ROMAN RUINS & IMPERIAL PALACES
You’re heading out of Fez today, about an hour and a half’s drive west, on a day-trip to the extensive Roman ruins of Volubilis and to nearby Meknes, Morocco’s forgotten imperial city.
Once a colonial provincial capital, VOLUBILIS was effectively the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks mainly to its beautifully preserved floor mosaics depicting gods and myths and the bears and lions that once roamed the region. Set, strategically, on a table-top plateau, the site [open daily from 8.30am | 10dh, under-12s 3dh] enjoys a stunning location, with a vast plain, full of flowers in spring, on one side and the foothills of the Rif Mountains the other. Start early and take sun hats and plenty of water – it can get very hot and there’s little in the way of shade. Part of the enjoyment is just poking around the ruined mansions, strolling along the wide main street (where you can make out the ruts of chariot wheels) and just imagining what Roman life must have been like in this remote part of North Africa. But it can so also be well worth hiring an official guide at the visitor centre (120dh for a 1-hour tour), as their stories and historical tidbits can help bring the site to life for kids.
Following the pathway up from the visitor centre, you’ll come to the town’s monumental quarter, home to the well-preserved ruins of the sturdy BASILICA (the old courthouse), CAPITOL (a temple whose columns are topped with huge storks’ nests) and TRIUMPHAL ARCH, built 1800 year ago and dedicated to the Emperor Caracalla. The arch marks the start of the DECUMANUS MAXIMUS, Volubilis’ principal thoroughfare and the location of its wealthiest mansions – and finest mosaics. Look out for the works in the HOUSE OF EPHEBE, the first mansion on your left, which shows Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, on a chariot; the HOUSE OF THE LABOURS OF HERCULES, three mansions along; and the HOUSE OF VENUS, on the next road down, whose mosaics depict a whole variety of different myths. From this last mansion, it’s a short walk back down the hill to the visitor centre, home to artefacts discovered at the site – plus an air-conditioned café and an ice-cream stand.
Just under 45 minutes’ drive from Volubilis, MEKNES was once the country’s capital but today receives a fraction of the visitors that frequent Marrakesh and, to a lesser extent, Fez. The monumental BAB MANSOUR, aptly described (on the inscription across its frontage) as the “most beautiful gate in Morocco”, overlooks the city’s main square, a more restrained version of Marrakesh’s Jemaa el Fna. The souks behind here lack the densely packed atmosphere of the Fez medina, so your time here is best spent in the city’s Ville Imperiale, a vast walled complex that once housed over fifty palaces. Heading through Bab Mansour leads to Place Lalla Aouda and the HABS KARA [open daily except Mon until 6pm | 10dh], a series of dark vaults that reputedly served as a prison for Christian slaves. Opposite here lies the MAUSOLEUM OF MOULAY ISMAIL [closed Fri morning | free | tomb open to Muslims only], the final resting place of the sultan responsible for Meknes’ remarkable rise to prominence; the tranquil mausoleum is one of only a few active shrines in the country that are open to non-Muslims and is scheduled to reopen shortly after a two-year restoration. Finish your tour of Meknes with a ride in a horse-drawn carriage [120dh for up to six passengers | 1hr] past Ismail’s palaces and out to the sprawling HERI ES SOUANI [open daily until 6.30pm | 10dh], whose huge chambers were once used to store grain for the people of Meknes – and for the horses of Ismail’s cavalry, who were housed in the ruined stables outside.
TOP TIP The easiest way of getting to Volubilis and Meknes from Fez is to organise a car and driver through your riad, which normally costs around 800–1000dh for a family of 4. Most places will also include a trip to the holy town of Moulay Idriss, near Volubilis, but will just run to Volubilis and Meknes if requested.
WHERE TO EAT
Just up from the fondouks on Talâa Kebira, this cosy café is an unusual find for Fez, with funky murals and a creative menu that’s served up from a hole-in-the-wall kitchen at the back. They do a tasty tabbouleh and chicken pastilla, but perhaps the best thing about the food is the variation it offers, with potato wedges, curried chicken burger and chimichangas also on the menu, along with some yummy desserts. Go early, as there are only five tables inside, plus a couple of cushioned benches out on the street.
THE LIJOMA LOWDOWN
Delve deeper with our tips on what to read before you go, foods and drinks your kids must try, and some key cultural advice
From traditional dars to opulent riads – our pick of the most memorable places for families to stay in Fez
NEED TO KNOW
A handy overview of Fez’s weather and climate throughout the year, with recommendations for the best time to visit
Pre-trip practicalities, including getting there, visas and passports, health and safety and how to get around