Morocco 2017 – Fez, and a Roman Ruin

Descending from the mountains and the Blue City of Chefchaouen, we are soon back in olive groves, cherry orchards, and fields of wheat and lettuce. We stop at an open air market where the locals do their shopping, before hitting the road again for the next three hours.

The traffic in Fez is astounding, with cars interlacing through each other at roundabouts with no apparent rules at all. The chaos gives way to a calm, palm tree lined boulevard with a 12-foot wide park down the center, complete with grassed areas and park benches and filled with pedestrians.  We arrive at the Hotel Volubilis in downtown Fez.

I would spend the evening fixing many a broken thing, which I have detailed in my long-form journal at August Phoenix Hats.

Breakfast the next day in the hotel restaurant turns out to be among the best of the entire trip. Fresh and grilled vegetables, eggs, blocks of feta, dates, olives, and folded and fried Moroccan pancake called mesmen. There’s a table-top coffee dispenser that serves 5-6 styles of thick, milk-based European coffees at the push of a button, much like the ones I fell in love with in Florence.

Mmmmm…. vegetables and coffee, my two favorite food groups…

Today we visit Volubilis, the ruins of a 2nd century Roman outpost, one of Morocco’s best preserved Roman ruins, renowned for its mosaic floors.

I had tried to repair a blown out seam in my shoe last night, but doubt the duct tape will hold in the rugged terrain we’re going to be walking through today. So, since we have a bit of a drive, I pull out my thimble, carpet thread and a leather needle, and begin to stitch up the side of my handmade Italian shoe.  “You carry a sewing kit – with a leather needle?” Catherine asks. I joke about being both a textile artist who always carries her tools, as I finish my stitches, and color the beige carpet thread with a Sharpie so it matches my shoe.  By now my traveling partners have completely run out of words…

Shoe repair on the way to Volubulis. The silver cap is Turkish thimble.

We arrive at the Roman ruin where we hire a local guide, and head out under a hot sun and a pale blue sky with just enough wispy clouds to offer a contrast to the nearly 104 acres of ruins we were about to view.

I did not expect to see mosaic floors in such good condition, which was in sharp contrast to the remains of the walls that surround them.  I wonder what has prevented weeds from breaking through, when everything else is overgrown.

There are placards here, naming the homes after images in their mosaic floors, including the “House of Venus” and the “House of Big Game.”  The mosaics covered the floors of  the public areas of the homes and I wonder if there was a ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ competition as the floors become more spectacular as you circle clockwise through this site.

I have boarded my complete collection of mosaics on Pinterest.

Our guide points out a ‘jacuzzi’ – a large flat pool with a center stonework carved into backrests that would accommodate 10 people.  It served as a social center in the same way that the Turkish hammams did during the Ottoman period. The water for the jacuzzi was heated by underground pipes which ran under the ovens in the nearby bakery. Talk about architectural multi-tasking …

Here is the imposing Triumphal Arch of Caracella, built in 217 AD by the town council to thank the emperor for granting them tax exempt status. It’s a popular place for photo ops, although some too-adventurous tourists are climbing up the gate, and getting yelled at (understandably) by the guides…

Beyond the bakery lies the King’s Palace, with its huge circular mosaic floor and a square pool that must be about 20′ x 20′ overlooking a panorama of fields and orchards, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance.

I had seen a piece of a mosaic floor in a Roman exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, but it is entirely different to see them in context. In spite of being exposed to the elements, they are remarkably vibrant – a testament to the craftsmanship that went into their making. After I returned home, a friend of mine, Karen Seymour, shared that she was also astounded at the preservation of Roman-era mosaics she saw in the UK, and surmised that the Romans laid a substrate (just like we do now) which drained water away and discouraged plants from taking root.

  • Additional historical notes for this site are on my long-form journal entitled “Fez and a day of broken things” at August Phoenix Hats.

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