Meknes is one of the places a lot of people skip during their time in Morocco. I had put it on my itinerary and part of me was disappointed when I met a few travellers who said I might as well skip it. Over the years though, I’ve found out I am often interested in places others skip. I was curious about this place. It is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco. There must be something special here right?
The downside of Meknes was that I couldn’t find a hostel or shared room. Therefore I decided to splurge a little and book myself a room, although tiny, in a beautiful Riad. I was welcomed warmly with some tea and a tour of the house. This place was built by the royal family to accommodate family and other important visitors that weren’t staying in the palace. The house was like a maze, with small stairs and little rooms and niches everywhere. It was decorated in true Moroccan style, with beautiful lamps, tagines, paintings, wood carvings and pillows. On the rooftop was a big terrace with its own little nooks and amazing views over the medina. Here you are still in the medina and yet so far away from the hustle and bustle of the tiny streets.
My Riad was located just off the main street in the medina. In the morning this street was empty, with rows of big wooden doors on each side. Slowly those doors would open and shopkeepers would display their goods, leaving little space for walking. This wasn’t a touristy market. People were buying djellabas in gorgeous colours, shoes of all kinds and random other things. Although people were trying to lure you to their shops, inviting you to have a look, it wasn’t forced. The sellers weren’t nearly as aggressive as in other places.
I felt super comfortable in Meknes. People seemed more laidback and just happy you were there. I went to a local bakery to buy a donut and used the few Arabic words I know. The boy behind the counter had a grin plastered on his face and was genuinely nice, without wanting anything from me. I ventured into the big square in the early evening and found lots of people out and about. Some were sipping mint tea on the terrace. Others were shopping. There were monkeys on chains and snakes lying on carpets. There were also people playing games, like trying to put a ring on a makeshift fishing rod around a bottle of coke. It seemed like I had walked into a book.
The medina is pretty small and most of the streets aren’t very busy. It is worth going outside of it though. On the other side of the beautiful Bab Mansour is a curious museum. At first I wasn’t sure if I was in the right spot. I paid and was sent into a hall that had a sign behind a curtain. I was disappointed I had spent 10Dh on this. But when I got outside again, the man pointed towards some stairs at the side of the square. I was going underground. The place is known as the prison of Christians, but could also have just been a food storage. Whatever it was, it has a creepy vibe, which an artist has used brilliantly to display his work. Throughout this basement were paintings of people in all sizes. They were lit up by candles and lights and some looked like graves. In the darkness I hear the giggling of some teenage girls and they ask me for a photo. Soon I’ll be famous in Morocco.
A bit further I walk past the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, but it’s being renovated. Then I walk through a gate and in between two huge walls. I’m walking around the royal palace. You really don’t see anything, apart from guards every so many meters and some mosaics on gates. There is a big square with the official entrance and a bunch of palm trees. A bit further on are the old royal stables. Once this place housed thousands of horses, but now part of it is in ruins. The vibe is much like in the food storage dungeon. It’s dark and creepy. I admire the work it must have cost to build all this, but I find it hard to imagine what this place was like.
When I get out, the sun is setting. Across from the stables is a little fairground, with bumper cars and a few other attractions. I powerwalk back towards the medina, the palace guards staring at me as I pass them. For dinner I have a sandwich filled with mince meat from a place no other tourists seem to consider. Another customer stares at me while I wait for my sandwich. But it’s a stare of happy amazement. And this is Meknes. It’s a place where I felt comfortable. It’s a place I’m glad I visited.