Welcome back to the second part of my budget Moroccan adventure (for the first part, click here)! Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?
Meknes and Volubilis
Most tourists leaving Merzouga decide to take either the shared taxi or overnight bus to Fes (the bus is around two bucks cheaper per person than the cab ride split four-way). We opted to do the latter since, you know, an overnight bus saves you a night of accommodation (yes, we were doing this on a tight budget). However, unlike most of our fellow bus-riders, we decided to get off an hour away from Fes in one of the imperial cities called Meknes.
Morocco Budget Travel Hint 8: In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions that we could have potentially made. Meknes remains my favorite city in Morocco for a variety of reasons, some of which I will try to outline below.
Meknes is a splendid example of a town that combines European and Islamic architecture and town planning. It was built in Hispano-Moorish style and this dual approach in design is precisely what makes this city so unique. Moreover, the beautiful Medina still represents the imperial city built by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 17th-18th century and so do the impressive fortifications (up to 15 meters in height!). Finally, Meknes is way less touristy than Fes and, fortunately, cheaper than many cities as well (or, at least, we were able to negotiate better?). People there weren’t as pushy as in other places and we could definitely feel free to explore different neighborhoods on our own.
We arrived in Meknes around 3:30 am and didn’t have much choice but to wait at the bus station for a couple of hours before we headed out in search of a place to stay (never wander around an unknown location at night, duh). Again, because of the low season, we were actually able to negotiate a 10 euro/night discount at one of the really nice riads (palace-like guesthouses) in the Medina.
Meknes itself wasn’t the only highlight of the area. My inner history freak was excited to see Volubilis as well, which is perhaps one of the best-preserved Roman ruin in Northern Africa. From Meknes we decided to get a grand taxi to the crossing between Volubilis and Moulay Idriss (around 15 min drive) and hike for circa three kilometers until we reached the entrance to the ruins.
One of the most surprising things about Volubilis was actually its surroundings. It was so green! Apparently, that area has always been rich in fertile soil and used to be a major site of olive plantations (Saiss Valley, to be precise) – who knew? Maybe I still had the emptiness and the climate of the Sahara desert fresh in my mind, but it was pretty hard to believe we were in North Africa looking at those this greenery!
Volubilis is a Berber – Roman town, which used to be a capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania in the early ages BC. After the fall of Rome, the town was conquered by local tribes. It soon became inhabited by Christian communities and then, in turn, by the Islamic ones. In the 11th century it was completely abandoned, mostly due to its distant location that served no strategic purpose. Partly destroyed in an earthquake and forgotten in the 18th century, it was re-discovered in the late 19th century under the French rule of North Africa (the French didn’t technically arrive in Morocco before the beginning of the 20th century, but they were active in the nearby Algeria).
You can read more about the history of the ruins elsewhere (I don’t want to bore you with details), but it is a place definitely worth visiting, precisely because of its diverse background. Volubilis is an evidence of a cross-cultural settlement, where you can still easily see the influences of different rulers and religions. Besides, if you aren’t a huge fan of crowds, you will enjoy it way more than, say, Acropolis (I visited Athens a year ago and, frankly, I liked Volubilis a lot more… I know, blasphemy). The ruins actually reminded me of another less known location of a past Roman settlement in Butrint, Albania. I loved the floor mosaics in both of those places 🙂
Morocco Budget Travel Hint 9: On your way to Volubilis you might want to check out Moulay Idriss. You can take a grand taxi from Meknes straight to Moulay Idriss and then walk back to Volubilis afterwards. We went to Volubilis first and then hiked up to Moulay Idriss, which is a pleasant, albeit a bit tiring experience.
Moulay Idriss itself is a charming little town (interesting fact: it used to be banned for non-Muslims!) with spectacular views of the surrounding fields (and Volubilis, if you are lucky and know which way to look). From there, you can catch a bus that goes directly to Meknes and takes around an hour. Before you leave, search for a little bakery on your way down from the viewing point. For two dirhams you can have the best chocolate coconut cookie.
From Meknes we took a bus to Fes – one of the major tourist destinations in Morocco – located a little bit more than an hour-long drive away. Fes can boast the largest closed-off pedestrian space in the world – the grand Medina. In a lot of aspects, the city reminded me of Marrakesh – it was busy with plenty of street salesmen and tourists wandering around.
One thing characteristic of Fes is its leather goods industry – we had the pleasure to visit one of the tanneries, where the leather dying process was taking place. Be sure to avoid the scammers, who will promise to take you to the tannery balconies for a ridiculously high price. It’s better to go straight to the tannery and ask to be let in, if there is a person stopping you at the front (it should cost maximum a dollar, but we managed to get in for free).
Morocco Budget Travel Hint 10: In Fes we became huge fans of kebab-like sandwiches. Search around for little stalls in the tiny streets of the Medina that sell grilled meat with veggies and serve it together in a bun. The sandwiches are pretty filling and cost between 10-20 dirhams (1-2 dollars).
From Fes we made our way to Chefchaouen, also known as the Blue Pearl of Morocco. It was the Jewish immigrants, that escaped Hitler’s Germany in the 30’s, who painted the walls of all the buildings in town blue. Maybe they wanted to be reminded of the sky and the sea, perhaps with a goal to be closer to God that way? A more practical approach dictates that the city is painted blue in order to turn off the mosquitos. Either way, the place is gorgeous and unique – a true paradise for photographers.
Interestingly enough, Chefchaouen used to be a part of Spanish Morocco in the 1920’s. The Spanish influence is still very visible, whether you are talking about architecture or language. Your Spanish will take you way further than your French there!
Don’t forget to climb the surrounding Rif mountains for spectacular view of the city.
Chefchaouen is also famous for its handicraft and leather goods. I was happy to get my beautiful camel leather handbag there, so I highly suggest you go out for some shopping 🙂 But beware of Chinese fakes!
From Chefchaouen we took a bus to Tangier (around a three-hour drive), which was perhaps the most European city we have visited in Morocco. I was particularly impressed with city’s modern harbour area and its high speed train project (TGV terminal is already there!). I also quite enjoyed a relaxing walk in the Tangier’s Medina, a location favored by and inspirational for many French and American writers in the 20th century (Jack Kerouac, anyone?).
Morocco Budget Travel Hint 11: Cafe Hafa, a spot recommended by many guidebooks, turned out to be overrated. The glass of tea cost a dollar and the view wasn’t even that great!
From Tangier we boarded a pretty big ferry (they run every hour from 9 am until 10 pm) and within half an hour we were back in Europe. We arrived in Tarifa, Spain and took a free shuttle to neighbouring Algeciras. We stayed there for a couple of hours because…we missed our first bus to Malaga, having forgotten that Spain is one hour ahead of Morocco!
Morocco Budget Travel Hint 12: Don’t forget the time difference!
The ultimate Morocco Budget Travel Hint: Download MAPS.ME to navigate around the country, because Google Maps doesn’t work in offline mode in Morocco!
Thank you for reading the overview of my travel in Morocco. In conclusion, I would say that picking the track of UNESCO sites was a very good strategy that added a lot of variety to the itinerary. I think that it is worth experiencing the tourist havens like Marrakesh and Fes, but if you have one or two days to spare – stop by some of the less known and smaller places. And don’t forget about the desert!
Until next time! 🙂