Volubilis, Mèknes and the Atlas mountains

Stefan, Meike and Beno left Chefchaouen and camping Azilane a little bit earlier than us on Tuesday 4 February. We decided to go our separate ways for a few days, but meet back again in the Middle Atlas mountains near Midelt. After reading a few things online and in our guide book, we decided to head to the roman ruins of Volubilis and then Mèknes. It may sound silly, especially to Moroccans, but I’d never actually realised that the Romans had made it all the way to Morocco. They had invaded Europe, but I must have missed out the part where history books mentioned Romans settled in parts of North Africa. 

Whereas Pompeii’s very much visited and one of the most well-known historical site in the world, Volubilis is very much the opposite. Nestled in a peaceful and lush green valley, only a couple of coaches and a few cars were parked in the small car park. As we arrived late afternoon, we wild-camped nearby and came back in the morning. The parking guardian was very friendly and lovely – impressed by my few words of Arabic – he immediately warmed to us and showed us where to park. The UNESCO World heritage site may not be as well preserved as its Italian counterparts, but it is non-the-less an impressive site. The city dates back from 3rd century AD and had a population of 20,000 at its peak. At 10Dh each, the entrance seemed very cheap for such a great site. Even though, Jamie and I don’t do guided tours, I ended up paying one of the security guards 50Dh to take us around. Jamie went off on his own and I walked with Mohammed around the ruins. 

View of the Basilica on left hand side.

The capitol.

View of the Basilica from the Forum square.

Triumph Arch.
In the midst of explanations & talks about his family and living in Morocco, Mohammed told me there was a “surprise” and that we were near the “pleasure room”. I was completely baffled and wondered what he was talking about when it suddenly dawned on me that the penis sculpted on a plinth which Jamie had showed me the night before may not have been a joke after all. Indeed, it was a real feature and displayed proudly on its own in the middle of a big room – what would have been a Roman brothel. Mohammed told me in French, in quite a pushy tone: “go on, go near it, touch it, it brings luck, touch it Madam”. I’m not normally that prudish, but touching a big sculpted erected penis is not really my thing. In a millisecond, I prudishly poked it with my fingertip. The ordeal was over!

The plinth!

... Displayed right in the middle of what was once a Roman brothel.

One of the big houses with its own pond to entertain guests.

A solarium - the Roman equivalent to what would be your local tanning shop.

The main avenue in the Roman city, Via Decumanus Maximus.

Detailed ground floor mosaic displaying the nine labours of Hercule in Hercule's House. 

A panoramic view of the ruins.
A couple of mint teas later and Jamie and I were discovering a different world, the imperial city of MèknesWe managed to find out where to park after driving around and asking a couple of people: Place Lalla Aouda by the royal golf course and opposite Koubbat as-Sufara'; a small reception hall for foreign ambassadors. 

The double ramparts of the imperial city of Mèknes.

Izzy, the motorhome parked on Place Lalla Aouda, Mèknes.
The parking guardian appeared at first very friendly and welcoming telling us that the site was safe and manned 24hrs, we paid him 40Dh for our overnight stay. As soon as I asked him, however, his advice on where to eat later, it all became a little bit weird. He first didn’t seem to understand that we wanted him to tell us where he would eat, not a list of the restaurant on the square offering “menu complet”. And he then brought us to an artisan shop on the artisan row off the main square in the old medina. We looked at the embroidery and the Damascene inlayed plates and other objects with an apologetic smile. We felt sorry, but we didn’t want to buy anything. The moment didn’t last long, but we both felt cheated almost – I had made clear to the guardian that we weren’t interested in buying anything right from the start.

The artisans' row by Place Lalla Aouda.

One of the artisans working on detailed embroidered mattresses.

It’s such a shame that this clouded our visit of Mèknes as everything else was great. We went on a walking tour visiting Koubbat as-Sufara and its crypt (a dark humid high ceiling cave where food used to be stored – the stories of Christians being imprisoned there are not true); the royal golf course; the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail & its mosque; Heri Es-Souani, the royal stables*; Sahrij Swani, the basin of the Norias and the old medina. Volubilis in the morning and now this, our legs felt a little bit like jelly and our empty stomach were crying for something to eat. Riad Malak opened us its doors even though it was out-of-hours; at 4.30pm, it wasn’t lunch, but it wasn’t dinner either. The two young lads who welcomed us, seemed to have been left on their own to man this traditional home in the heart of the medina during the quieter part of the day. We could tell they were trying their best to provide for us with the little they had. They warned us right from the start that the food wouldn’t be fresh. They’d use the lunch leftovers of fried egg & beef tagine and asked if we’d be happy with this and a traditional Moroccan soup to start with. We didn’t mind at all! We just felt grateful they’d even let us in. Our backpacks down and sat on the top roof terrace with almost a 360 degree view of Mèknes, this was what we’d needed.

Jamie in the small foreign ambassadors' hall, Koubbat as-Suffara.

Looking out to the outside from the small doorway.

... And the more interesting and intriguing part of the visit, the crypt.

Quite spooky, don't you think?

A very detailed tiled fountain en route to the royal golf course.

Jamie in the royal golf course. It wasn't a set up so 'thought it ought to be taken!

One of the imperial city gates by Place Lalla Aouda looking towards the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.

Some of the Berber rugs displayed outside shops opposite Moulay Ismail's mausoleum.

Jamie at the door of Moulay Ismail's mausoleum.

Grand hall by the entrance.

The high ceilinged tomb hall of Moulay Ismail shows amazing Moroccan's craftmanship.

The hall is a contrast to the peaceful, but slightly austere courtyards leading to it.

En route to the royal granaries and stables, Heri es-Souani.

One of the gates of the double ramparts displaying some amazing craftsmanship.

The grand royal granaries and stables* which once housed 12,000 horses.

Looking over to the stables of Heri es-Souani.

Time for a picture!

Time for a peaceful rest by the Sahrij Swani basin.

Some makeshift shelters outside the walls of the imperial city on the way back to Place Lalla Aouda.

Place el-Hedim en route to the medina.
The city's bustle on the main avenue outside Place el-Hedim.

Inside the medina.

Time for some food at Riad Malak sat on its rooftop terrace.

The view from the rooftop terrace.

Some cheesy mannequins.

One of the many tile shops.

Time to head back slowly to the van.

After the hustle and bustle of Chefchaouen and Mèknes, we ached for a little bit of countryside, getting showered and wondered if we’d be able to do some washing. Camping Ksar Timnay was our first stop in the Middle Atlas mountains and the Berbers region. A terracotta-walled campsite in the middle of nowhere with its own Kasbah, swimming pool, riad, restaurant and even its own lake, Ksar Timnay looked quite grand. It wasn’t the big complex campsite as the ones seen in France for example. Everything had been built and laid out with care using and displaying traditional local features. Greeted by its multilingual owner, we gladly parked Izzy.

En route to the campsite Ksar Timnay... The landscape from the Ito panoramic viewpoint.

One of the many Barbary macaques monkeys on RN13 towards Midelt.

Many cars stopped to have a look too!

Some beautiful scenery...

... And big trucks with loads about to fall...

Finally reaching the campsite Ksar Timnay.

Jamie in front of its reception.

Jamie had managed to search online for a good bike ride to do. After reading different blogs and looking at maps, he managed to come up with a loop going across many small Berbers villages at the foot of the magnificent snowy peaked Middle Atlas. I had previously thought about cycling attire and what one should wear whether men or women. It was a hot day. We were going to cycle through remote Berbers villages. It was too hot for leggings, but shorts would be disrespectful. Luckily my (great) sister, Dominique had given me a pair of three-quarter length lycras – thank you! With arms and legs largely covered, we set sail. It was a beautiful & quite arid landscape. Both kids and adults would wave at us, children would run after us and try to touch us – we seemed to be the attraction of the day in these remote part of Morocco.  Stopped at a local counter shop in one of the villages to buy snacks, small kids and a few adults gathered around me whilst Jamie was paying. They seemed to be eyeing up and down my strange cycling outfit. I felt too much “on show”. I felt out-of-place and an urge to leave. If this was a taste of stardom, I can understand why many celebrities prefer keeping a low profile. Celeb’ for a day? Non merci!

A cute little donkey on our route.

Jamie carrying our bikes on the other side of the river bank where we sat for lunch.

The amazing view from our lunch stop.

What a great ride!

Après l’effort, le récomfort”. After our sporting efforts, we treated ourselves to a “menu complet” at the campsite restaurant. It was a lovely experience in a warm wooden-beamed low-ceiling interior. As we’d chosen our order in advance, we’d only put our feet under the table that we were served. It was a friendly and cosy affair after a sweaty ride!

The entrance to the restaurant.

Inside, nicely laid out tables.

We’d advised Stefan, Meike and Beno to come and meet us as it was such lovely grounds. They arrived late afternoon on our third day and agreed to follow us on the next day to Midelt to explore further the Middle Atlas mountains. It’s a shame they only experienced the campsite for a short amount of time, but they were happy to continue. We’d finally be able to spend a night together drinking and sharing our travel accounts.

Jamie oblivious to what's going on around him...

It's not often that one can see a peacock so close.

That's it, we're off for some new adventure!

*Note: If you decide to visit the Royal Granary and Horse Guard by the way, think carefully before paying for a guide. If you possess a decent guidebook on Morocco; ours was the Lonely Planet which contained a lot about Meknes and a nice blurb about the granary. This, we learnt later on, was in fact well enough information and our guide, unfortunately didn’t add or show us anything new. After paying the 10Dh fee each at the entrance, we were cornered by a guide. After first debating and rebutting his calls, our feelings of guilt and pressure pushed us to reconsider his offer. Our guided tour, we were told, would bring us in “unventured and hidden” corners which we wouldn’t be able to find on our own. Well, “hidden corners” were never materialised. Facts and figures sounded recited from a guidebook. The only thing nice was that we were able to have our picture taken together which most of the time, when able, appears in the form of a selfie! But, at 250Dh, the latter came at a very dear price indeed... You live and learn!