An early departure from Chefchaouen set the tone for our next few days which involved some long travel days as we moved toward the Sahara!
Volubilis & Meknes
Our first stop was the ancient, but well-preserved, Roman ruins of Volubilis. We were taken on a guided tour of the ruins which were originally constructed between the 2nd & 3rd century, and are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The size and complexity of the Roman villas was impressive to say the least, with over 2000m2 of floor space that included in-ground heating for the floors and walls! Another memorable and unexpected feature of the ruins was a large stone carved phallus/penis, which were apparently common in the Roman Empire as they were “seen to be protective against the evil eye and to bring prosperity and luck”!
Located near Volubilis is the imperial city of Meknes, once the Moroccan capital during the 17th century, now the fifth largest city in the country. Commonly referred to as the ‘Versailles of Morocco‘, the city contains many structures built by the Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th & 18th century.
Our short visit to Meknes included a walk through the Royal Stables and Grainery, which is an impressive structure originally built to house 12,000 horses and a huge store of grain. Today the city is famous for agriculture, particularly the production of Morocco’s best grapes and olives! We also visited the 18th century Bab Mansour, the ornamental gate to the city, and largest gate in North Africa. Prior to our departure to Fes, we stopped off for some much needed ice cream – a necessity in the 40oC heat!!
The spiritual capital of Morocco, Fes dates back to 808 AD, and, in similar fashion to other large cities in the country, was many times the Moroccan capital. Known for its craft and ceramics, the main draw of this historically artisan city is the Fes Medina. This medina is the world’s largest living medina, comprising 9,000 streets over an area of 365 hectares! Prior to entering the medina, we visited the Jewish Quarter and a nearby mountain to view the medina from above – this made for some great panoramic photos!
We spent around four hours within the medina itself, winding through narrow alleyways and observing the hustle and bustle of Moroccan day-to-day life. From small stores selling jewellery, fruits or meats, to large leather tannery and carpentry businesses, the medina seemed to have everything! We also visited a local fabric shop where silk from the agarve plant is used in an intricate but slightly-rickety machine to create scarves, blankets and rugs. In addition to the market stalls and businesses, the medina contains around 350 operating mosques!
Whilst in Fes, we sampled some of the local cuisine with a dinner at a converted riad. The dinner also included a variety of traditional entertainment, including two musical performances, a magician, belly dancers (with fire!), and a mock Fes wedding! As luck would have it, the belly dancers searched the crowded room for members of the audience to partake in some belly dancing, and Daniel was chosen! Safe to say he is no Shakira, but gave it his best!
Leaving city-life behind, we began our journey to the Sahara with a 10-hour bus trip – the epitome of fun… However, the allure of a swimming pool and air-conditioned rooms at our hotel made the trip slightly more bearable. Along the way we passed through a range of small and large towns, including a beautiful town named Ifrane which was unique with its oddly scandanavian design, steep roofs and widespread greenery. We also stopped at one of the many pine and cedar forests to feed the wild Barbary apes – an amazing experience!
Arriving at Hotel Yasmina late in the afternoon, we immediately hit the swimming pool to cool down and unwind after a long day! The hotel was located at the edge of the sand dunes – truly a unique accommodation setting!
The next morning we opted to take a 4×4 tour of the surrounding landscape. Over the four hour excursion we got to see panoramic views, ancient fossilised rocks, traditional wells (clean water in the middle of nowhere!), and an abandoned mine. However, the highlight of the trip was spending some time with a nomadic Berber family. The Berbers are Morocco’s native population, and there are hundreds of nomadic families that live on the move between the Sahara and mountains, depending on the season. The children were mesmerised by our smartphones and we were amazed by their ability to use them! The families are often visited by tourists like us, and they were more than willing to share mint tea and bread with us – a welcome sight after hours driving in the hot sun!
After returning from the 4×4 tour and relaxing by the pool for a few hours, it was time to journey into the desert for a night in the sand dunes! We boarded our dromedaries (similar to a camel but with only one hump) for a 1.5 hour ride into the dunes. The scenery was unforgettable as we rode through the dunes with the sun setting – it was like something out of a film! Arriving at camp, a few of our group had the bright idea to climb 20 minutes straight up the side of a dune to catch the sunset. What looked easy from the base was actually quite a tiring hike and unsurprisingly we missed the sunset – luckily it was still a beautiful view!
Our camp consisted of eight small huts and actual toilets with running water (glamping!), and after being served a traditional Moroccan dinner we were treated to a drumming performance by our guides, featuring some of our group, including Anne! Given the choice of where to sleep, we opted to sleep outside, under the stars, partly due to the hot temperature which lasted until early morning!
After a beautiful, moon-lit night (and a less beautiful night of sleep) we awoke at 5:45 AM to depart our camp and view the sunrise whilst on our trusty dromedaries. Travelling back to our hotel in the cool of the morning was much more pleasant than the previous night, and viewing the sun rise over the sand dunes made for another memorable experience!
As we reached our hotel for breakfast, our time in the Sahara was at an end! We will miss the views but not the searing temperatures and hot wind!
Until next time,
AP & DT