Moulay Idriss, Morocco

Moulay Idriss is not the most obvious place for a western tourist to go in Morocco as its main attraction – the tomb of Moulay Idriss I (decedent of the Prophet, founder of Fez and bringer of the Muslim faith to Morocco) himself, and the associated mosque – is off limits to non-muslim people.  In fact, only a few years ago, non-muslims were not allowed to stay in the town overnight.  It now has a few lovely guesthouses but the tourist infrastructure is pretty undeveloped.  There is no bus, there are no restaurants with menus in french, there are no souvenir shop pushing jewelry and leather slippers on passersby.  I decided to to there because I didn’t want to make my visit to Volubilis (Morocco’s most extensive Roman ruin) a daytrip by tour bus but ended up being very glad I’d visited Moulay Idriss for its own sake.

My time there was both more and less challenging than other parts of Morocco.  It was lovely to be surrounded by green hills and felt much quieter and lower key than Morocco, Casa or Rabat.  On the other hand, finding food (and my way around the tangled alleys) was much more of an adventure.  I managed both, however, with a few hitches.  I could probably have found the hostel on my own but I made the mistake of asking for directions in a moment of indecision (between signs stamped on the walls) and ended up being guided there by a friendly local guy who took me straight to the door but then only pretended to ring the bell, told me no one was home and then tried to take me to his uncle’s (less nice) place down the street.  I thanked him for his trouble and said I’d prefer to just get a tea in the main plaza and try again later and he followed me back there and ordered a coffee on my tab but after about half an hour of me sketching the opposite building he wandered off and didn’t return.  When I went back to the hotel I really did ring the bell and was let right in.

The hotel (Dar Zerhoune) was really stunning – a step up from what I have been allowing myself on this trip but in the wake of the Rabat bed bugs I was inclined to splurge on accommodations a little and play it safe.  A Dar is a house built around a courtyard.  Located in the Medina they have few if any windows on the exterior and are internally oriented to their own light and space source – a hole in the center of the building that brings light and air all the way down to the ground floor.  There is almost always a rooftop terrace for maximum light and air (and hanging laundry) which gives an entirely different character to the city than the tangled arrangement of steps and alley-like “streets” used to reach the front door.  This one had been remodeled with western ideas in mind – bathrooms added to some of the rooms, doors fitted on all the openings and with pervasive wifi.  It was an oasis and, after the tribulations of Rabat and my train trip to Meknes which involved sitting on my bag in a corner of the aisle for two hours, leaning slightly to the left to avoid the seat next to me, it was very nearly heaven.  My explorations of the town were also really fun.  I bought food from a local grocer for pennies – fresh baked bread and yogurt (Activia!) the first night and the second evening I stopped at a couple of food stands and pointed and smiled to get what the local guys were having – a crepe like pastrie and a sandwich filled with cooked egg and a sort of hash brown potato substance. Both were delicious and the meal, including an ice cream bar, cost me three dollars.

I also walked the 5km out of town to visit the open air archaeological site of roman Volubilis.  The spot has been occupied since about 300 BC and was a major Roman town until it fell to Berber control about 200 AD.  It was occupied for the next few hundred years but little remains of the intervening time (has it been cleared away intentionally) and the current excavation focuses on the Roman period.  Work is ongoing – There is a future museum and current administration building and archaeologist office building on site which I explored at the end.  The site itself is much like many others I’ve seen, partially standing walls and propped up columns.  Arched doorways seem to hold up best.  The impressiveness of Volubilis lies in its extent – it goes on and on and contains roads, public buildings, residential areas etc and in its very well preserved mosaic tile floors in some of the residences.  They are exposed to the sky and protected from tourists by a few bits of rope so I wonder if they will last very long in this condition but it was lovely to be able to view them.  There was also, as I’m coming to assume, an active stork nest on top of one of the columns.  Enjoy pictures of cute baby storks being fed by their mother and/or father.

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