When visiting Fès, Morocco, be sure to take a day trip to see the remarkably well-preserved tile mosaics of the ancient city of Volubilis.
It never occurred to me that there’d be Roman ruins in Morocco, though I suppose I knew on some level that the Roman Empire extended to Northern Africa.
But when I read about the remains of the town of Volubilis, just outside of Fès, I knew it had to make our itinerary. And, as someone obsessed with Ancient Rome — poor Duke has had to sit through countless shows about the subject — I knew a visit to Volubilis was exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday. (A lady never reveals her age. But I’m not a lady. It was my 44th.)
Even a rainy forecast wasn’t going to disappoint me.
We arranged a day trip to Volubilis and Meknès through our riad. A guide led us through the twists and turns of the narrow lanes, through an ornate gate and out into a square. Our driver for the day was a friendly young guy named Hafid.
The drive wasn’t what we expected. I’m not sure what we thought the Moroccan countryside would look like but we were pleasantly surprised to pass through rolling green and golden hills dotted with green poofs of trees.
A half-hour or so later, we arrived at Volubilis. Hafid asked if we wanted a guide to the site and we decided we did. Boy, were we glad we made that choice. Our guide, Rashid (which I learned appropriately means “rightly guided”) was a complete comedian. He’d walk through the ruins, his hands in his pockets, the bright red hood up on his stylish black coat. Rashid, who was obviously very knowledgeable about the site, spoke in short sentences, everything layered with a dry wit. Like bullet bursts of naughty poetry.
“Carpe diem,” Rashid said. “Roman motto. Short lives. Lived life to fullest.”
We clamored over the damp grass to the remains of a nouveau riche home opposite the town baths. Rashid pointed to what was once a bathroom.
“Bulemics. Vomitoriums. Feather to tickle the throat. They vomit. Eat more.”
He pointed across the way. “Then happy ending. At brothel. Secret passage from hammam to brothel.”
We learned that the structures of Volubilis amazingly had heated floors and plumbing. Unfortunately, that plumbing was toxic.
“Romans all crazy,” Rashid said, his face a mask revealing no emotion. “Lead poisoning. Pipes.”
As we walked along a muddy path, Rashid pointed to wildflowers.
“Morning glory. Very pretty weed. We call it ‘mile-a-minute.’ Grows very fast. It’s what Volubilis means.”
I didn’t know if I should believe everything Rashid told us. But I was also too entertained to worry too much about veracity. I’ve always been a huge proponent of Why let the truth get in the way of a perfectly good story?
Atop the crest of a small hill, we turned in a circle, surveying the landscape.
“Strategic location,” Rashid explained. “Water. Wheat. Olive. What more you need?” He put his head down and began descending the hill. We could barely hear him add, “Chocolate.”
Rashid was obviously very proud of this little-known historic site.
“Like Tuscany,” he said, his chest swelling ever so slightly. “Who would know this is Morocco? No one. If they do not come. Everyone should see Volubilis.”
The rain came down in spurts. Duke, trying to look on the bright side, pointed out that the site was probably a lot less crowded due to the inclement weather.
“We should pray to Apollo for the sun,” I said as we approached the forum, with its slender columns topped with stork nests.
“No,” Rashid said. “Jupiter was the god of the weather.” He pointed to a stone slab in the middle of a piazza. “You can make sacrifice. Goat or sheep.”
“We should have brought one,” I said.
Rashid commented, “Yes. Barbecue.”
The site is most famous for its mosaics. These are remarkably well-preserved, especially those in the wealthier part of town, away from the hammam and the nouveau riche home. The rich didn’t need easy access to the public baths — they had their own.
Frankly, I’m astounded these mosaics haven’t been completely picked apart. They’ve been here in the middle of the countryside for centuries, with no security, nothing to stop pillagers. Imagine having a Roman ruin remaining relatively untouched for so long. I was giddy with excitement.
One of the mosaics features Diana, the goddess of the hunt, bathing. When the poor fellow Actaeon came upon her, and saw the goddess nude, she punished him by turning him into a stag. He was torn apart by his own hounds.
“Oh, deer!” Rashid said as he finished the story, and Duke and I burst out laughing.
After we had toured the mosaics, Rashid got a mischievous glint in his eye. “Come, come,” he said. “I saved the best for last.”
We hurried after him, wondering what he was up to. “You’ll see,” he said. “Best site in all of Volubilis.”
He stopped and turned around, blocking a rectangular stone. He almost cracked a smile as he moved to the side in a dramatic reveal.
There before our eyes was a carving of what was undeniably a huge penis.
Rashid explained that this marker designated the brothel. I of course couldn’t resist. I straddled the stone while Duke took a picture.
“Great photo,” Rashid said, utterly deadpan. “Can be your Christmas card.”
If he only knew that wasn’t so far-fetched. –Wally