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The undoubted highlight of this region is Fez, the city that has for the past ten centuries stood at the heart of Moroccan history as both an imperial capital and an intellectual as well as spiritual centre. Unique in the Arab world, Fez boasts as many monuments as Morocco’s other imperial capitals put together, while the latticework of souks, extending for over a mile, maintain the whole tradition of urban crafts.
Neighbouring Meknes has an allure of its own, found throughout the city’s pleasant souks and the architecturally rich streets of its sprawling imperial district, a vast system of fortified walls and gates that was largely the creation of Moulay Ismail, the most tyrannical of all Moroccan sultans. Just north of Meknes, the holy mountain town of Moulay Idriss and the impressive Roman ruins of Volubilis make for a rewarding day-trip.
Though many people heading south from Fez take a bus straight to either Marrakesh or Er Rachidia, it is worth stopping off en route to explore the cedar-covered slopes and remote hinterlands of the Middle Atlas. The most popular route passes through the Berber market town of Azrou to emerge, via Beni Mellal and the dramatic Cascades d’Ouzoud, at Marrakesh.
Alterntaively, you could cut southeast from Azrou towards Midelt before descending through the Ziz Gorges to Er Rachidia and the vast date-palm oases of the Tafilalt. In between Beni Mellal and Midelt, and accessible from both, lies Imilchil, home to Morocco’s most famous festival and the midway point along a tortuous route across the High Atlas to the Todra Gorge and Tinghir.
Cut in two by the wide river valley of the Oued Boufekrane, MEKNES is a prosperous city with a notably relaxed and friendly atmosphere, due in part to a large student population. Monuments from its past, particularly the extraordinary creations of Moulay Ismail, justify a day or two’s rambling exploration, as do the varied and busy souks of its Medina – a uniquely well-preserved combination that have earned the entire city a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Visitors en route to Fez will find Meknes a good introduction to the drama of its illustrious neighbour, while those arriving from Fez are sure to enjoy the reduced tempo.
An easy excursion from Meknes, Volubilis and Moulay Idriss embody much of Morocco’s early history: Volubilis as its Roman provincial capital, Moulay Idriss in the creation of the country’s first Arab dynasty. Their sites stand 4km apart, at either side of a deep and very fertile valley, about 25km north of the city.