Morocco: Meknes & Volubilis

November 1999


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After travelling in a group for over a week it felt strange to once again be back on the road on my own. The train departed Marrakesh at about 09.15 and I began my journey to the north of the country travelling via Casablanca and Rabat before finally arriving in Meknes in the late afternoon. The train twisted and wound its way between the low undulating hills as it approached Meknes. I alighted at the El-Amir Abdelkader station in the new city and walked to the youth hostel, a couple of kilometres to the north west of the new city centre in the suburbs.

Meknes is built on the low hills. The new city sits atop of one hill and the old city sits on another hill to the west. The Oued Bou Fekrane flows through a valley that divides the city into two halves. The city was founded in the 10th century by the Berber tribe of the Meknassis and hence gave their name to the city. The city is surrounded by some of the best agricultural land in the country; the hills are covered in olive and citrus groves; the fields ploughed ready for cereal crops.

The youth hostel was almost empty. It was closed when I arrived, so I sat down outside to wait. When it finally opened in the evening I checked into a dormitory room. There was only one other guest staying in the dormitory; he looked to be a long term resident and had set up home around his bed. My main reason to stop at Meknes was to see the Roman ruins of Volubilis, about 33 km north of the city. I went for a walk into the old city that evening and stopped at a restaurant for a meal. While I was walking I finally felt overwhelmed being in another city. I had had enough of the crowds, the traffic, the pollution, the hustlers; I wanted to be out in the relative peace of the countryside. I returned to the hostel and planned to make a trip to Volubilis tomorrow morning.

The next morning life took a turn for the worse. I awoke to the sound of my stomach doing an impression of a washing machine. I was not best pleased, especially now that I had only a few days left in the country and no longer had time to sit out more illness. After a couple of trips to the toilet block I decided to pop some Imodium tablets to try and settle down this new bout of diarrhoea. At 11.00 I felt confident enough to make my trip to Volubilis and walked down to the old city and to the taxi station on the other side. I took a shared taxi to Moulay Idriss, on the way we had to make an emergency stop for one of the other passengers who vomited violently by the side of the road. I was glad I wasn't feeling quite that sick and that my stomach had calmed down since taking the Imodium tablets.

The ruins were about five kilometres further along the road from Moulay Idriss. I hitchhiked from here to the turning to the ruins and walked the last half kilometre or so, rejoicing at being out of the city and walking through the peace of the countryside.

Volubilis is one of the most impressive ruined cities in Morocco. This city was one of the most remote outposts of the Roman Empire, founded around 40 AD. The city sits on a large treeless plain. It is thought that it was the Romans who deforested this area in order to cultivate crops of wheat and olives. Even after the Romans left, the city remained inhabited until the 18th century, after which the marble from the city was robbed for the building of Moulay Ismail's palaces in Meknes.

Walking around the ruins there was evidence of the olive industry everywhere. In the remains of many buildings, lying in the jumble of masonry were olive presses. The channels craved into the stone presses and the collection vats were clearly visible. Some impressive buildings were still standing. These included the Triumphal Arch built in 217 AD in honour of Emperor Caracalla and to the south the Capitol and Basilica, which served as the law courts. The best monuments at this site are the buildings along the Decumanus Maximus, a road that stretches northeast up the slope from the Triumphal Arch to the Tangier Gate. Many of the houses here have fine mosaics still in situ, the most impressive being in the House of Venus. There are two mosaics here, the Abduction of Hylas by the Nymphs and Diana Bathing, which are the finest on this site and probably in Morocco.

The combination of my overnight bought of diarrhoea, the warm sunshine and a couple of hours walking around the site left me feeling exhausted. I found a quiet spot amongst the ruins and lay down and snoozed for an hour or so; I only woke when a tour group walked past the house I was sleeping in, breaking the peace and quiet. Once my head cleared and I remembered where I was, I decided it was time to make my way back to Meknes.

The last town I would visit on this trip before returning to Casablanca was Chefchaouen to the north in the Rif Mountains. The town was founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali ben Rachid, but it was the arrival of Muslim refugees from Spain that gave the town its distinctive appearance. They built whitewashed houses with doors and window frames painted in a light blue and roofs made of small hand tiles. The town feels more like a small mountain town in Spain rather than one in Morocco. The town sits on a side of a hill at the base of Jebel al-Qala'a, 1616m, and is surrounded by other peaks of the Rif Mountains.

After a good nights sleep at the hostel in Meknes, I caught a bus north to Chefchaouen. As the journey progressed I began to feel tired and by the time we were twisting our way through the valleys in the Rif Mountains a feeling of impending illness, again overcame me.

The bus station in Chefchaouen is at the edge of town at the bottom of a very steep hill. I hiked up this hill towards the medina and the Pension Mauritania, a hotel popular with travellers. In hindsight I think it was this steep climb that almost killed me. I arrived at the hotel and collapsed onto a couch in the lounge. Events beyond my control overtook me. I began to shiver uncontrollably, while breaking out into a sweat at the same time. All I could do was lie down and close my eyes, I no longer had the energy to move. The fever I was suffering from a couple of weeks ago in the High Atlas Mountains had returned, with a vengeance. What shocked me was the speed that these events had overtaken me. Five hours earlier I had walked to the bus station in Meknes feeling fine, now I could hardly stand up.

At last the owner had prepared a room for me and I struggled up two flights of stairs and crawled onto the bed and shut my eyes. I awoke in the early evening to the symptoms of an altogether more worrying problem. The diarrhoea had also returned, but this time it felt far more serious. One good bit of luck was that I still had a supply of antibiotics, which Dr Arrad had prescribed me. I took some and spent an uncomfortable night trying to sleep in between visits to the toilet, which were unfortunately on the floor below me.

By Wednesday morning I woke with the symptoms of the fever easing, the antibiotics were doing their job well. The diarrhoea had gained its own momentum, almost to the extent where life would have been easier to just permanently sit on the toilet. My next problem began to dawn on me. My flight out of Casablanca was on Friday morning. When I arrived at the bus station here I booked a ticket to Casablanca for Thursday morning, a journey of seven hours, but a journey I would have to make in order to catch my flight on Friday morning. I now had about thirty hours before I would be confined to a bus for seven hours. One way or another I had to get myself fit. I began to pop the Imodium tablets during the day, which was again spent lying in bed dreaming of better times. By the evening there was no improvement in my condition and I had also begun to hallucinate about food. It had been over 48 hours since my last meal in Meknes, which had been nothing to write home about.

As Wednesday evening turned into Wednesday night panic set in as I was still making my half hourly visits to the toilets. The bus was due to leave on Thursday morning at 07.00 and I would have to leave the hotel by 06.30 at the latest in order to walk down to the bus station. That night I woke at 05.00 for another visit to the toilet. When I got back to my room I popped yet more Imodium tablets in a last bid attempt to stop this flow and dozed again until my alarm clock began beeping at me at 06.00.

I slowly packed my luggage rather resigned to the fact that I would not be going anywhere today. After a quarter of an hour moving around my room, usually enough activity to induce a visit to the toilet, I still felt okay. When I say I felt okay I just mean that I didn't have the overwhelming urge to go to the toilet. I still felt like a wreck, extremely weak after not eating anything more than a couple of bananas and a few biscuits in the last 60 hours. At 06.30 I left the hotel and methodically walked through the quiet, dark streets to the bus station. I arrived still feeling relatively okay and now with the sudden realisation that I could make this seven hour bus journey.

Leaving Chefchaouen I felt upset that I hadn't seen anything more than the four walls of a hotel room. This was a town I was looking forward to exploring together with the surrounding mountains, but as sometimes happens while travelling on the road, other events beyond my control overtook my plans.

I had a seat at the front of the bus and didn't move until we had arrived back in Casablanca seven hours later. It was a short walk back to the medina and the youth hostel; I arrived exhausted and physically drained after the bus journey. It seemed like a long time ago that I had left this hostel and boarded a train to Marrakesh. I spent the rest of the day relaxing; I didn't have the energy to have a look at any other sites around the city. I was preparing myself for the next leg of my journey home, my flight back to Tunis tomorrow where I would spend the weekend before catching a flight back to London via Paris.

On Thursday evening I went to a local pharmacy to pick up some more drugs. The diarrhoea had stopped but my stomach was still churning away uncontrollably, especially after I ate. I tried to find a doctor in the medina but failed. The manager at the hostel was of no help and just pointed down the street. There were plenty of dentists but as far as I could see, no doctors. I had no energy to continue my fruitless search and returned to the hostel for the evening to get some rest before my flight tomorrow.

After my weekend in Tunis, staying in a fairly comfortable mid-range hotel, I caught an early morning flight back to Paris and on to London and back to winter. Once home, I had a couple of appointments to see my local doctor, as I still had not recovered fully from the bout of diarrhoea. The diagnosis was that I had suffered from dysentery. It took five weeks before my digestive system returned to normal. Over the next couple of months I heard from Trevor and Jana after they had returned to Canada. In Meknes Jana became very ill, suffering from dysentery too. I also heard of another traveller who was in Meknes at the end of 1999 and also suffered a similar fate. It appears that there was a problem with the water supply in the town.

I returned to Tunis for a weekend on my way home.

Continue reading this journey: A Postscript