Travelogue Morocco 2: Vasubilis – Maknes

VOLUBILIS – MEKNES
22 April 2013

Today’s journey takes us 234km cross country from Rabat to Fez via Maknes. While a seemingly short distance in home terms, there is lots to see in Moroccan ones.

There are 35 million people in Morocco, with mixed heritage from all the various invasions. The dominant local tribes are the Berbers in the High Atlas mountains (medium-sized, white-skinned, round-faced farmers), Zayan in the Middle Atlas mountains (tall, skinny, white skin, black hair and eyes, nomad shepherds) and Chluh people in the Rif Mountains in the South (tall, strong, blonde with blue/green eyes). We had expected darker, more “African” looking people, so were surprised to hear that the first black people came from Ghana only in 11th century, from Niger and Mali in 15th century and then later from Sudan.

En route to Maknes, in the Rif Mountains, we stopped at Volubilis to see the Roman ruins from the 3rd century BC to AD 40. Archaeologists have uncovered what was a wonderous complex spanning hectares and hectares down a hillside and into the valley. As was convention, the town was surrounded by a stone wall and there were 6 gates allowing access and exit to the countryside beyond.

The complex was inhabited by some very rich Romans, counting 50 large houses of as much as 17-20,000 square feet each! Seems a bit excessive for families of 6-8 people, but they had decadent entertainment areas and tens of servants to contain within their compound.

The town shows how thoroughly Romanised then-Mauretania was from the public buildings and sophisticated townhouses. They were a relatively advanced civilisation with a sophisticated aquaduct system, central public watering stations, oil press, washing facilities and lutrines (unisex), with all the usual indulgent mosaic floors, larger than large arches, fountains, swimming pools, columns and statues. It’s remarkable that the mosaics have lasted almost 1,000 years – and you can still clearly see all the artwork depicting Greek and Roman mythology, symbols and patterns.

Like all the open air sights we visited in Turkey last year, it’s refreshing to be able to walk around these pieces of history freely – and to see that there is no graffiti or damage inflicted by disrespectful tourists.

Peckish from our walking and exploring (although not starving thanks to the brunch pitstop at the bakery with all its fresh delights) we were perfectly happy with the next item on the agenda: lunch at Palais Terrab in Maknes. Until we got there. It was yet another big crowded and rushed dining hall, where people were herded to tables to be forgotten, drinks took ages and food was served seemingly at the convenience of the busy harassed-looking waitrons.

A bread basket was already on the table, sans butter as is apparently the norm. Of course, Mother hunted some down and the flat loaf turned out to be very soft and tasty. Meanwhile, a salad platter was served; a big plate of beetroot, chickpeas, sweet carrots, cucumber, rice and olives. I added some chickpeas to my buttered bread and was ok with that.

The waiters had taken our tagine orders when we sat down and we’d opted to share a lemon chicken one but when, 45 minutes later, everyone else at the table had eaten theirs and ours still hadn’t arrived, our Saffa friends shared theirs with us and we turned ours away when it eventually came. We were then served biscuits and mint tea (which the waiters serve with much showmanship, pouring from a teapot a full arm’s length above a tray of tea glasses). We’d been short-changed the Briwate though, which was the highlight I’d been waiting for (because they look like samoosas, which I adore!) all hour and a half we’d been stuck in the restaurant! They brought them and it was worth the wait – sweet mincemeat in deep-fried pastry (like a samoosa and also triangular), with castor sugar sprinkled on the outside. It was supposed to be a starter, but actually worked better as a dessert. Needless to say, after the shoddy service, they didn’t charge us for our meal either!

Back on the bus, we hit the road to Meknes, a traditional Moroccan medina (town enclosed by ramparts), protected by stretches of walls totaling 40km. We entered by one of the several elegant gates, the Bab el-Khemis or Thursday Gate, so named because this used to be the entrance to the weekly market. The Bab el-Berdaine is said to be the most magnificent, but Bab el-Khemis seems to do alright for itself judging by all the posers and photographers!

We were taken to the old stables, which were quite imposing with very high ceilings above rows and rows of arches. The horses were tied 2 a side to each of the arch pillars and it was designed in such a way that wherever you stood, you’d get a good vantage point down the aisles in front of you as well as the diagonals, making it easier to control such a big stableful.

Of course, all these horses must be fed and Meknes is close to the Middle Atlas mountains, so horses are very important for them. The Berber horse is favoured to Arabians as it is taller and so better suited to the terrain, but eats more as well. We toured the granary appended to the stable that housed all the grains and hay to feed that lot.

On our way out, we made a stop at the Bab Mansour gate, arguably the finest gate in Morocco (so we’re told). It was commissioned by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 1673 when building the kasbah, but he never got to see its completion (although his son made sure this happened). We got a quick photo of that magnificence and opted rather to spend our allotted 15 minutes doing a whip around the market directly opposite the gate.

The Place el-Hedime (Square of Ruins) links the medina and the kasbah and provides a congregation place for business, entertainment and socialising. It’s a noisy buzz of eastern music, shishas, cafes and peddlars selling their wares from stalls or displayed on mats in the square itself. We didn’t make it past the first stall and I ended up with 2 mini tagines for table condiments and Mother with a lovely leather wallet (not bad for R40 all in all!).

As unbelievable as it sounds, we’ve only spent R250 between us since we left home – including shopping and bakery exploits! Wait until tomorrow and the markets in Fes though! 😉