We took a few side trips from Fez during our stay in Morocco. One day we spent a morning touring the surprisingly impressive site of Volubilis, the Roman Empire’s most remote outpost that was built in the third century and had as many as 25,000 people inhabiting it at one point. The region was a major center of olive oil and copper production but the settlement fell into decline and was forgotten long before the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 leveled many of the stone buildings, leaving only the Triumphal Arch standing. However, many Roman floor mosaics are amazingly well preserved and the site has been excavated enough to give visitors a brief glimpse into what life must have been like way back then.
One of the sultans in the late 700s, Moulay Idriss, built a new city in the hills above Volubilis and named it after himself. Old men in pointy-hooded chellabas, or robes, steer donkey carts along the steep narrow streets of this whitewashed town that is full of charm but not a tourist destination.
Meknes, the Fourth Imperial City
We continued on for an afternoon of exploring Meknes, the fourth imperial city of Morocco that dates to the mid-17th century. Meknes is famous for being the wine center of Morocco as well as for its miles of thick city walls, sometimes with walls inside walls. That same Moulay Idriss was a ruthless, security-obsessed ruler who built this city, too. The gates of these walls can be rather imposing affairs, and one here — the Bab Mansour — is one of the largest and most ornate in the country. It’s decorated with green and white mosaic tiles and serves as the main entrance to the old palace.
The square opposite is a gathering place for local merchants and shoppers and leads into the souk, or market, that features an array of beautifully displayed candies, olives, spice piles, nuts and dates. The souk also is the place to find meat, with such exotic treasures as cow heads (with fur still attached) and hooves (naked and pale), whole sides of beef, organs and tripe of every stripe; or if you prefer your meat fresher you can buy a clucking chicken or nose-wiggling rabbit to take home for your dinner table.