Thu 23 Feb 2006 23:00
Thursday, 23 February.  To Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and Meknes.
After breakfast, we met our driver, Zouhir, outside and we set off to Volubilis.  He took us by the scenic route - which really was.  After a winter of much rain, the land is bright green and heavily cultivated with wheat and beans (amongst others). It is an open, rolling landscape, rising up to limestone capped hills and rocky ridges.  The sun came out and our spirits lifted and the mood was only spoilt a little by Zouhir's determination to take every blind corner on completely the wrong side of the road.  However, speeds are not great and there is willingness of oncoming vehicles to pull over on to the gravel verge without drama.  And so we arrived at Volubilis, looking down on it from a high curve on the approach road.  There has been a city here since Carthaginian times in 300BC with a Berber presence long before. However, the real Roman influence ran from 45AD to 285AD when the garrison withdrew.  It was Rome's most distant outpost and the Imperial roads ended here as successive Emperors failed to penetrate the Atlas mountains.
We refused offers of a guide and wandered slowly around the site using our own guide books.  Much more relaxing then being herded at a brisk pace whilst being haranged with a tired script!  The foundations and lower walls of many of the buildings have been uncovered, together with several mosaic floors, the main triumphal arched entry gate, many pilasters and arcading, so that one gets a very good impression of the layout and perspective of the town. After the Romans left, Latin was spoken here until c.800AD when Islam arrived. The town was lived in until the marble was stripped out for Ismail's palace.  It is filled with spring flowers and looked super in the sun, though a cold wind reminded us that we were not really out of the wood weatherwise.
We drove on to Moulay Idriss, a town built on two hills with a saddle between, looking for all the world like a bactrian camel. It is named after its founder of the same name, Morocco's most venerated saint and creator of the first Arab dynasty.  He was the great grandson of the Prophet and fled to Morocco in 787 after the Ommayad victory that split the Muslim world into Shia and Sunny sects. He also started to build Fes. Apart from the circular tower over the mosque, all tiled in green and dating from 1938, there is little to see as infidels are not allowed into his tomb.
On to Meknes, where we stopped for lunch on the edge, before driving around some of the 45k of walls built by Moulay Ismail (1672-1727). He was the fanatical tyrant who is, however revered for having brought the warring tribes together and defeated the European powers in the north, thus unifying Morocco for the first time.  He was a bloodthirsty dictator who thought nothing of decapitating the eunuch who had just helped him to mount his horse or casually crushing a builder's skull whilst inspecting his new walls.  We stopped at the old granaries- Heri es Souani- huge vaulted rooms stretching for hundreds of meters, with underground water channels to keep them cool and chain bucket wells between each store room.
On to Ismail's tomb which we were allowed into, apart from the inner sanctum.  Fine stucco work and tiling in the tomb room itself, but otherwise rather plain.  Nearby is the Bab Mansour, a magnificent tiled, principal gate to the city.  By now it was pouring with rain again so we called it a day and ,after an abortive attempt to see the old Royal stables (that could hold 12,000 horses) we headed back to Fes.  Actually, Zouhir took us to the current stables but they had shut at 5.00pm.  Dinner at a little restaurant recommended by Zouhir and run by Brigitta's email pen friend before returning to Riad Al Pacha.  We had booked in to Maison Bleu but were persuaded that it was vastly over priced.  Our little eatery was probably at the other end of the scale and we were left with having to call in to Riad Maison Bleu to apologize for not keeping our reservation.
Got back to find that the tanners had not sent Paula's belts with the shoes and bag. More phone calls.
To bed with an extra heater in the room.