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Last week, we decided to take a trip up to Fes and Volubilus.

3 and hill

Donn and I have been to Fes before, but it was the kids’ first trip. We were visiting friends, planning to tour Fes’ enormous ancient medina and maybe visit the deep caves in Taza, a couple of hours north. We needed to plan round the different rhythms that govern day and night during Ramadan, which means that shops open very late and close earlier than normal. You don’t want to be out in the hour before sunset, when everyone is racing desperately to get home in time to eat the second that call to prayer floats out into the rosy twilight, and you take your life in your hands if you are anywhere near a road.

We got up to Fes in time for a late lunch with our friends, and let the afternoon get away from us as we sat and chatted. It was late afternoon by then, too late to attempt the medina, so instead we drove up past it, up into the hills, to visit the graves of the Marinids (an Arab dynasty that ruled Morocco from 1269-1420) from which there is a lovely view of the city nestled into its surrounding hills and olive groves. We wandered round, photographed, admired the view, found a weird hole opening into the side of the hill which freaked me out a little (was it a grave? Or what? It was apparently being used as a rubbish dump, but there were stones in it—and rooms.) The kids wanted to explore it but I thought better not, especially without a flashlight.


Looking over the ancient medina of Fes, the largest non-automobile area in the world. Just beyond it and to the right lies the modern city, paved and with cars and roundabouts and fountains and fruit shops and McDonalds.

tombs of marinads

Ancient monument

twins and ruins and graffitti, too

Ancient monument with modern children and graffiti.

The next day, we set off much later than intended for Volubilus. Volubilus is a Roman town, started by 300 BC if not earlier. It was a thriving little metropolis set amongst vineyards and rolling hills until about 300 AD, when it began to decline. By 600 or so, it was deserted, and now it is just a collection of columns and arches and mosaic floors and lizards and tourists and piles of rocks bearing witness to the passage of time. It has a ruined temple, forum and triumphal arch, bearing witness to Octavius’ decision to grant tax-free status to the village. Uh, yeah. Those were exciting times.

sudden lake

We drove hours through a tan countryside–wheat-coloured, straw-coloured–and then turned a corner and saw this enormous lake!

We had a map and directions from our friend, so we decided to attempt the back road. I’m so glad we did. Morocco is full of charming vistas off the autoroutes, of sleepy hamlets reachable only by donkey, of sudden lakes blooming blue out of a baked tan landscape, of rolling hills moulded by groves of olive trees, of herds of sheep blocking the one-lane road you are treacherously bouncing along, of the skinny fingers of minarets poking above the tops of the hills. We weren’t entirely sure that the tiny potholed lane we were on was actually the one printed on the map when we came upon this village, built into a ravine, glowing in the late afternoon sunlight. I fell in love with it; I thought it was so charming. (The children did not fall in love and hope to continue to live in a place where American fast food is available in case someday their parents actually let them eat it)

love village

Eventually we made it to Volubilus. Abel came into his own. For some reason, he loves Roman history, and he chatted away about Roman baths and triumphal arches. He and Ilsa ran around shouting “COME! SEE THIS! HURRY!” as the rest of us moved with agonizing slowness, at least in their eyes.

Our friend had told us to bring water to rinse off the mosaics. It was good advice. The mosaics are roped off, but I leaned over and splashed what I could. We sat back and watched as pinks and reds and olive greens bloomed under the layer of dust. But we didn’t have much water with us, so were limited in what we could do.

dusty mosaics

I took this to show you how the mosaics looked without water.

hercules and the lion

This is one splashed with water. Notice the brighter colours. Both this and the previous picture were part of the same floor, showing the 12 labours of Hercules.

acrobat mosaic

This was in a different part of the village. Its humourous description of a man riding his donkey backwards earned it the name “The Acrobat’s House.”

We pretty much had the place to ourselves, except for a busload of tourists who walked through the temple area at one point, then went on to the triumphal arch, while we continued to explore at our own pace.

tourists and temple

Tourists and temple


Some sort of bath, I believe

house of columns

This was called “The House of Columns.”


I believe this was the entrance to the market.

stork nest on pillar

Stork’s nest on pillar.

ruins and hills

The hills beyond the ruins.



September 2009

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