Holy Moulay - make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Moulay Idriss
There is a special kind of sound that comes from an excitable donkey. A high pitched, frantic honk which, when made with enough force and effort, can echo off mountains. This I discovered is the morning call in Moulay Idriss, the 'peaceful' mountain town in northern Morocco I'd escaped to for some much needed peace and quiet. I had driven out of Fez the previous day, both delighted and exhausted by the ancient imperial city, and my first glimpse of the small, white washed buildings of Moulay Idriss had appeared on the horizon like a mirage of calmness, a two hour drive and a world away from the frenetic city streets I'd been exploring for days.
Perched precariously on a steep mountain side at the foot of the Atlas Mountains surrounded by olive groves, Moulay Idriss holds a special place in the hearts of the Moroccan people. And deservedly so. It was here that the town's namesake, Moulay Idriss I, settled way back in AD789 introducing Islam to Morocco and beginning one of the greatest family dynasties in the country's history. The great, great, great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Moulay Idriss is considered one of the founders of modern Morocco, and the town he called home is held so sacred that up to 2005, non-muslim visitors were not allowed to stay overnight. Edith Wharton visited here back in 1919 while writing her famous travel memoir, In Morocco, and accurately noted how the town was “resentful of Christian intrusion”. Luckily those days are long gone.
Moulay Idriss today is rural Morocco at it's most charming. Gloriously lacking in pushy tour guides and tourist shops, Moulay is very much an authentic working town. Wandering through the narrow, steep streets, regularly stepping aside to let a heavily laden donkey pass, I could just feel the history. Edith Wharton described how "the silence and emptiness of the place began to strike us”, and I could see her point. Variously painted bright blue and green, the solid, ancient walls lock in the silence, hiding behind them ancient riads with sunny courtyards and rooms warmed by wood fires. Tiny bakeries hidden in impossibly small gaps filled the air with the scent of freshly baked bread. As I climbed higher I passed elderly men and women dressed in long hooded Berber cloaks, children playing football in tiny spaces and donkeys tied up waiting for their owners. Two young boys eagerly ask if I want to visit the 'petit terrace'. I agreed and was hurried down more and more alleyways, up endless stairs until I arrived at a stunning view of the town and surrounding mountains, looking down at the great mausoleum of Moulay Idriss, with its roof of emerald green and gold. It was so blissfully quiet up there I could just hear the low rumble of televisions from open windows, and the distant whine of hungry stray cats.
Climbing back down to the main square, I soon discovered that this is where the action is. A bustling place encircled by strip lit cafes populated by groups of men playing cards and exchanging gossip, I ordered a sweet mint tea and watched it all, quickly realising how integral donkeys are to the whole economy of the town. They are the sole mover of things – from food and people, to gas canisters and furniture – if you want to get anything from one place to another, you will need a donkey, and everyone seemed to own one. I had breakfasted that morning with Rose, owner of Dar Zerhoune, the delightful bed and breakfast housed in a traditional Moroccan home I'd booked for my stay. One of the few ex pats to buy property in the town, Rose is a champion of the local donkey population. Paying for regular veterinary care and berating anyone she sees mistreating the animals, she said this was her way of giving back to Moulay. Without the donkeys, the town would grind to a halt, so keeping them going in turn keeps the town ticking over.
The next day I headed out early, climbing up past the impossibly pretty hill top cemetery and out onto the near deserted highway. I was headed for the ruined Roman town of Volubilis, Moulay's closest neighbour and the biggest draw to the area. A UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the third century B.C. and covering an area of nearly two miles, Volubilis is a living testament to the Roman occupation northern Morocco. Once a thriving, prosperous city of 20,000 residents, it's position at the very edge of the Roman empire meant it was always vulnerable to attack by the powerful Berber tribes of the area, and it eventually fell to them around AD270. It remained the capital of the area for centuries, well after Moulay Idriss and the arabs arrived in AD708, though he used much of the ancient Roman stone to build his new town up the road. An earthquake in the mid 18th century flattened much of what remained but today it's still a fascinating place to visit. The Basilica and huge 'Arch of Triumph' are the best preserved structures, along with the colourful mosaics built into the floors of the grander homes in the east of the city. Looking down the valley from its position on a high ridge, I could see why the Romans chose to build here, surrounded by fertile land and in the shadow of a mountain range it was perfectly placed to fend off the tribes and provide wealth and prosperity to its residents.
I hiked back through olive groves and fields as the sun began to fall. The calls to prayer from the myriad mosques of Moulay drifted down the valley, calling me back to the tranquility of this most peaceful Moroccan town. Barely touched by modernity yet so close to the thriving cities of Fez and Meknes, Moulay Idriss should be on everyone's Moroccan itinerary. You'll be glad you came.
Where to stay: Dar Zerhoune – a cosy 5 room guesthouse with a huge roof terrace and excellent food. From 40 Euros per night. www.darzerhoune.com
What to do: Visit the Roman city of Volubilis or take a dip in the local Roman baths fed by hot springs.
How to get there: an easy 2 hour drive from Fez, or arrive in a Grand Taxi from nearby Meknes in around 30 minutes.