Found in Translation: Day 2 in Fes, Meknes, and Volublis

One of the very best parts about our riad, which I have decided is Le Bijou de Fez (the Jewel of Fez), is that we have a whole suite to ourselves, and, by chance, an entire wing, as we are the only guests at the moment. We have two bedrooms with their own bathrooms, a shared courtyard with poofs and teapots, and a lounge, and access to 2 levels of rooftop terrace. We finished our day yesterday in our courtyard with a pot of mint tea, and it is where I am sitting now with another pot, writing this post.


This morning, Keith, Isa, and I set off with our driver Brahim for some tours outside Fes; Sarah wasn’t feeling so well and stayed behind with her stack of Moroccan-based books. We drove 2 hours to Volublis, a UNESCO World Heritage site that boasts some fascinating Roman ruins. Yes, Romans, a good 6 hours’ drive in from the coast of North Africa!


We met our guide Youness, and realized quickly that his English was not so good. When he realized I spoke French, he said, “Oh thank goodness! I was so worried. I give you the tour in French, and you translate for the guys.” There were a few concerns here:

  1. I am terrible with numbers and counting in French, and Youness was throwing out a LOT of dates.
  2. I didn’t study history in French, so I don’t exactly have the vocabulary for obscure Latin nouns and Roman gods.

Still, we persevered, and even though I am sure I didn’t give the guys the 100% correct information, we still got a pretty good tour.


In very brief, the town began to be settled by tribes in the 3rd century BC, then was taken by the Romans and set up as a capital city of Mauritania. After the Romans left, the city continued ot be inhabited for centuries, but emptied little by little, especially as stones were taken to biuld the nearby Moulay Idriss and Meknes. By the 14th century it was almost deserted, and what little was left standing was flattened by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Archaelogical excavation only began in 1915. and was ongoing when we werre there – they’ve only excavated 15 of the 42 hectares of the city.


What was most interesting to me was the progression and confluence of cultures, kingdoms, and religions. The intricate mosaics on the floors, many of them intact, depected Greek and Roman gods, but the borders looked disintcly like those you would see in Berber carpets today. Our guide explained that Berbers are known not only for their carpets but also mosaics, and they are in fact the same motifs. There was evidence of Greek/Roman mythology, Christianity, Islam, and even Judaism. It just served to remind me how connected we all are through history and culture – now, cultures language, and religions appear in distinct, but if you look closely you can see where they touch and overlap.

After Volublis, we drove by nearby Moulay Idriss, a holy Muslim town just up the hill from Voublis. It was here that Moulay Idriss arrived with Islam in 789, and the town relaims one of the holist places in Morocco. There are no movie theatere or swimming pools, and non-Muslims were not even allowed to stay overnight until 2005.

IMG_20160329_135657923The town of Moulay Idriss

At this point, we were hot, hungry, and tired, so we drove to Meknes for a lunch overlooking the Medina. It was here that the day started to dwindle, as our driver Brahim wasn’t really a guide, and merely dropped us off at a few sites without offering much in the way of context. We visited the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the few secred sites in Morocco open to non-Muslims. The building, formerly the Palais de Justice, is beautifully decorated and serene, but I could not tell you much more than that.




Then we were off the the grainery, where food, water, and horses were stored. You may think this sounds dull, and we did too, but the building was quite impressive and could hold 12,000 horses. Our guide rushed us through and we practically jogged to keep up, but he did have a woman through some orange water and light some candles around the well to cast out the jinns and spirits, and told me I had the dark eyes of a Berber girl. Between the eyes and the haggling, I seem to be taking on more and more characteristics of the locals.



IMG_20160329_162749614We were ready to head back, but I begged for a few moments to explore the medina. The main square boasted trick monkeys, horses, and our first snake charmer, and both Keith and Isa kept a wide berth. We wound through the streets for just a few moments, which only made me wish I knew more about Meknes. I suppose I’ll have to learn about it after the fact.

IMG_20160329_165124673_HDR IMG_20160329_165242266_HDR

It was a short drive back to Fes, where we found Sarah feeling much better. She and Isa left with Brahim to check out a local pottery collective, and Keith and I stayed back to relax here in the courtyard and sip mint tea. I also wanted to catch the sunset from the uppermost rooftop terrace of our riad, because from there we could see in all directionsover Fes. I googled “Sunset time in Fes today” and saw that it was 7:38. I looked at my phone. 7:39! I flew up the stairs to the rooftop, camera in hand. As it turns out, the sun sets behind the mountain near Fez, so the colors weren’t spectacular, although the view was beautiful.


However, what I forgotabout being in a Muslim country is that sunset also means the call to prayer. As the sun set lower and street ights began to click on, the first mosque sent out its call, and soon the others joined in, and it was a cacophony of hazan over the city. Finally the last one dwindled, the mosque’s speakers quieting, and all you could hear over Fes was birdsong. Prom my perch on top of my riad in the Medina, it was one of those moments I knew I would remember forever.

This stillness, however, was indicative of an important fact we had previously not known: the medina closes down by 8pm. We thought we could go out whenever and grab a light bite for supper – not so. Luckily, the riad staff took care of us, and called to a medins restaurant to come pick us up and return us to our door afterwards. Sarah called it the Moroccan version of takeout, only it wasn’t the food that was being delivered, but the people.

And why could we not get to the restaurant ourselves, you ask? Because the medina was designed expressly to confuse foreigners. No, really. The city was designed as a maze, so that foreign invading armies would become hopelessly lost once they entered the Medina. It serves the same purpose for tourists. As soon as you enter the medina, the light is cut off by the buidlings above, and the alleys, about 5 ft wide, are in constant motion.


Once you enter and make a few turns, you lose all sense of direction, and so city guides are a necessity. The hotel comes and collects us each day in the parking lot, and delivers us to and from destinations if we ask. If you do become lost, you can always approach a local and ask them to guide you somewhere, and give them 10 or 20 dirhams to thank them.

IMG_20160328_193716573Yes, that is a cow head in front of the butcher’s shop. We also saw goat, sheep, and camel heads.

Our guide for dinner, Said, led us through darkeing streets with shops closing up, and we talked of the Moroccan education system. We dined in a former imam’s palace on cold salads and harira, the traditional Moroccan soup, and I sheepsihly asked Said if we could take home the leftovers, because they were so good and we did not want them to go to waste. We now have a picnic waiting for us in the riad fridge, and plan to eat it on the rooftop terrace for dinner tomorrow, our last night in Fes.

Tomorrow, we will have our cooking class! For now, it is time for bed.

2 comments on “Found in Translation: Day 2 in Fes, Meknes, and VolublisAdd yours →

  1. Wonderful tour for us today! Felt sorry that Sarah wasn’t feeling well and missed part of the day. Particularly interested in the photo (just before the cow head [btw..eeewwww!]) that shows the corner of the building in its several layers of construction. Old stone under the newer cement (or whatever the material is). To me that’s indicative of the continuity of the area and the many years past. Ahhhhh, antiquity!

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