Meknes Travel Guide

To foreigners, the name "<st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Fez" invokes ideas of mystique and spirituality.  But to most, its neighbor, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes, doesn't invoke much of anything, despite being just 60 kilometers away.  A growing city with an estimated population of 700,000, Meknes remains fairly unpopular with tourists, save for Japanese groups wielding cameras and those just passing through.  And yet, <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Morocco</st1:country-region>'s third imperial city is thriving - prominent companies such as French giant LaFarge Ciment call it home, and riads are being bought up and transformed into boutique hotels.

<st1:city w:st="on">Meknes hasn't always played the sidekick to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:city w:st="on">Fez.  Founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes became a capital under Sultan Moulay Ismaïl.  After coming to power in 1672, he proclaimed it the imperial capital and built a palace to rival <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:city w:st="on">Versailles, surrounded by high walls with great doors and demonstrating a harmonious blend of Islamic and European styles of the 17th century.  It was during this period that <st1:city w:st="on">Meknes flourished, but after Ismail's death, the capital was moved to <st1:city w:st="on">Rabat and <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes became a virtual backwater. 

And yet, the city's central location is promising, both for businesses and as a tourist destination.
  Situated between <st1:city w:st="on">Rabat and <st1:city w:st="on">Fez in the Tafilalet region, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes is easily accessible by train, major auto routes, and even airplane (Fez Saiss airport is 43.5 miles or 70 kilometers, with frequent flights to Paris Orly).  Though grand taxis (six passenger inter-city vehicles) are abundant, they're nothing to write home about - if you can afford to rent a car, do, otherwise, take the train whenever possible.  Petit taxis on the other hand, which are reserved for inner-city travel, are perfectly acceptable and the way to go if you'd prefer not to hoof it.

Proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes is home to a number of historic sites, the most famous of which is Bab Mansour, one of the largest medina gates in the country.  One of the country’s best museums also calls <st1:city w:st="on">Meknes home – Built in 1882 as a private residence, Dar Jamai (House of Jamai) became the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placetype w:st="on">Museum of <st1:placename w:st="on">Moroccan Art.  The exhibits change every few years; the most recent is a tribute to clothing and home furnishings, and also contains several ancient copies of the Qur’an.  The Royal Golf Course of Meknes is worth a visit (though it is noted that only members, or guests of members, can play), as is Place Hedim, the main square of the old medina, located directly across from Bab Mansour.

The city’s proximity to Volubilis (Oualili), also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is notable, if not for the beautiful Roman ruins there than for a yearly festival hosted there (August 26-31) featuring music and dance from around the world.  You may even be able to witness a performance by <st1:city w:st="on">H-Kayne, <st1:country-region w:st="on">Morocco</st1:country-region>’s most famous hip-hop group, all of whose members are from <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes.

As <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:city w:st="on">Meknes is only beginning to flourish as a tourist destination, visitors will find fine dining options a bit lacking.  Fortunately, there are a number of mid-range restaurants to choose from, allowing the visitor to pocket some extra cash for the splendor that awaits in <st1:city w:st="on">Marrakesh and <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:city w:st="on">Fez.  Le Pub (mains: 50-150dh) is one of the best addresses in town - located on Rue Alla ben Abdellah, it serves steaks, pasta dishes, delectable salads, and has a full bar to boot.  In the medina, the classic Les Colliers des Colombes serves up delicious traditional fare - tajines, pastilla, and couscous, all reasonably priced (mains: 100-250dh).  While there are plenty of cheaper options to choose from, a safe bet is the cooperatively run Serenity on Avenue Mohammed V near the grand taxi stand, which has the best pizza in town.

If you are so fortunate to experience the hospitality of a Moroccan home, you'll find that customs vary and that following what others do is the best way to ensure you don't make a faux pas.  And don't feel obliged to bring a gift - but if you so choose, cones of sugar, flowers, or cookies are all appropriate.

Given the sparsity of good restaurants, it won't come as much of a surprise that <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes boasts few hot spots.  What it does have plenty of, however, is bars - ranging from the utterly foul to quite decent.  The aforementioned Le Pub is certainly one of the best and features a nightly house band and shisha.  Novelty is an adorable cozy bar that, despite the almost entirely-male clientele, women will feel comfortable in (owing mainly to a wonderful staff).

Although gourmet dining options may be at a minimum, shopping certainly is not.  The medina is full of treasures - from traditional Moroccan handicrafts found across the country to beautiful Damascene plates and boxes unique to the area.  The best part of shopping in <st1:city w:st="on">Meknes is the ease of getting around; whereas one can easily get lost in <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Fez al-Bali, the medina here is far more manageable.  When shopping, be sure to look for inexpensive silver jewelry, thuya wood treasures (they tend to be less expensive here than in their city of origin, Essaouira), and wood products.  Another advantage of shopping in <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes is that prices tend to be much lower than more touristic cities.

Take advantage of the city's lower prices and book a stay at a riad in the medina - Riad Bahia is an established favorite with very reasonable prices, and run by an English-speaking Moroccan couple (they also speak French and Italian, among other languages, and the wife is an official guide).  If your preference is to stay in the new town, you can't go wrong with the inexpensive Hotel Majestic, located only a block away from the train station.  Well-heeled travelers will enjoy Zaki Hotel, complete with pool, restaurant, bar, and nightclub. 

While to many, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Meknes doesn't warrant a trip, I beg to differ.  Go.  Explore.  You'll find that, despite its reputation, the city is in fact a pleasant excursion. 

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