Now it was time to leave Fes. The only part I had not seen yet was the new city, which I planned to visit briefly when I picked up my hire car in the morning. As it turned out, I saw more of the new city than I expected. On arrival at the office of Europcar, I found cables and wires everywhere and an apologetic manager, who promised that their IT system would be fixed in ten minutes.
So I went for a stroll; the new city was a complete change to the Medina, with modern buildings and a broad main avenue lined with palm trees.
On my return to Europcar, I was asked to wait another ten minutes, so I went and had coffee in the café next door. Drinking coffee and watching the world go by is a Moroccan pastime, and the coffee is extremely good. Twenty minutes later Europcar had still not solved their problem; I waited a bit more in their office and then suggested they provide a car from their airport branch. More waiting, for someone to come to pick me up, and then a surprisingly long drive to get to the airport. I finally got my car over an hour after I had arrived in their downtown office.
I drove down an empty motorway as far as Meknes, then along smaller country roads to the small town of Moulay Idriss, where I had booked a room in a family-run guesthouse. The hosts were hospitable, as everywhere in Morocco, and it was interesting to see how they lived. I was the only guest and so they let me choose my room. Covid had hit the Moroccan tourism industry hard – most hotels were closed for two years, and people who had worked in the tourist industry received only 200€ support from the government for the entire period.
My main reason for coming to Moulay Idriss was to visit the famous Roman ruins of Volubilis, but the town itself is listed in Lonely Planet as one of the highlights of the region. On first sight, there was little of interest, and even my host expressed some surprise when I said I planned to explore. It was a typical small Moroccan town, with one road running through it, a large square lined with a market and cafés, and a medina with windy lanes, where donkeys still provide the transport. It was a little run down, with donkey droppings everywhere, but at least there very few other tourists and no souvenir shops.
The key attraction of the town is the shrine of Moulay Idriss, which is a key pilgrimage site for Moroccans. He was a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who fled Mecca in the 8th Century, arrived in Morocco, converted the local population to Islam, and founded the first major dynasty of Moroccan kings. The tomb and its surrounding mosque cannot be visited by non-Muslims, but instead you can clamber up a steep hill to reach a terrace from where you can see the complex from above. I refused the services of the many guides who were hanging around and found my own way up in the baking heat of the mid-afternoon.
I arrived back at my guest house soaked in sweat and had a rest and a shower before setting off on the very short drive to Volubilis. The site was occupied by the Berbers from the 3rd century BC but became a Roman town in the 1st century AD, and most of the ruins that can be seen today date from the 2nd century. I arrived at six, and it was still 32C with a blazing sun. This site had little cover, so I made my way slowly, stopping often in the shade of cypress trees or ruined Roman columns. It was a nice place, but not quite as impressive as I had expected for somewhere that is ranked alongside Fes as one of Morocco’s top attractions.
As the afternoon wore on though, Volubilis grew on me. The ruins lie in a grassy field amidst rolling, fertile countryside, with a view of the bright white buildings of Moulay Idriss in the background. As the evening came and the temperature dropped, I began to enjoy wandering around to see what I could find – quickly realising that buildings whose entrances were roped off usually housed pretty mosaics. The sun was slowly sinking to the horizon, and a pleasant breeze started. I could now sit comfortably on a small hill and enjoy the sight of the ruins from a distance, amidst fields of long grass waving in the wind.
I drove back to my guesthouse and enjoyed watching the sunset from my terrace on the top floor. For dinner, my hosts had prepared a huge tagine of vegetables and chicken. I managed to eat it all and climbed the four floors back to my room with some difficulty before collapsing into bed and falling fast asleep.