Fes & Volubilis
On Saturday, our program took a day trip to the cities Fes and Volubilis. While these two cities are not far from each other, they each have a very different feeling. Volubilis is home to the remains of an ancient Roman city. It’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is still being excavated to this day.
We took a tour of Volubilis in the morning, when it was still fairly quiet. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Walking around the ancient ruins of a great empire was awe- inspiring. We saw the public square, the temple (including the alter where animal sacrifices took place), an olive press, and the reconstructed homes of wealthy Romans. The Colosseum of Volubilis still hasn’t been recovered. Our guide explained that researchers know approximately where it should be, but are working to get more funding to be able to uncover and restore the remaining parts of the ancient city. The ruins already cover a rather large area, so the full reconstruction would be massive. Volubilis was once home to about 20,000 people.
As with most things, it’s difficult to do justice to the experience of seeing Volubilis in real life. While approaching the town from the road, the ancient ruins look small and frankly, disappointing. However, once you walk past the exhibits and into the actual town, you realize just how large and impressive Volubilis is. The surrounding country is an incredibly beautiful agricultural area. Olives are grown in the area to this day.
After our tour of Volubilis, we all got back on the bus for the two hour drive to Fes. Driving around Morocco is very interesting, and is both more fun and more frustrating than driving through the country back home. On the plus side, the scenery in Morocco is breathtaking. Meknes is located near the base of the Middle Atlas Mountain range, and so any trip in the surrounding area is really beautiful. However, the infrastructure of Morocco is a reminder that it is still a developing country. Most of the roads are two-lane, and there’s a significant lack of modern highways. This results in our giant bus being frequently passed as it strains to get up the winding, mountainous roads. Of course, we always get where we’re going eventually.
Once in Fes, lunch was our first priority. Our program directors recommended Cafe Clock, a hidden gem in the heart of the old city. We ate on the terrace, which gave a beautiful view of the medina from above. My roommate Erin shared her camel burger with me, and I gave her some of my falafel and hummus plate. We washed it down with fresh mint lemonade. It was delicious- probably the best hummus I’ve had so far.
After a relaxing meal, the group took a tour of the Fes medina and souks. Again, I was glad to be with a guide on this trip. After touring the medinas of Marrakech, Meknes, and now Fes, they start to blend together. Each city has its specialty (for example, Fes is known for high-quality leather) but they sell essentially the same goods and generally look very similar. Once you’ve seen one or two of the old-style markets, you’ve probably seen enough to get a feel for all of them. I’d like to come back to Fes to see the new part of the city, especially since it’s so close (only about an hour by train) to Meknes.
Fes is famous for its tanneries, and we had the opportunity to see one up close. We also saw a pottery and ceramics shop, as well as a traditional loom in use at a textile shop. The tanneries do have a pungent smell, but it’s not too bad, especially as there’s also open halal butcher shops in the souks. As we were with our directors, we were able to see parts of the city that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Fes does see more tourists than Meknes, which was evidenced by the more aggressive shopkeepers and higher prices. We were outraged that the camel burger was 95 dirham (even though that’s a comparable $9.50 USD) because we can get a meal here in Meknes for 50 or even 30 dh. That’s one thing I do appreciate about living in a smaller city.
We had a great time in Fes and Volubilis, and we were all pretty tired by the end of the long day. It was especially nice to get out of the city for the morning and to walk around outside for a bit. On Sunday, I finally went to the McDonald’s in Meknes. I’ve been told that students sometimes get sick after eating there, so I just got the fries. Even though it’s almost the same as back home, it was fun to see the differences and similarities of this ubiquitous chain here in Morocco. The prices are also pretty similar to the U.S. After that, Sophie and I met up with some of our friends from the Ifrane trip for a few hours. It was nice to see them once again!
Finally, I can’t believe that it’s already been nearly a month since arriving to Morocco. In some ways, it feels like I just got here yesterday. On the other hand, those first few days in Casablanca and Marrakech feel like forever ago. I’ve been speaking and reading French every day, which has been both empowering and humbling! I’m definitely proud to be functionally fluent, but there’s still so much to learn. Even though I sometimes don’t understand certain words or rapid-fire speech, I can confidently go shopping, order off a menu, have a normal conversation, and read most of the text I see. I’m glad, because I would be totally lost if I only knew English! We’ve noticed that ordering in French or Arabic will result in better service at the cafe, cheaper taxi fares, and the like. I also wish I knew any Arabic beyond the very basics.
This has been an amazing experience so far, and I can’t wait to see what the next few months (just over two more here in Morocco and about one travelling around Europe) will bring. A month into the trip, we finally managed to get a somewhat decent picture of all of the roommates. That’s all for now- I have a busy week ahead in class, and hopefully more adventures next weekend. Until next time!