When we arrived in Meknes, we took a cab from the train station into the old city, passing a McDonald’s and a post office and entering a world with high defensive walls, elaborate gates and an abundance of mosques built hundreds of years ago when Meknes was the capital.
The sidewalks were dirty, crowded, the main street busy with cars trying to make three lanes out of two. It was a modern, urban culture thriving in the remains of the old.
We wandered around until we found the sign for Riad Zahraa where we would be staying. Then we turned into an alley and wound our way through the maze of shops. Some carried what we had come to expect in Morocco—rugs, mirrors and vases—but many carried clothing and shoes. They were stylish, European. Most of the young people dressed that way.
We found our riad, then dropped off our bags and headed for the center of town. We first noticed Bab Mansour, a large gate iconic of the city. Across the street was the main square, Place el Hedim. It was supposed to be the Jemaa el Fna of Meknes, but it was quite small. There was a row of restaurants and at night, vendors filled the square with items meant more for locals than tourists—things like DVDs and shoes.
In front of each restaurant, young men hustled for clients; there was a friendly competition between them. We chose a small café and took our seats inside near a television. There were very few tourists in the city and our server seemed pleased we had chosen him. He was tall and lean with a friendly smile. He bragged to his friends that his restaurant was the best; he was the winner. Next to us, three local men sat at a table drinking mint tea and watching a movie on the television. It was Battle: Los Angeles, in Arabic.
My husband ordered chicken kebabs and I ordered pizza; I had had success in Rabat and wanted to try my luck again. Once we ordered, we watched the kebabs being prepared on a small grill a few feet away. As usual, they were served with French fries and they were delicious. My pizza on the other hand was interesting. It looked just like a pizza, but it was made Moroccan style: the sauce was unseasoned tomato paste, the topping kofta meatballs. When our server asked me how I liked it, I told him it was delicious. I ate most of it and fed the last of the meatballs to a cat under the table.
That night we retired to our room and were greeted with ice cold showers, which happened many times throughout our trip. Each time, you have to decide which you hate more: being dirty or being cold.
The next morning we asked for a new room with hot water and then walked through the town with our guidebook. We had one day to see the city and were deciding what we had time for and what we would skip. It didn’t take long, however, for a guide to offer us a city tour on a horse-drawn carriage.
Our first stop was Habs Qara, an underground prison that had once housed tens of thousands of prisoners, including many Christian sailors. We walked through the tunnels with a guide who wielded a flashlight and told stories of people who had gotten lost and died in the tunnels.
Next was the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the few holy sites in Morocco where non-Muslims may enter. We removed our shoes and entered quietly. Much like the many mosques and mausoleums we’d already visited, the inside had colorful mosaics, intricate carvings, and that special beauty that comes with age—all of Morocco has this beauty.
For the rest of the tour, we visited Moulay Ismail’s horse stable and granary, which was peaceful, with massive ceilings and wildflowers growing outside, and the Agdal basin, an artificial lake frequented by locals and tourists.
After our tour, we went back to the same restaurant as before. Our new friend was pleased to see us again. After dinner, we took a picture with him and his friends asked that we take pictures with them too. Then we retired to our new room at the riad. It was brightly colored with stained-glass windows that opened up to the interior courtyard.
The next day, we would meet a driver who would take us to the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis—the very reason for our trip to Meknes.