I didn't sleep well last night - hot room, hard mattress, traffic noise, too much caffeine - and it was inevitable that I'd fall asleep on the bus on our first leg of driving. The bus is modern and big and spacious, and our group is small enough that everyone can have their own row of seats with plenty of room left over. The sun was shining brightly on my side, so I pulled the curtain and dozed off.
We stopped at a rest stop for a bathroom break, and I grabbed some sugar to wake me up a bit. It worked, and I got to enjoy the scenery of the Marmora Forest (cork oak trees; Morocco is the third largest exporter of cork) and the olive groves and fields of grapes. We drove through Meknes - an imperial city and the country's wine and olive center. It was very Mediterranean terrain, and the city was pleasant and welcoming. But that wasn't our destination. We headed past the town of Moulay Idriss (named for the great-grandson of Mohammed who fled Iraq during the Abbasid massacre and sought refuge in Morocco). Idriss was found and killed by the caliph of Baghdad, but his legacy of Islam and a Muslim dynasty were there to stay.
Next we arrived at the Roman city of Volubilis. Mostly destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, French and now Moroccan archaeologists are excavating and reconstructing parts of the site as well as preparing to bring artifacts removed back to their place. We started on top of the ridge under a carob tree (the beans, when dried, were used as a measuring weight) and toured the various houses, public spaces, and interesting features of the city. Perhaps most impressive were the several mostly intact floor mosaics from the different houses and public spaces. The aquarium featured Neptune and an array of sea creatures; one house had the 12 laboratory of Hercules; others portrayed Bacchus or Dionysus or even Medusa. It was a spectacularly sunny, brisk day, perfect for clambering among the ruins and enjoying the views.
We ate lunch at a restaurant in Meknes - tasty, cheap, fast food - and then were back on the road to Fez. As we arrived and drove down the main boulevard in the Ville Nouvelle we encountered a parade for Berber New Year, complete with floats and music and dancing. We didn't have time to stop and watch, but it was a little slice of flavor that we might have otherwise missed entirely.
Before checking into the hotel we drove to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the ancient Fez medina, which dates to 808. The 'new' medina is from the fourteenth century and houses the Jewish Quarter we'd visit the next day. Our hotel was in the new city, the French quarter.
After a siesta break we loaded up again and headed to the home of a local family for dinner. We weren't quite sure what to expect (it's a new feature for this tour company), but it was casual and very welcoming and a delight. The father and his daughter (12 years old, fluent English after only a year of study!) rotated tables, explaining the food and traditions and answering questions. His wife did the cooking - fantastic Moroccan fare - and intermittently checked on us to see how things were going. This really was a lovely bonus; it can always go either way with this sort of thing, and I was impressed at the level of comfort for both the family and the (many) guests. We all ate well, laughed a lot, and learned from each other. Isn't that what travel is all about?
|View of the village of Moulay Idriss|
|Volubilis had fabulous views of the surrounding countryside|
|Mosaic at the aquarium|
|The remaining mosaics are fabulous|
|The bathroom facilities - stones to keep feet dry as you walked, troughs with seats|
|Reconstructed olive press|
|Some very ornate columns and toppers|
|One of the gates to the city|
|Mosaic in one of the homes, depicting an acrobat riding a donkey backwards|
|The guide was very good at posing right in front of whatever he was talking about...|