Morocco,  Recent

Fes, Meknes and Moulay Idriss Zerhoun: Morocco’s ‘Golden Triangle’

Fes, Meknes and Moulay Idriss Zerhoun ought to be given an appropriately jazzy catchphrase label like “Morocco’s Golden Triangle”. Located within a short driving distance of one-another, they make a great trio of destinations for tourists visiting north-eastern Morocco.

After our month-long stay in Chefchaouen, we headed south to explore these ancient cities.

“Now that the war is over, only a few months’ work on roads and railways divide it from the great torrent of “tourism”; and once that deluge is let loose, no eye will ever again see Moulay Idriss and Fez and Marrakech as I saw them.”

Edith Wharton ‘in Morocco’ (1920) discovering the original ‘hidden gems’ of Morocco.

Contents


Historical Background of Fes, Meknes and Moulay Idriss Zerhoun

Moulay Idriss was the first Islamic ruler of Morocco, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. Idriss I set up shop originally in the former Roman site of Volubilis but later moved to a more defensible location, likely the town now called Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. He later founded the city of Fes however his body was laid to rest in Moulay Idriss and the site is now of religious significance to Moroccans. His son, Idriss II, founded Meknes.

The medinas of Fes and Meknes are both UNESCO world heritage sites, as is the Roman remains of Volubilis outside of Moulay Idriss. Moulay Idriss itself has been proposed as a UNESCO site too.

Fes, Meknes and Moulay Idriss are located a short distance apart.

Fes

Fes for me is many things: it is often beautiful, impressive and fascinating but at the same time, exhausting, dirty and challenging.

Fes has the largest medina in the world. It’s a huge, sprawling old city with reputedly 3000 streets. If you want to buy Moroccan-made stuff, this is the place to go. Thanks to the famous tannery leather goods of all shapes and sizes are available – shoes, clothing, furniture, bags – everything. You can buy rugs, blankets, clothing. The small Berber spice shops have a world of magical things available; the shopkeepers are more than happy to show you everything and give you things to taste and smell. It’s quite a safari for the senses. We even found a shop making fancy horse outfits!

Fes Tannery - Vats made of clay are filled with a murky liquid which is used to tan hides.

Fes Things to Do

The tannery (pictured above) is one of Fes’s main attractions, famous for having been in operation for 750 years. It’s free to visit and there’s a terrace above to get a good view. You can also take a guide who will explain everything about it.

In addition to the tannery, there are also a ton of mosques, mausoleums and the Royal Palace – all of which you can look at but not go inside (unless you’re Muslim).

A good place to escape the madness of the medina is the garden Jnan Sbil. This tidy green space is lovely, cool and away from the crowds.

Things to watch out for in Fes

As in all busy, crowded cities, it’s important to keep your wits about you. In Fes, one particular thing to be aware of is that there are a lot of people hanging around, who will “help” you with directions and try to become your guide. Even if you don’t want any help, they walk ahead making sure you get there – then hang around for payment. In our experience, it’s totally harmless but it’s just annoying when you’re minding your own business wandering around.

That being said, we did decide to accept the services of one guy which ended up being really interesting – so it’s not that it’s a totally bad idea – it’s just that you can’t get from A to B without being bothered incessantly.

Our guide showed us some viewpoints from which you can see the complex with the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II, many Madrasas and the university. We were shown inside an original house and the old library, both of which were sadly crumbling and there was no sign of repair in sight.

Interestingly, we learnt that there is a secret behind the door hinges in old Moroccan cities. The hinges have special significance: five pronged door hinges traditionally signified an Arab household, three for Berber and one for Jewish. Inside the houses, the number of taps on the fountain was also five, three or one respectively.

After walking around for a couple of hours, in true Moroccan fashion, he even invited us into his home and we drank some Berber whiskey (mint tea) which his wife prepared.

Why I won’t go back to Fes

Fes is interesting but it’s not somewhere I would visit again; two nights was more than enough for us. It’s definitely one of the places that gives Morocco it’s reputation for people hassling you. It’s simply not possible to walk around the city without people trying to sell you something or get money out of you somehow; it quickly gets very tiring!

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun

To be perfectly honest, when we arrived in Moulay Idriss, we were a bit shocked at the state of the town. It wasn’t the best first impression. On the road leading up to it, there were kilometers of trash. We parked our car in the centre of town next to the market and there were piles of stinking rotten stuff everywhere (must be terrible in summer).

Afterwards, we took a walk around town but really ended up on the backstreets, getting a bit lost. We couldn’t see how a town of such significance could be so badly looked after – it is really run down. Even around the mausoleum, it’s dirty and the buildings in need of repair (the mausoleum itself looked clean but obviously we were not allowed inside).

Eventually we worked our way to the nice bit of town, the market square with neat little white shops with green roofs. All around here they serve the town’s specialty, a delicious minced lamb kofta. We tried a few of the restaurants and they definitely all charged a tourist price, even in the locals places. It was much more expensive than other places we’ve visited.

Over the days we were there, the town did grow on us. In the evening, it is pleasant to walk on the hill opposite the town or to the “terrace” from which you can view the mausoleum. It definitely looks better in photos than in real life! The market, if you avoid the stinky bit, is pretty cool. They sell lots of fruit and veg, nuts, dates and meat.

In Moulay Idriss, if you venture up the hill, you will more than likely acquire a huge entourage of kids. Moroccan children are generally very inquisitive and love to practice their many language skills. We met one girl, Melika, who showed us the best viewpoints. She counted for us in 3 languages and was trying her best to get me to remember my French! The kids all will ask you for money – I don’t agree with giving them cash – but it’s a good idea to carry some nuts or fruits.

The remains of Volubilis lie around 20 minutes drive from Moulay Idriss. The city is believed to have been established in the 3rd century BC. However, there is evidence of inhabitation from pre-Roman times. Significantly, the site was used briefly as a capital by Moulay Idriss I, before he built Fes.

Volubilis was finally abandoned in 11th century. Parts were pilfered over the years for nearby building projects in Meknes and Fes. A huge earthquake in 1755 (also responsible for the destruction of Lisbon, it was so huge that tsunami waves reached the UK, Canada, the Caribbean and even Brazil!) contributed to much of the destruction.

What I found striking about this site is that you really feel the extent of how vast the Roman empire was. Volubilis is the most south-westerly corner of the ancient empire. It feels so incredibly far away from the most north-westerly part in rainy, cold England! Nevertheless, the style is familiar including typical Roman features, a forum, baths and many, many mosaics.

Entrance is 70Dh. There are tour guides who will explain information about the site in various languages (French, English, German, Arabic) for a fee.

Meknes

We expected Meknes to be a similar, if smaller, version of Fes. We were pleasantly surprised however to find a very different city! Meknes is infinitely less touristy (in November, in any case) than Fes. People are not desperately trying to grab your attention every five minutes. The city itself is in much better condition, thanks to recent and on-going restoration work all around. It’s also a lot cleaner and certainly smells much better than Fes!

Whilst we were only there for three nights, it’s a place we could have stayed longer. The people are laid back and friendly. We had the best baisarra yet from a young guy serving it from a huge pot on the street corner. It was so flavoursome, it was almost cheesy (it’s made of fava beans). One of the group of young people translated our compliments to the guy and they all cheered and clapped him. The whole vibe is just better.

Honestly, we didn’t do a whole lot in Meknes. As the restoration work is affecting a lot of the major monuments, they are closed. It will be undoubtably all worth it once completed. If you’re looking for a less hectic environment to decompress for a few days, I’d say it’s perfect. All the street food we ate was particularly good – so make sure to try it out!

We stayed in the beautiful Dar Tresor, a restored 17th Century riad. It was a great place to stay, very relaxing and quiet. My only issue with Moroccan riads is that you get totally sick of the incredibly sweet breakfasts that all very similar.


That concludes our trip to Morocco’s Golden Triangle (if this name takes off, I’m claiming it!). A region rich in history and culture, it’s definitely worth making a stop here to take it all in. If you made it to Fes, Meknes and Moulay Idriss, I’d love to hear about it! Get in touch via the comments or write to me on Facebook (Hopelessly Nomantic), Instagram (Hopelessly_Nomantic) or Twitter (HopelesNomantic)!


Planning a Trip to Morocco?

Check out my other posts on our journey through Morocco from Tangier to Tetouan and Chefchaouen; south to Fes and Meknes; through the desert and finally along the Atlantic coast.


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