I was really looking forward to stopping in Volubilis, the best preserved Roman ruins in Morocco. The site dates to at least 25 BC and perhaps earlier. The drive to Volubilis was only about an hour and a half and as we drove we passed through lots of farmland, olive groves and cork trees. The topography was flat for long stretches, but as we approached the turn to Meknes and Volubilis, the land became quite hilly. We passed through Meknes (we would return after the trip to Volubilis) and 20 minutes later we reached the top of a plateau and saw the ruins of Volubilis in off to the right.
At the site, I made a quick trip to the bathroom before meeting my guide, and to my horror … it was not a squat toilet. What the heck? If you have followed my previous blogs, you know I have a bit of an obsession with squat toilets. Typically at locations outside of hotels in the middle east you would find squat toilets. However, it seems like the damn French screwed things up and installed Western throughout Morocco. I would have to hope there was a squat toilet elsewhere in this country.
Disappointed, I met my guide, Rashid, and we headed off down the hill towards the ruins. Now Rashid was a very talkative fellow who apparently loved cliches. “Older than dirt” seemed to be a favorite. Nevertheless, his English was excellent and he clearly had a passion for the site and the history. Volubilis was pretty typical of most Roman ruins: grand gated entrance, victory archway, noble houses, craftsmens’ homes, bathhouse, temples a main thorughfare and a basilica. However, what set the site apart was the incredible mosaics that remained on the floor of the noble houses. My favorite, without a doubt, was the mosaic entitled “Baccus Surrounded by the Four Season”. The colours were remarkably well preserved and there were very few tiles missing. It was really remarkable considering that there was no glass or protective cover over the mosaic. (Not sure why, but Rashid was equally appalled and indicated that he thought it might have to do with cost.)
Anyway, we wandered through the site and got up close and personal with the basilica, the temple and triumphal archway. Those Romans loved to celebrate a battle victory and parade their chariots through the entrance to the city down the main thoroughfare and through the victory arch (similar to the Arch de Triomphe). It took about almost two hours to walk through the entire site, and Rashid was a wealth of knowledge about the various ruins and mosaics.
After the trip to Volubilis, we took a back road around the hillside to Meknes and made a quick stop above the town of Moulay Idris. The holy town of Moulay Idris is the location for the tomb of Moulay Idris, the great grandson of Mohammad (founder of Islam). Moulay Idris is considered the founder of Morocco as he united the Jews, Christians, Muslims and Berbers under one flag and instilled peace throughout the country. However, the tomb did not permit non-Muslims to visit the site so since I was an “infidel”, the closest I could get was a picture of the site and the town with its beautiful little white houses (as a opposed to “little pink houses”) dotting the hillside.
With pictures in hand, we drove back in the direction we had come and 20 minutes later we were in Meknes. Meknes is a college town with a Unesco World Heritage site designation. The most notable sites in Meknes are the Medina (the old city) and the gates that mark the entrance to the Medina. The city was the capital of Morocco under Sultan Moulay Ismail who reigned for 50 years until his death in 1727.
We drove through the city past the immense Muslim cemetery that is built outside the Medina walls and then through Bab Mansour, which is the huge imposing gate in impeccable condition, took five years to build and was completed in 1732. What was almost as fascinating to me was the surrounding area of the gate …. a small park like area filled with men sitting around in circles playing cards …. and not a woman in sight. Apparently, Moroccan men love to gather at sunset and play cards with their buddies. The other favorite pastime is to gather in cafes (think French cafes) and watch football (aka soccer). More about this later.
After the requisite pictures at Bab Mansour, Kareem and I drove through area of the city outside the Medina (old town) and passed by numerous palaces that continue to be used by the King. I don’t know how many this guy has, but his palaces are everywhere.
The last stop in Meknes was the Agdahl Reservoir and the adjacent Royal Stables. The reservoir was like a small lake in the middle of the city and is fed by irrigation canals 25 km long. The area surrounding the reservoir seemed to be a favorite local hangout for families to wander and as well as to sit and picnic.
Behind the reservoir was the Heri es-Souani or granaries that were built by Sultan Moulay Ismail. The granaries are in the process of being restored, but at one time were able to house grain and hay to feed the 12,000 royal horses. The granaries have massive walls and tiny windows, effectively creating cool storage conditions.
After the visit to Meknes, we got back on the narrow road two lane road to Rabat. By this point I was exhausted from a very long day. Unfortunately, the drive was not that quick even though we only covering a short 60 km. distance. We ran into a mess of traffic leaving the city and outside the city, people seemed to believe that the posted speed limit was far too fast. EVERYONE seemed to be going far, far slower than was permitted.
We eventually pulled into Fez at 7:30 p.m., picked up my guide for the next day, Khalid, and proceeded to drive to my Riad in the Medina. I couldn’t wait to get to the Riad so that I could put my feet up and relax … uh dream on.
The Medina was jammed as we searched for a parking spot. Kareem finally managed to track down the car manager (everywhere we go, a fellow appears out of nowhere and directs us to a spot in exchange for a few dirham (8 dirham to a dollar) so I have taken to dubbing these guys the car manager). Anyway, Mr. Manager found us a spot and with car parked, we hailed yet another fellow to bring a cart over and hall my luggage down through the narrow alleys that made up the Medina. Khalid, Kareem and I chased behind the fellow as he weaved in and around vendors, people and cats (which were EVERYWHERE). And this Medina was not like the Medina in Rabat. This Medina was enormous (350,000 people live and work in the Medina), the alleyways gave new meaning to the word narrow, there were people and vendors everywhere, a multitude of aromas and the noise can only be described as a cacophony of shouting in multiple languages. It was dizzying.
After what seemed like the longest walk ever (uh it was actually only ten minutes) we made a left turn and found ourselves in front of an innocuous door with a sign “Riad Laaroussa”. We rang the bell and were ushered inside away from the noise and craziness of the Medina. It was surreal to suddenly find myself in a large courtyard without a hint of the noise we had just left behind.
I was given a ridiculously large suite (with an upstairs and downstairs) adjacent to the courtyard and fountain and told that I could take dinner upstairs on the terrace if I chose. I made plans to meet Khalid at 9 the next day and with that I climbed five very steep floors to the top of the Riad, sat down and ordered a glass of wine. A few minutes later, an Aussie tour guide came over to chat and later introduced me to the two women she was escorting around the country. I ended up joining them for dinner, but can honestly say I wish I had dined alone. It is the first time in all my travels I found myself disliking an Aussie. Now the tour guide and one of the women were delightful. It was number 3 who was a real pill. She seemed completely miserable, was petrified of the Medina (it is a little overwhelming, but jeesh lighten up lady) and felt the need to one up me constantly during the conversation. (Oh you were in Iran last year … I bet you weren’t there in 1976 like I was … and on and on. Good grief.) Not sure what her problem was, but she clearly thought a lot of herself and not so much of everyone else around her. She was rude to the waitstaff and outright hostile to the tour guide. Yikes. Godspeed ladies you are going to need it.
Anyway, I finished my tangine (a Moroccan dish of meat (in this case lamb) and veggies), swilled the last of my wine and called it a night. It was bed time.