After traveling through deserted landscapes and small settlements, it is time to return to the great urban agglomerations, and Meknes was the chosen city, as an anticipation of the great city of Fes. Despite being one of the 4 Imperial cities (the others are Fez, Marrakesh and Rabat) and the sixth biggest city in terms of population in Morocco, is far from being a popular tourist destination, compared with Marrakesh and Fes.
Maybe the medina it’s not so attractive in terms of shopping if looking for traditional crafts but it’s more authentic and reflects more the local lifestyle, away from the Moroccan cliché of the wool carpets, silver jewelry, colorful tagines, spices shops, brass lamps and leather slippers, which in Marrakesh take over the main medina streets, pushing away the local commerce.
Without a doubt, the center of the local life in Meknes is the Lahdim Square a.k.a. Al Hadim Square, that faces Bab Mansour the main entrance gate of the sultan’s palace, built in the 18 century. This square works as a transition ground between the Medina and Imperial City of Meknes. During the day the square is occupied by an uncharacteristic market, which extends along the street that circles the medina on the left side. But at the end of the day that this square gains the magic atmosphere, when the sunset light illuminates the facade of the Bab Mansour, dyeing it of warm tones and illuminating the intricate geometric mosaic patterns and enhancing the Moorish architecture style.
Is at this time that Lahdim Square gains a greater intensity, with people gathering at the square, checking the clothes stalls, selling most of the times charmless and uncharacteristic clothes “made in turkey”, having a snail snack, ride a pony, eat sweet cotton, buy bread and fruits, or a Bob Marley poster… it’s a lively and colorful moment of this square that is never empty. It’s a humble version of you can find in Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh but it’s cozy and cute.
Also busy, are the medina street where the domestic life extends beyond the boundaries of house doors, filling the streets of children and women’s groups with conversations from the daily routine of grocery shopping. The men gather in cafes and terraces watching the movement of the streets, in a calm contemplation that doesn’t expect surprises. While the main streets of the medina are already taken by less interesting commerce, the small streets keep a more traditional atmosphere and lifestyle, where each zone is dedicated to a specific type of trade or crafts. Small shops that look like they stop in time where apparently nothing change in the last decades, allowing a uniform layer of dust to remove color from the objects that look like they lost the fait of finding an owner.
The food markers located outside the medina walls are busy and alive being a good opportunity to buy fresh products for a good price… don’t know if they were cheating me with the prices but I found very fair what they charged. Autumn is the season for grapes, pomegranates, cactus figs, oranges and apples. All this smells mix with the voices of the sellers who announce their products in hoarse and indecipherable melodies, creating a frantic atmosphere.
Walking along the medina, zoom out from the restless movement of people, you’ll have the change to spot the traditional Moorish architecture, mix with more modern buildings, where the warm colors of the walls, in grades from red to yellow, make a beautiful contrast with the clear blue winter sky.
Where to sleep in Meknes:
As Meknes is a bit away from the backpacker’s trail and many people only come here as a day tour, that includes also Moulay Idriss and Volubilis, there’s a lack of budget options and apparently, there’s not a hostel with dorms, a thing that is widely available in Marrakesh. So this makes the cost of the accommodation a bit higher than other cities in Morocco, however, this can be an opportunity to stay in a place with a bit more sophistication and comfort.
Arriving in the middle of the night (the bus from Merzouga arrive around 2.30 a.m.) without a booking was not the most enjoyable experience as all the accommodations close the door in the evening and not all are happy to open it to guests at this time.
But there was an exception… the receptionist of Riad Malak (16 Sidi Amar Bouaouada, Medina Meknes) despite being fully booked allow us to rest at his living room until morning, take the breakfast there (amazing breakfast and the best of all Moroccan trip) and made all the efforts to arrange an alternative accommodation that suits our budget. These gentle and helpful being made all Meknes stay much better. Strongly recommend this place to stay.
During the three days spent in Morocco, we stay at a place that was not yet (November 2018) to public located nearby Riad Malak, at Erb sidi ahmed, just next door to a Jewish Silver shop. The way to get a room here, by now, is to contact the Restaurant Mille et Une Nuits (contact: 035559002), close by, on the way to the main square. It’s a traditional building, totally renovated, and decorated with good taste. The rooftop has an excellent view of the entire city. As it was still closed to the public a double room costs 220 Dirham without breakfast.
NOTICE: avoid the Youth Hostel of Mekens that despite being far away from the medina, located in a modern upper class area without many options in terms of food, has also a very rude and unfriendly receptionist.
Where to eat in Meknes:
To be honest didn’t have a proper meal during the three days that I spent in Meknes, not because of the lack of options but mainly due to the huge amount of snacks available along the street maze of the medina. In fact, Meknes was a delight for the plate, with lots of small shops or street stalls selling sweets, a big choice of bread, olives, nuts and dry fruits… and as it was almost Winter, the oranges and pomegranates pop up as also the cactus figs coming from the more desert areas.
Sweets… in fact (plus Fes) where the best places to explore the endless variations of the traditional Moroccan sweets, many of them made with puff pastry, stuffed with nuts and soaked in a sweet syrup: if they attract bees, probably they are made with honey… otherwise, if it’s just a sugar syrup the flies take over 😉
There’s a big concentration of restaurants in the main square, in front of the Bab Mansour, with the usual Moroccan gastronomy but what attracts me more are the informal eateries, frequented exclusively by the local population, each of them specialized in a certain type of food, without having a menu or so. Close by the West Gate of the medina, a less know gate away from tourist area on the way to Mausoleum of Sheikh El Kamel, there’s a few of these eateries, one of them open to the street serving besara, a Moroccan fava soup, that here is delicious, served in a big bowl, with a generous topping o olive oil and lots of paprika. A soup that with bread is a filling meal costs 7 Dirham. You can also reach this are walking from the Lahdim Square walk along the street where the date sellers are concentrated, followed by the blacksmiths’ area.
There are cafés all over Morocco, but it is in the large urban centers that one can find the most sophisticated versions where one can feel the strong influence of the French culture. And Meknes offer plenty of options in terms of cafes, with many concentrated along the avenue in front of Bab Mansour, that is a good place to chill and watch the movement of the people, absorbed in their daily routine. A coffee is not a cheap thing in Morocco and can easily cost 10 Dirham if you ask for espresso, but is part of the experience being in a place where almost all clients are men, as these places don’t attract many women in Morocco… tea is also available and in fact is much more popular.
How to move around in Meknes medina:
The Meknes medina is not difficult in orientation, and it’s not so big as the one in Fes. The main streets are almost focused in products for the local population, mostly clothes, houseware, electronic stuff, etc… but it still worth to walk around as here you get more in contact with the authentic lifestyle than what you can get in Marrakesh or Fes.
Public bath (hammam) in Meknes:
Public bath or hammam as they is called locally are a “must do” in a Moroccan trip as they are still part of the routine of the local population, as in many houses, particularly in the old parts of the cities, there’s are still houses without bathing facilities. And besides this, the public bath keeps playing an important role in social life, particularly for the women, who find in the hammams a place to live away from the role of housewives to which they are still totally dedicated.
Traditionally, in all Moroccan cities, towns and villages, where there is a mosque there’s also a hammam and a bakery!!! But they are not easy to spot, as many times there’s no sign outside or if there’s one it’s in Arabic writing. So this pushes many times the foreigner visitor to a more touristic (and expensive experience) where the hammam gets close to a spa, with comfort and western standards but where local people don’t go.
In Meknes, there’s easy to reach inside the medina, a few meters from the Lahdim Square, if you walk to the right side, until you find the sign “Riad Ritaj Maison d’Hotel” that’s is also a restaurant, you’ll find just in front a door without any sign that is the entrance to the hammam.
As far as I remember, this hammam open at 12, but it changes according to the day, with the afternoon reserved to women, opening after for men until 8 p.m. The entrance costs 10 Dirham and if you need a massage or scrub you must pay extra. Bring your towel, soap, etc… buckets are available inside. The staff of Riad Ritaj it’s available to give you more detail information! Just ask as they are very friendly!
How to go from Meknes to Moulay Idriss:
To visit Moulay Idriss and Volubilis you can catch the local bus, called City Bus, number 15. It stops in Avenue Mohammed VI, close by the roundabout. The place is easy to reach: if you are in from the Bab Mansour, just walk down, to the right side and you’ll see the roundabout from where the avenue starts; the bus stop in the beginning of the avenue and despite the lack of a sign you’ll see lots of people waiting there for buses.
The ticket cost 7 Dirham and the trips take 30 minutes along a beautiful countryside landscape.
If you also want to visit Volubilis, there isn’t a direct way by public transport and you need to catch a shared taxi at Moulay Idriss.
How to go from Meknes to Fes:
There are buses and trains all day, with a frequent schedule, as the distance is very short, and Meknes is on the way from Rabat to Fes, two of Moroccan biggest cities.
My choice was for the train. The train station is not far from the city center and can be reached by taxi or local bus. Watch out as there are two trains station in Meknes, and not all trains stop in both; the main station is called “Menes” where you can also find the CTM bus terminal, and a smaller one called “Gare Al Amir Abdul Kader” quieter.
You can buy the ticket just before the trip or online, where you can also check schedules details: //www.oncf.ma/en/
The trains are modern, clean and on time.
The trip takes 50 minutes and the ticket cost 22 Dirham.