And now we continue with our tour of Morocco’s five cities. We started with Casablanca and Rabat in the previous entry. If you’re looking for our itinerary, budget, etc., please visit our entry in Planning in Morocco here. Casablanca and Rabat are cities, with the former being more modern than the latter. After a hefty breakfast at the Golden Tulip Farhat where we spent the night in Rabat, we rode our bus with our luggage again to go to Meknes, one of Morocco’s imperial cities in the northern central part of the country.
Meknes is the sixth largest city by population in Morocco. It was the old capital of Morocco during the reign of Sultan Moulay Idriss, the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. Meknes is an impressive city with Spanish-Moorish style of buildings and it’s surrounded by high walls with great doors (what did I tell you about Morocco and doors?! Haha!). The city of Meknes is the seat of the Meknes prefecture which consists of six municipalities and 13 rural communes. The travel to Meknes from Rabat is around two hours and our bus stopped in gasoline stations a few times for bathroom breaks. While in one of these stops, we saw this in one of the convenience stores:
And so we Filipinos ate Filipinos. LOL. I remember years back when this biscuit became controversial because of its name. Our Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest with the government of Spain, the European Commission and then manufacturer Nabisco Iberia in 1999 because of the name of the biscuits. It was deemed to be racist because of the color of the biscuits “brown on the outside, white in the inside” which can be an offensive reference to the color of our skin. Anyway, I don’t think anything happened to the complaint since obviously, they’re still sold with the name “Filipinos” in them up to now. I think I was more offended by the fact that it just tasted simple; there’s nothing spectacular about it. Very far from who we Filipinos are. Haha! Anyway, let’s go on with our tour of Meknes…
We had a great view of the medina of Meknes from a spot in the highway so we went down the bus and took photos.
Mokhtar told us that we’ll be going straight to the city of Volubilis, a ruin of a Roman town. It’s another half an hour from Meknes.
The sun is so high and so hot when we arrived in Volubilis. It was not the right time to wonder through this ancient city! Haha! But this is one of the most important stops of our trip so even though we were on the verge of catching a sunburn, we forged on! Haha! Volubilis is a partly excavated Berber and Roman city. It is considered as the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania. When the Romans took over, the settlement grew rapidly and expanded to over 100 acres. A few major buildings like a basilica, a temple and a triumphal arch were constructed. To me, this reminded me of the city of Ephesus in Turkey. It was also of Roman origins and most of the ruins looked the same. I just wish we toured Volubilis under the same conditions as our Turkey trip: the weather was pleasantly cold then.
Volubilis has seen the changes of its time. Local tribes swarmed the city in 285 and the Romans failed to retake it again because it was a bit remote. After the tribes, the town was inhabited by the Latinised Christian community then it became the home of an early Islamic settlement. Finally, in the late 8th century, it became the seat of Idris ibn Abdallah, founder of the Idrisid dynasty. By the 11th century, Volubilis was abandoned. An earthquake in the mid-18th century devastated the area. It was only in late 19th century that the site was identified as the ancient city of Volubilis and excavation started during the French rule of Morocco.
Today, Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its exceptionally well-preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire. It was an impressive town and we were amazed at how well some of the area were restored and reconstructed. We had a hard time keeping up with our tour group because we had lots of fun taking photos, lol. Seriously, the guide (there’s a different guide in Volubilis) speaks in Spanish/Portuguese first before he translates in English so while he was talking in those languages, we couldn’t stay put with the group because it was really hot and it’s hard to be waiting for our turn to listen to history while the sun is burning on our heads and backs. We wander off to different areas of the ruins and by the time we get back, the guide is speaking in Spanish/Portuguese again! Haha! He probably noticed this and he just let us go on our own. Except when he herded all of us to one part of the ruins for what he termed as a “surprise.”
And what surprise was that you ask? Well, we can’t say right? I mean, if you’re going to Volubilis in the future and your guide will ask you to go with him for a surprise then you won’t be surprised anymore if we tell you what it’s about now right?!? Hahaha!
After an hour or so of touring Volubilis, we boarded our bus (super thankful for the aircon) and went our way to the nearby town of Moulay Idriss. Now this is one interesting town. Back in the day, non-Muslims were not permitted to stay overnight in Moulay Idriss, considered as the country’s holiest place (reminds you of a place in Saudi Arabia right?). This place is where Moulay Idriss I arrived in 789 bringing with him the Islam religion. Apart from founding the town named after him, he also began the construction of nearby Fez. Moulay Idriss I is said to be the great-great-great grandson of the prophet PBUH Mohammed.
The town of Moulay Idriss (or Moulay Idriss Zerhoun) is one of the first medinas we went to and it’s really a place to see the culture of Morocco. The town is compact and the streets are lines with traditional coffeeshops. (Note on coffeeshops, we noticed that the outdoor seating area, as well as the people sitting on them are facing the streets and not each other! We were curious as to why because all of them were facing the streets as if they enjoy people watching while drinking their mint tea over conversing with each other, haha. More on this soon.) There were a lot of stores and crafts along the streets and there were many people roaming around. In the center of it all is the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss I. Non-Muslims cannot enter the grounds. It is said that six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss during the annual festival of honoring the saint (caled moussem) is equal to one hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. No wonder this place is called the sacred heart of Morocco.
We passed through one of their mini markets on our way to the bus and I am transported to our markets in the Philippines. The vendors are less noisy though, haha, but the energy, colors, and ambiance feel the same. I suddenly missed La Union, my hometown.
After Moulay Idriss, we arrived in Meknes to have lunch in a traditional Moroccan restaurant. This time, we did not resist the call of the tajines. We paid 170 dirhams per person and we were served with an assortment of appetizers which includes potatoes, carrots (surprisingly, their carrots are so sweet!), tomato and cucumber salad, beet root, and garbanzos. We had a choice of one main course and we decided to get the chicken with olives and lemon, lamb with prunes and plums, and beef with vegetables. I like the chicken the best and from this moment on, I always ordered the chicken tajine whenever we ate in a traditional Moroccan restaurant, haha. Reina liked the beef because it tasted like our own nilaga. The desserts are mostly fruits and seriously, I will turn fruitarian to have Morocco’s watermelons, melons, and grapes every day! They’re so sweet and juicy!
We also had out first Moroccan mint tea here. The server made the performance of serving tea properly, complete with the high pouring of the hot, sweet, minty tea in small glasses.
The afternoon was spent in visiting the Meknes medina starting with one of Morocco’s famous doors: Bab Al Mansour (bab the Arabic term for gate). Meknes has over 20 gates in its 40-kilometer walls but Bab Al Mansour stands out from the rest. This gate was the last important construction project of Sultan Moulay Ismail as an elaborate homage to himself and to Islam. The architect is Mansour Laalej, a Christian who converted to Islam. It has engraved Koranic panels and intricately adorned with green and white zeillij tiles. It looked like a tapestry from afar. Bab Al Mansour is considered as the one of the most beautiful gates in the world.
We passed through the Jewish Quarter on our way to the ancient Royal Stables, one of the most impressive memorials to the time of Moulay Ismail. The Royal Stables in Meknes was constructed to hold 12,000 royal houses (wow, just wow) with each horse having its own groom and slave (again wow, what?!) to ensure that all their needs were met. It’s safe to say that the sultan was quite a horse fanatic. The stable was meticulously designs and planned: it has a canal that ran fresh water through the stables constantly and granaries that supplies horse feed (and stored enough grains for 20 years!). To keep this place safe, the granaries were built with thick walls and a suspended forest was grown on the roof.
Another amazing detail is that the arches in the stable were built that when you stand anywhere, you can see that the arches are diagonally straight and you can see through the last one. This alerts the stable staff of any invader or enemy that might try to steal the horses. The Royal Stable is truly an incredible feat of architecture and design.
We spent the rest of our afternoon in the souks of Meknes. They were selling embroidered fabric and jewelries.
We proceeded to the city of Fes and we retired early to our accommodation, the Zalagh Parc Kasbah.
We had a night tour of Fes but I’ll save what we did during this time for another entry on Morocco. 😉
Fes is the second largest city in Morocco and was the capital of Morocco until 1925. Fes has been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa”. Fes is a a feast for the senses. I felt that this city really made me pay attention. My feelings went from happy to annoyed to awed to sad to energetic… everything! Fes is one city that has its charms and challenges. You’ll either love it or hate or both at the same time (not sure how to explain this but I’ll try).
We were up early for a hearty breakfast in Zalagh Parc Kasbah. We moved rooms the night before because the aircon in our first room wasn’t working properly, or not working at all. We met up with our bus and tour group and proceeded to have a full day of touring in Fes. I’m the most excited about Marrakech but Fes comes in second. While Marrakesh has this mystical pull to me, Fes has an artisanal feel that appeals to my creative side. This is the artisan craft center of Morocco.
First we passed by this beautiful door of Fes’ medieval medina. It was a gorgeous golden door with intricate designs and elements.
Next, we visited a pottery and mosaic center called Art Naji, kept by the Fakhari family. They have been continuing the ancient craft of pottery and mozaic (known as zellij). We were toured into the small factory and they expxlained how mosaics are made and I tell you, the amount of passion, commitment and artistry that makes these mosaics are inspiring. I don’t have the same patience as this artisans and I come to appreciate their crafts all the more.
They have shops where we bought souvenirs. They pack them in foam to avoid breakage. I bought a small plate and smaller tajines to remind me of my visit to Morocco. Prices range from 10 dirhams up.
After the pottery center, we proceeded inside the Medieval Medina, called Fes el-Bali, where it’s easy to get lost. Haha! The medina is located behind a high wall and the alleys are narrow. The medina is filled with hundreds of merchants and vendors who sell various wares, crafts, and products like spices, copper urns, carpets, musical instruments, sweets, leather goods, etc. It’s quite dizzying inside. And it actually feels like we’re in the set of the Pirates of the Carribean; I’m not sure why. Haha!
Anyway, we stopped by prominent mosques in the area and our tour guide Mokhtar explained each of the mosque’s importance. After that, we walked a few meters to get to the tanneries. The souq is home to ancient leather tanneries. A photo of these tanneries was etched in my mind and I’m most excited to see it. I changed my mind when I smelled the place. OMG it stinks in there! It’s so foul-smelling! I’m not kidding.
We were led to a building that houses a leather shop. We went up narrow staircases to reach a terrace where we saw the tanneries below. The tannery is made up of numerous stone vessels filled with various liquids and dyes making it look like a huge watercolor tray. Working men were standing waist deep in the dye vats tending to the animal hides (from cows, camels, sheep, and goats). The hides are soaked for two to three days in a mixture of cow urine (URINE, you guys), quicklime, water and salt to break down the leather. They they are soaked in vesseles of water and pigeon poop (POOP!) that contains ammonia that acts as softening agent so that the leather can absorb the dye. I’m fascinated with their natural dyes which came from flowers and vegetables like poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). The tanners then knead the hides with their feet for hours! These manual processes has been used in the medieval times and has been adopted ’til now. But seriously, urine and poop… can you imagine how this mixture smells?! No, you don’t. But I tell you, I was so thankful for the sprig of mint they gave out before we went up. I crushed the mint leaves and placed them in nose to help overcome the odor! Lol. I have so much respect for all the tanners in Fes. SALUTE!
We went to the leather shop to look for leather wallets, bags, and shoes known as babouches. I kept on smelling the leather and seriously, some of them still stinks so you have to be careful in buying leather products in the medina.
We visited a few madrassas after. These are Islamic schools in Fes. They’re usually ancient buildings with nice architecture and design. In the middle of the square structures are fountains or pools. They were really popular in the olden times as educational and religious institutions.
We had a quick lunch in one of the fancy restaurants inside the medina. I ordered the chicken tajine again, haha, because I like that it’s a little bit sweet and savory. After lunch we went to visit some artisan stores:
While walking in the medina, there were A LOT of touts who kept on forcing their products on us. Whether it be small copper items, leather wallets, berber jewelries.
At first, we were polite in saying no but we were barraged by them in every turn that it got pretty annoying. We wanted to punch them already, hahaha, because some were getting too aggressive. This is where I really felt like I wanted to get out of Fes pronto! Haha! I love the rustic medina and the artistic crafts but the touts are giving Fes a bad reputation, you know? Also, I made the mistake of buying colored leather wallets from one of the vendors just so he stop shoving them in my face. The wallets were pretty but they’re pretty much useless because they stink so bad and nothing can ever remove the foul smell. The dye used were so bad that they stain every thing that go near the wallets. It’s embarrassing to give them away as souvenirs to friends.
We were so tired and frustrated that when Mokhtar announced we were going back to the hotel, we cheered! Lol.
By the time we reached the hotel, we were already feeling tired of the buffet food in the hotels so the girls and I decided to look for McDonald’s. Hahaha! We braved the night and asked for help to hail one of Fes’ petit taxis to go to Borj Fez Mall. The petit taxi was really small and we had to squeeze into it, haha! We reached the mall and the first thing we did is eat in Burger King. Finally, something comforting and familiar! Haha!
We had gelato for dessert and we bought it from Oliveri, said to be the most delicious ice cream brand in Morocco. We weren’t disappointed. The ice cream we got were smooth, flavorful, and yummy.
We went to a pharmacy in search of hair conditioner because the humidity of Morocco is getting into our hair making mine wavy and dry. We bought the most expensive conditioner ever at 150 dirhams! Haha! We also went inside their Virgin Megastore and scored ourselves headphones that were 200 dirhams each (around SR 80). Going home, we had a hard time hailing a petit taxi because it was rush hour (also, we didn’t know if we were doing the right thing of negotiating fares, haha). Finally, a taxi stopped and offered to drive us back to the hotel for 50 dirhams. We know it’s a bit steep but we just wanted to go back to the hotel so we just went with it. It was our last night in Fes after all; we want to enjoy our Zalagh Parc room!
This city is what I came to Morocco for. Just by its name, it’s already talking to me. It sounds so mysterious and mystical. Berber farmers has inhabited the region since Neolithic times but the city was founded by Abu Bakr ibn Umar in 1062. Because of the red walls and various buildings made with red sandstone, Marrakech has been given the name “Red City” or “Ochre City”. Marrakesh is an important cultural, religious, and economic center of Morocco. To reach this city, we traveled 8 hours from Fes to Marrakesh via our tour bus. I was pretty impressed with the roads in Morocco because they were well-constructed making this journey a breeze. It’s expressway all the way!
We passed by Berber villages on our way to Marrakesh. The mid-Atlas mountains served as a great backdrop for our trip. We also stopped in Beni Mellal, another city in the middle of the ancient route, for lunch.
It was already dark when we reached our accommodation in Marrakech, the Zalagh Kasbah Resort and Spa. We signed up for the night tour of Marrakesh and we were bought to the Djemaa Al Fna, the busiest square in Africa.
More on Djemaa Al Fna on my other Morocco entries.
The following day, we saw the amazing pool of Zalagh Kasbah and we can’t help but swoon. We couldn’t swim yet because we had a full tour of Marrakech during the day so we just took photos. I badly wanted to stay in a riad in Marrakech but since we were on a group tour, I couldn’t change the accommodations but the kasbah is a good option too. It’s a bit outdated but their pool and amenities look nice.
Our first stop was the Bahia Palace. It’s located in the Marrakech medina along the northern edge of the Mellah district. The palace was built by two stages: the first part known as Dar Si Moussa was built by Si Moussa in 1859 to 1873 while the second phase started in 1894 and finished in 1900 by the son of Si Moussa, Ba Ahmed.
Outside, we were like “Oh this is it? This is a palace to them?!” because it looks small and dilapidated. Once inside, we ate all our words and were amazed by the place. The palace is quite large and covers nearly eight hectares. It has walled gardens, pavilions and court buildings. The Bahia Palace is well-maintained by the Moroccan government and a part of the sprawling compound is occupied by the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
We also went to the Saadien Tombs which dates back to the time of Sultan Ahmad Al-Mansur from1578 to 1603. The mausoleum comprises the internments of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty. They were divided into tombs of the royal family, women, and children. The most famous room contains the grave of the son of the sultan’s son. The tombs are major attractions in Marrakech because of its beautiful decorations. They were made with cedar wood and stucco work while the monuments are made of Italian Carrara marble.
After that, we visited an herboristerie, a traditional pharmacy that sells herbal medicines and the famed Moroccan argan oil. We were ushered to a room filled with bottles of various spices and medicinal plants at the Herboristerie Bab Agnou. A “pharmacist” then discussed their bestselling products and explained to us how they work. Needless to say, we went nuts over the argan oil and the products that are made of it. We got bottles and bottles of argan oil, beauty creams, and also some spices for cooking. We were so fascinated by the herboristerie that if we had more money with us, we would probably have spent them all here. Haha!
We also went to a huge souvenir shop and bought a few items for our families and friends.
We were given free time in the afternoon to visit the souks at Djemaa Al Fna. The market is a huge labyrinth and it’s easy to get lost if you don’t memorize where you came from. We grabbed a few ref magnets and t-shirts.
We managed to stroll around 1/4 of the place and decided to have a snack instead at one of the many shawarma stalls in the outskirt of Jemaa Al Fna. We wanted to compare what Moroccan shawarma tastes like with the Saudi shawarma. Uhmn, they lack the garlic sauce we’re used to. Haha!
After quite a long day, we went back to our hotel. We were given an hour to refresh ourselves before going to Chez Ali, a famous entertainment hub outside Marrakech.
What happened here and more on the next entry! This post might have crashed down your computers already. Sorry about that. And yes, yet, there is more to come!