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  • Writer's pictureBil

The Imperial Cities - Tour First Days

Dinner with a local family in Meknes
The Art of Pouring Delicious Mint Tea

Susie and I have always been independent travelers, shunning the large groups and finding our own way with lodging, transportation, and local sights. This is certainly more work, but when we are “slow traveling” it allows us to visit places of interest and relax in between. When our time ran out in the Schengen District (Europe) the end of September, we were not ready to return to The States, and turned our sights southward, towards warmer climes. And there was Morocco – right across the Straits of Gibraltar from Portugal – an exotic land of deserts, mountains, and….?

Neither of us were too familiar with the country, and while doing some research came across a company called Intrepid Travels that features active tours for small groups. They are B Corp certified (look it up!) and emphasize responsible travel: supporting local communities and leaving a minimal footprint. Their “Morocco Uncovered” 13-day tour fit our schedule and covered a good part of the country. Almost 1800 kilometers as it turned out! The cost was considerably above our usual budget - $1544 USD each – but we decided to go for it. Early Christmas present to each other!

Our first day consisted of an evening orientation meeting with everyone at a hotel in Casablanca where Mustapha, our group leader, went over many of the trip details. Our English-speaking tour group consisted of three from Switzerland, three from Canada and six from the US, and all were much younger than us. Everyone had done extensive traveling, and several had great experiences with Intrepid on previous trips.

Almost 1800 Kilometers!
From the Coast to the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara

One interesting thing we sorted out was tipping, which is very much expected and appreciated in Morocco. During our tour we would be using a multitude of local guides, baggage handlers, restaurants, etc., and figuring out an appropriate tip as well as having small bills/change always handy can be a problem. The tour suggests setting up a “tipping kitty” where everyone adds a set amount, and the group leader gives out tips as appropriate. We all thought this was a great idea and each gave 1000 MAD. (about $109 USD at 9.14 MAD to 1 USD ) Tips for Jamal, our driver for the whole tour and Mustapha, the group leader would be up to each individual.

After an early breakfast we packed up and loaded into our ride – a nice Mercedes Sprinter van with 15 seats and A/C. A quick ride over to the beautiful Hassan II Mosque for a walk-through with a local guide who covered a few areas we did not see here last time. Morning fog gave a very different feel to the outer grounds and seashore. Then back in the van for our first road trip – destination Rabat.

Fortification overlooking the ocean & river
Rabat - Kasbah of the Udayas

Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, and Rabat have all been the capital cities of Morocco, so they are referred to as the Imperial Cities, and we would be visiting all of them. Rabat is another coastal city about 100km north of Casablanca and is the current capital. It was founded in the 12th century by the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu'min as a military town at the mouth of the river Bou Regreg. Rabat became the capital when Morocco gained independence from the French in 1955. Its importance as a shipping center has been diminished as river silt has filled the harbor.

Arriving in Rabat we made quick stops at the imposing entrance to the Royal Palace, which is guarded by members of each branch of the military, the walled Chellah Necropolis (cemetery) that was closed for renovations, and the beautiful Mausoleum of Mohammed V which was also closed. However, we were just in time to see the changing of the guards at the Mausoleum, where two mounted palace guards stand watch on their white horses, until they are relieved every 90 minutes. Very cool.

Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Rabat - Royal Moroccan Guards

Moving on from there we entered the Kasbah of the Udayas, a walled former citadel overlooking the mouth of the river where it meets the Atlantic. The narrow streets and alleys opened up onto picturesque views of the waterfront, and we all stopped to enjoy mint tea and pastries before joining our driver for the next late afternoon leg to Hotel Swani in Meknes.

Everyone was ready for a drink by now, so we all gathered for a glass of wine on the rooftop of our hotel in Meknes to compare notes. But the day is not over, and we drive a short distance to a local home where a family prepares a delicious Moroccan dinner for all of us. None of the family can speak English but Mustapha is a great interpreter, and it is obvious they are pleased to have the company. The food is wonderful: dates, pastries & pumpkin soup first, followed by chicken tagine with lemons & olives. The tagine is an icon of Moroccan culture: a crockery container with a distinctive pointed lid that the food is cooked in. Following this was fruit, more pastries and cookies, and mint tea. Afterwards we enjoyed asking and answering questions about each other’s lives, like “what time do you go to bed”? (haha – Rachel!)

Lisa closely watching the pumpkin soup
Dinner with a local family in Meknes

We got back to Hotel Swani just in time for our video call with a prospective house-sit in Miami Beach. Ms. M was delightful, and we seemed like a good fit to watch her small menagerie over Thanksgiving week, just a few miles from Skylar’s condo in Miami Beach. Woo-hoo!

Day 3 starts with exploring Meknes, founded in the 11th century and becoming the capital city under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1672–1727). Today it is the center of agriculture in Morocco due to fertile soil, elevation, and abundance of fresh water. After a quick stop to admire the majestic Bab Mansour gate, entrance to the Kasbah, we move on to the Imperial Palaces of Moulay Isma'il.

This huge complex “was composed of several autonomous palaces along with vast gardens, religious buildings, and other amenities. The complex was also notable for its impressive infrastructure, which included a water supply system with a hydraulic system of wells, norias (water extraction mechanism powered by wheel), canals, and underground pipes which distributed water to the royal city's many buildings. It also contained numerous monumental granaries and underground warehouses which stockpiled supplies that could allegedly sustain the city for a siege of ten years. “ (wiki)

Unfortunately, it also was closed to the public but Susie was able to get a quick peek at the underground caverns when she requested a bathroom break. Historians debate whether these large caverns were used for storage of grain or slaves. Hmmmm….

In the Meknes medina
Damascene: Exquisite hammered silver decorative work

Entering the medina we wander through several different souks, with shops and stalls selling food stuffs, wood carvings, metal works and everything in between. Some of the spice and produce displays are real works of art. Mustapha stops us at several vendors to point out particular spices or dyes, and tells us it is ok to photograph all the vendors, except the butchers. For some reason, they don’t like it, and they have sharp knives! Point taken.

The Palais Des Arts Et Traditions is a large shop with a variety of goods. The proprietor shows us a master craftsman creating fine plates and bowls in a process called Damascene: hammering thin silver beading into metal surfaces that have been scored with a pattern. It is then heated to melt the silver, cooled and polished, with striking results. (More info on the process here) The shop also has a beautiful collection of cloths, lamps, daggers and jewelry, and several of our group make some purchases, bargaining with the sales people.

Back on the bus and heading out of town, we stop at a large grocery where everyone has 20 minutes to pick out something for our picnic lunch when we stop at an outdoor café near Volubilis. The café supplies drinks, tableware and rest rooms while we munch down on fresh fruit, sandwiches and other edibles.

Partly excavated Berber-Roman city near Meknes
Volubilis - Ancient Roman Ruins

After lunch we are joined by a local guide who walked us through the ruins on Volubilis. This is the site of many civilizations, beginning with local Berber tribes around 300 BC. Briefly part of the Carthaginian state it became an important outpost on the edge of the Roman Empire. Later on, Volubilis was the seat of power for the Idrisid Dynasty but fell into disrepair when Idris moved to Fes. The partially excavated site has good examples of all civilizations through ten centuries of occupation, with beautiful floors and walls of marble and mosaic, bronze statues, and chiseled inscriptions.

Now it is time to get on the road again, pointing our van toward the Rif Mountains - and the Blue City.

To be continued…..!

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