Day 4: Moulay Idriss/Volubilis, Morocco

by - September 11, 2012

On top of the imperial city of Meknes itself, there are two major sights in the surrounding area that are well worth a visit. The first of these are the Roman ruins of the town of Volubilis, about 35km to the north and the other is the town of Moulay Idriss which is in the same area. We hired a ‘grand taxi’ for the 4 hours required to visit the two locations and have a look around - the taxi cost us 400 dirhams (about £30) which represented pretty good value.

The main street, Volubilis
We started at Volubilis which was once a major Roman town, producing olives and wine at one of the furthest west points of the empire. Unfortunately much of the stone at the sight was taken to build the imperial palace in Meknes (apparently you can still see the ionic columns in the palace - but as it is out of bounds we wouldn’t get to see them). Some of the site was rebuilt by the French and it is an impressive example of a Roman town. The main street with its surrounding shops and triumphal arch is particularly evocative and it isn’t too difficult to imagine life in the town. We hired a guide to take us around, which turned out to be a good decision as he was able to explain many of the mosaics and artefacts that we came across. After wandering around for about an hour our taxi driver drove us the five minute journey to Moulay Idriss where we got another guide to show us around.

Moulay Idriss
Moulay Idriss is named after the famous Moroccan leader who is buried there. It is in a beautiful location, perched on a small hill surrounded by mountains. It was out of bounds to non-Muslims until the 1960s and entry to the mausoleum is still prohibited. It is a major place of pilgrimage for Moroccans, especially during the festival in August, and our guide explained that for Moroccans who are too poor to make the Hajj to Mecca, it is widely accepted that five visits to Moulay Idriss during the religious festival count as a Hajj. Our guide showed us to the only cylindrical minaret in Morocco (all of the others are square, which is unlike all of the other Islamic countries that I have visited) and to the view point over the town. It was worth getting the guide as he was able to point out many things that we would have missed - and as we would have definitely have got lost in the maze of streets he saved us getting lost. With that we headed back to Meknes where we had lunch in the main square.

Inside the palace district
After lunch we visited a small museum on the main square, which was very beautiful and worth seeing, before getting out of the afternoon sun at the riad. In the late afternoon I went for a wander by myself through the Imperial Palace district. As I say, the palace itself is out of bounds, but there are a few things to see such as another mausoleum and the vast city granaries. The granaries, located 2km from the town centre are by far the most impressive sight in the town. They contained enough food to last the city in the event of a siege and were also home to the 12,000 horses of the Imperial Black Guard. The scope of the granaries is huge and it is an incredible engineering feet - the walls are four metres thick and the temperature remains at 18 celsius all year around (even when outside temperatures approach 45 degrees). Next to the granaries is a large man made reservoir where the locals come to meet. I made my way back to the riad and convinced mum and dad that the reservoir was worth seeing, even if the granaries would be shut by the time we got there. We arrived half an hour after closing time for the granaries, but the power of baksheesh meant that a tip to the guy on the gate allowed us to quickly look around (with a guide who had been hanging around) as they turned off the lights and locked up around us. We watched the sun set over the reservoir and then ambled back into town, having dinner on a terrace above the main square while watching the snake charmers and street sellers below. We opted for the 'pastille’, which is apparently a traditional dish for Meknes. It turned out to be essentially a chicken pastie covered in icing sugar and cinnamon - quite a combination. That was it for Meknes. The city in itself isn’t a massive draw - it is in many ways a quieter, smaller version of Fez, though the granaries are incredible. The main draw to Meknes are the surrounding sights of Volubilis and Moulay Idriss and I was therefore very happy that I had included two nights here in our itinerary.

Sunset at the Granaries

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