We visit places because they’re famous. Or because they have a famous attraction, or restaurants lauded on social media, or simply good hotels. Meknes has none of those, but you wouldn’t want to miss it. Its medina is ordinary Morocco, barely bothered by jetsetters and do-gooders. It has enough energetic hustle and bustle to entertain the stickybeak in all of us. Its alleyways are jammed with people and soaked in colour. Meknes is wonderful and claustrophobic, seductive and worn, dishevelled but beautiful.
Nobody here performs for the passing tourists. Even the roaming photographer with his sad pet ostrich targets local families. In narrow alleys, swathed ladies prod at eggplants and unceremoniously push you aside as they go about their daily shopping. Bakers flip huge rounds of flatbread into hot piles. Indolent bureaucrats slump in dusty offices, and old men natter in coffeehouses.
Jellabah-wearing shopkeepers might try and sell you a brass lamp, but in a desultory fashion, as if knowing you’re saving your predictable business for more glamorous Marrakesh. The best buy in Meknes is a pair of eye-catching, colourful Moroccan slippers with pointed toes, at half the price they’ll be elsewhere.
If you get lost in the medina’s alleyways, so what? Every corner and blind alley is marvellous with mustard-pink paint and wooden doors and shadowy shops. You might come across stores fragrant with sandalwood or sacks of spices, or a crumbling mansion, or a mosque whose entranceway is carpeted with abandoned shoes. You might be tempted with street snacks. Pigeon or snails if you’re feeling frisky, or slow-roasted lamb if you aren’t. You can find a rooftop cafe and sip mint tea and nibble on pastries flavoured with pistachio or orange blossom, and gaze towards the distant mountains.
Meknes is on the road between the Moroccan capital Rabat and Fes, and not far from the ruined Roman city of Volubilis and pilgrim destination Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, both well worth seeing. The fabulous Bab El Mansour monumental tiled gateway that leads into the old town – the best gateway in Morocco – is the creation of great 17th-century sultan Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif. Like Fes and Marrakesh, this is a great fortified city from Morocco’s golden age and is now World Heritage listed, but Meknes hovers over the tour-group horizon and lacks good tourist facilities. You’d best stay overnight in Fes, an hour’s drive east.
You could spend much of the day here, though. The city’s massive fortifications are draped over successive hillsides in concentric rings of ever narrowing layers, with palaces at their heart. Most are ruined, but you can visit the vast stables and granary stores for an impression of the sheer size of this city in its imperial heyday. The other sights are the recently refurbished tomb of Moulay Ismail and the Koubbat As Sufara, a pavilion perched above a labyrinth of underground rooms gracefully patterned with tilework, in which the sultan once met ambassadors.
But it’s the ordinariness of Meknes that keeps seducing you. The oranges and underwear of the souk, side by side. The kids with their spinning tops, the walnut-faced old men hunched over their backgammon sets, the young street sellers jiggling to Arab pop music from their earphones. Buy a bag of nougat tied up with yellow ribbon, and step around the cows’ heads being hacked up on the footpath.
In the evenings, as the day cools, locals come out to stroll in the square that fronts Bab El Mansour gates. The last rays of the sun turn it golden. Kids pedal toy cars and lick ice-creams, teenagers kick footballs, adults stroll and gossip and eat snacks. Occasionally a sun-beaten farmer lurches by on a weary donkey, heading homeward.
Qatar Airways flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Doha (14.5hr) and Casablanca (7.5hr). Phone 1300 340 600, see qatarairways.com
Australian-owned tour company By Prior Arrangement specialises in handcrafted historical and cultural itineraries in Morocco that include Meknes, and that might focus on food, gardens, architecture or shopping. Phone 0415 637 985, see bypriorarrangement.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of By Prior Arrangement.