Side Trip to Moulay Idriss

On the way to Rabat (Morocco’s capital city, where we need to pick up our visas for Mauritania), we are again distracted, this time by a tiny entry in the guidebook: one sentence about Moulay Idriss, described as a lovely whitewashed hillside town and pilgrimage site for Muslims. Considered a holy city, the town holds the tomb of Moulay Idriss, descendant of Fatima (daughter of the prophet Mohammed); non-Muslims have only been permitted to spend the night since 2005. It is also located just a few kilometres from the Roman ruins of Volubilis, which was the provincial capital of the Roman empire during the 1st century AD.

A short train ride from Fes to Meknes, then a quick hop by shared grand taxi to Moulay Idriss. Olive groves dot the countryside, and we see the town spread up into the hills like two white camel’s humps. We descend from the grand taxi, stretch out our cramped hips (the taxi sits 2 in the passenger seat and 4 in the back), then head into town to look for a place to sleep.

We pass by the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss, where we stand by the entrance and watch devotees stream in and out (access is forbidden to non-Muslims). Walking up through the town, we happen upon the maison d’hôtes of Madame Zakia Hannoui, who offers us a room in her traditionally decorated and impeccably kept home, with its rooftop terrace offering sweeping views over the hills. She directs us towards Volubilis – arrive from above, she says, for a view over the site.

The walk is hot under the searing sun, but we have hats, water, and fresh peaches and grapes from the market, which we start to enjoy once out sight of the town. An elderly man, grinning at us while comfortably sitting sidesaddle on his donkey, directs us the final kilometre to Volubilis.

Our visit of Volubilis is also hot (Roman ruins don’t offer much shade), but the site offers plentiful opportunities for us to imagine how life was many centuries ago. Giant olive presses show that the olive trees were plentiful, even 20 centuries ago. Vivid playful mosaics decorate the floors of the homes of the wealthy. A colossal arc de triomphe celebrates the victories of returning soldiers, and giant pillars stand at the administrative centre of town. And then, in a nearby house, a surprise…

Returning to Moulay Idriss, we watch the sunset from the top of town and hear the call to prayer signal the ftour. Then back to our home chez Madame Zakia, where she has prepared a delicious dinner of lentils and tagine, accompanied by fresh olive oil produced in the area, and finished with local plums of the season. “Cuisine de maman,” she calls it, and she smiles over us in her living room as we enjoy the home-cooked meal. The moon rises over Moulay Idriss, the family’s evening prayer echoes through the house, and we lay down to peaceful sleep in our small, brief home.