agencies in Meknes – Euros & US$s more acceptable.

Booking ONCF Trains & CTM Buses: Booking train tickets online from abroad is impossible unless you have a Moroccan Credit Card. Most tickets can be booked in advance and paid for by an International Credit Card when in Morocco at any station, at an ONCF counter. A quirk of the booking system is that you can’t buy tickets for travel on Eid or the day after in advance. You have to get your tickets on the day. Travelling in First Class is pretty inexpensive and guarantees you a seat – though the quality of the seat, carriage & toilets are really hit and miss – worse than Indian Railways 3rdClass on one trip. Take toilet paper with you.

Despite travel forums suggesting that stations don’t have signs and there are no announcements – our experience was different. If in doubt, ask – people are very helpful.

CTM buses are better quality & slightly more expensive. Tickets can be bought online with an International Credit card but at least 3 days in advance. We found that if you find the right travel agent in town – this saves you time and money as they don’t charge a commission and only the advertised fare.

Mobile & Data SIMs: It’s quite easy to get a local SIM and the price of topping up for calls and Data is cheap though there are time limits. Getting Data is very useful to help navigate your way around a town or city.

Ramadan & Eid: Travelling during Ramadan and Eid can be difficult as many businesses, eateries & bars/liquor stores are closed and don’t open till after the Eid holiday is over (sometimes 3 days).

Language: Generally, people speak Moroccan Arabic or French so some basic knowledge of each will help a lot. In Tangiers & the north generally – English & Spanish is widely spoken.

Directions: People are always willing to help. Though sometimes the advice from 2 people will send you in different directions for the same place – so persist & keep asking. Also, it was surprising to us how local people didn’t always know what products and services were available in their own town or city.

Food: There’s a sort of sameness about Moroccan food around the country. There’s plenty of fast food – Shawarmas in pitta bread, Kebabs, Hamburgers, Pizzas etc and Tagines of various types with or without Couscous, which can be a bit bland, so if you like spicy food bring some Tabasco from home. Couscous tends to be a Friday special. The locals love their sweets (French Patisseries) and sugary mint teas. They do an amazing range of breads which are a delight.

Additional photos below
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19th August 2018

Wow 7300 words. That's a long (but very informative) blog!
It's many years since I was last in Morocco - little seems to have changed however! My fondest memories are of the medinas and souks. You seem to have enjoyed many of them too. I was amazed to read you comments about the train journeys. Surely, nothing could have worse toilets than 3rd Class on Indian Railways! P.S. TravelBlog has a problem with the percentage symbol (see: your para 8, 'We discover that...', which shows '80%!o(MISSING)r ...'. Use the word 'percent' to avoid it.
20th August 2018

Restaurant tips
I really enjoyed reading about your northern Morocco travels - Asilah looks and sounds lovely. Morocco in on our shortlist and I'll have to read this blog again for all your restaurant recommendations :)
20th August 2018

Great introduction to Morocco! Your blog will be very helpful to us as we are booked for a trip there next year! Nice photos!

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