So we were picked up for our Volubilis day trip by Khamal from Meknes, in his car that seemed even more clapped out than yesterday now that we had hills to chug up and corners to negotiate. We took roundabouts in far too high a gear, sometimes stopping half way round (or occasionally right on top) to take a call on the mobile phone, or to have a friendly chat with the local policeman. There always seemed to be policemen standing on roundabouts. We were therefore somewhat surprised when we eventually arrived at Volubilis in less than an hour…
A Volubilis Day Trip
Being a bit of a history geek I’d had my eye on doing a Volubilis day trip for some time, and when we finally made it to the east of Morocco in October after several previous trips to the west, it was at the top of my list, right after Chefchaouen. We were staying in nearby Meknes, so it would’ve been rude not to make our own little pilgrimage to the best preserved archaeological site in Morocco.
Volubilis is a UNESCO world heritage site, a partly excavated Roman city between Meknes and Fes. As always, the Romans did well with their location, the city being built on fertile agricultural plains and prospering from local olive production – apparently the Moulay Idriss and Volubilis area is famous for it’s olives. Did you know not only are there green and black olives, there are also red and WHITE olives. And some are the size of a fist! Hubbie and I thought our driver Khamal was joking about the latter, but as our disbelieving laughter subsided we noticed that in the rear view mirror his eyes weren’t smiling. We’d just insulted one of his country’s main exports. Since neither hubbie nor I actually like olives (rather an inconvenience as we visit Morocco a lot!), we can perhaps be forgiven our ignorance.
The history bit…
Volubilis was initially a Phoenician settlement, built in the 3rd Century BC by this Semitic civilisation remembered for their maritime trading prowess. I know, situated in the middle of the country, the site would never have exactly been a ‘Volubilis-on-Sea’. I don’t make the rules! Called the ‘Traders in Purple’ they were famous for their monopoly on the dye of the Murex snail which was used to colour the clothing of the Royal family. But I digress…
Volubilis thrived under Roman rule from the 1st Century BC, growing to over 40 hectares and boating all the key elements of a Roman city – a basilica, triumphal arch and a temple.
Still impressive all these years later
All very impressive, but what stuck me the most were the mosaic floors in what were once rather magnificent town houses. Left open to the fierce sunlight for centuries, with no protection except a few bits of old rope to deter the more disrespectful tourists, these floors have been preserved so well that they could’ve been created just fifty years ago.
The Volubilis mosaics were mostly in houses at the posh end of town – you can tell it’s the posh end because it’s at the top of the hill…the wealth status of inhabitants declined with the gradient, in the general direction of the flow of effluent down the main street!.
The city fell to local tribesmen around 280AD and eventually became an early Islamic settlement and the seat of Moulay Idris ibn Abdallah, the founder of Morocco’s first imperial dynasty. Although the Roman hold on Volubilis didn’t survive, the remaining structures still stand stubborn and proud against the skyline.
In the 11th Century Volubilis was abandoned as the seat of power transferred over to Fes, and most of the inhabitants moved to the new hill town of Moulay Idriss (left), about 3 miles from Volubilis.
It is considered the most holy of places in all of Morocco. Apparently if Moroccan Muslims can’t make their haj to Mecca, they can instead visit Moulay Idriss five times during their lifetime.
If you’re doing a Volubilis day trip then it’s well worth stopping at Moulay Idriss too. Not many people do. Indeed when we visited we were pretty much the only foreigners there, surrounded by citizens making their way towards the grand mosque, and the odd donkey earning it’s next meal.
We enlisted the services of a local lad to lead us up the narrow winding maze of alleys (if you can’t beat them join them, right?) to see this pretty impressive view below…
The Volubilis ruins were devastated by an earthquake during the 18th Century and then looted for stone for the building of Meknes, and it wasn’t until the 20th Century French rule of Morocco that Volubilis was excavated and partially restored to it’s current state.
Tips for a Volubilis day trip
- Entrance to Volubilis costs DH20 per person,without a guide.
- Go early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day (and the tour groups who arrive by the coach load) – there’s virtually no shade and you need a couple of hours to really do the site justice.
- There are guides in straw hats waiting for you at the entrance who can be hired for around DH150 for around an hour. You don’t need one if you’re happy wandering around by yourself, but they do know a lot about the site and many speak enough English to be worthwhile. There are very few information boards or signs in the complex if you go it alone. The Lonely Planet guide book has a decent map and information for those who like us, prefer to bumble around at our own pace.
- There are toilets and a café in the modern building at the bottom of the site.
- Take some water. You’ll need it.
Tips for visiting Moulay Idriss
- There’s not much to do here, but the view from the top of the town is stunning and well worth the climb. To get up to the top, make your way to the main square lined with cafes and food stalls, and follow the straggling line of Moroccans making their way up to the grand mosque. As you pass under the archway, turn immediately to the left and walk up through another archway, winding your way up the alleys until you find a spot you like for your photos.
- There will be several local lads offering to show you the way with a ‘free’ guided tour on the way. You by no means have to take them up on their offer, but in the end we did because we had no idea which way to go. And we were glad we did because our chap showed us to a little hillside terrace with great panoramic views which we certainly wouldn’t have found by ourselves. Of course once we were back at the bottom he demanded an extortionate amount (DH250!) for his twenty minutes, and then mouthed off at us pretending to be insulted when we gave him DH40, a fair and probably generous amount. I hate the anticipation of ending a visit on a sour note like that, but you just know it’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. Either way one side of the party was going to be left disgruntled. And it damn well wasn’t going to be us!
You can visit both Volubilis and Moulay Idriss on a day trip from Meknes or Fes. Through our riad in Meknes we arranged to hire a car and driver for the day, and paid DH350. We did find prices to be slightly lower in Meknes as far fewer tourists visit here than Fes.