The two week mark has come and passed, and we were all ready to explore beyond the city. ALIF took eleven of us by bus to Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, and Meknes—about an hour south of Fes. The weather was refreshingly cool and overcast. Such a welcome respite! We wound through phenomenal mountain ranges, leaving the craze that is Fes far behind in place of this serenity (see photo) and were left at Volubilis with a flamboyant Moroccan tour guide. Centrally and strategically positioned under the protection of fertile, towering mountains, Volibulis was the Roman empire’s farthest flung capital something like 2,000 years ago. We explored Morocco’s best preserved and most impressive roman ruins and tried to wrap our minds around the archeological treasures under our feet—from beautiful, expansive mosaic flooring depicting mythological scenes to remnants of the public bath, basilica and forum. Appreciating the sensibility of Roman urban planning was very cool.
Next stop: Moulay Idriss. This gem of a town nestled in the side of a mountain is considered “the poor man’s Mecca.” Home of Morocco’s most sacred shrine (the tomb of founding father Moulay Idriss), five pilgrimages there are the spiritual equivalent of one to Mecca. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed in the tomb (and until recently weren’t even allowed to spend the night in the town!). Our guide pointed out Morocco’s only cylindrical minaret hidden in the steep twisting streets. It’s decorated with green ceramic tiles readings parts of the Quran. The pace of life in Moulay Idriss was much slower than in Fes, but donkeys, trash, stray cats, and colorful narrow streets were ubiquitous.
Final destination: the “Versailles of North Africa,” Meknes. Like Moulay Idriss, Meknes was a smaller, calmer, more provincial, and more manageable version of Fes, but it is also a UNESCO world heritage site. It was founded in the 11th century and is a beautifully intact medieval city full of palaces, gardens, fortresses, gates, squares and mosques by Sultan Moulay Ismail. We wolfed down a colorful salad (so satisfying) and chicken tagine on the roof of a cafe before having some time to wander around Bab Mansour and Place el-Hedime. We meandered through the shops, artisan studios, and food stalls. Just like in Fes, the ephemeral meticulously-stacked olive displays always impress me. I bought this crazy green lipstick (like yours, Cheryl!) that turns pink on your lips as well as a pumice stone for scrubbing my feet in the hammam! We then saw Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum and the haunting Prison of the Christian Slaves.
Overall, the day was exhausting but the geometrically enthralling designs—from the Roman mosaics to the colossal gates in Meknes and the fountains in Moulay Idriss—made it all worthwhile. Here’s to much more exploring of al-magrib!