Considering the amount of rain that had fallen the previous evening and all through the night I wasn’t terribly optimistic when I woke next morning and went to check the weather as a basis for some important decision making about the day ahead but unexpectedly there had been a complete transformation and the sky was big and blue and the sun was shining again as I surveyed the view from the sun terrace at the top of the Riad.
I was glad about that and flushed with relief reported the good news to the others because we had arranged a trip out of Fez today which would take us to the Roman city of Volubilis, the Muslim Holy City of Moulay Idriss and the Royal City of Meknes. Abdul was due to collect us at ten o’clock so with the weather looking good there was no need for any hasty rearrangements to the itinerary. We were all up early so we had a leisurely breakfast and took our time over the excellent food before he arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule.
We left the city by the same gate as the previous day and headed west on the main highway towards Rabat competing for tarmac space with trucks, cars and donkeys and curious three wheeled pick-up trucks which wobbled dangerously about and hogged the middle of the road making it difficult to pass. I suspect they didn’t do this to be difficult but out of necessity because they didn’t look terribly stable and quite unsuitable for driving too close to the verges on both sides of the road. Soon we were leaving the urban area behind as we passed through suburbs and villages separated by plots of useless scrub land but then we took a turning north and soon entered the countryside.
The fields here were surprisingly green and fertile and we passed through olive groves being tended by men living in makeshift tents at the side of the road and then the alarmingly inconsistent road surface took us deep into the agricultural farmland where the colours of russet, cream and gold reminded me of the plains of La Mancha. We passed shepherds tending their sheep and men on the high sides of the hills ploughing with donkeys but this traditional way of life appeared somewhat peripheral as the main fields in the lush valley had all the signs of modern commercial agriculture even though some of the tractors looked as though they really belonged in a museum.
Eventually the road started to twist and turn and we started to climb into the mountains of Zerhoun which reared up to our left overlooking the flat valley to our right and after forty kilometres or so we came in sight of a blue lake shimmering in the sunlight and reflecting the shadows of the clouds as they swept across the sky. This was the Nzala el Oudaïa and there was a perfect viewing place and Abdul stopped the taxi in a lay-by next to a handful of fruit stalls with owners selling local produce who seemed surprisingly uninterested in doing any business with us.
After a short break we carried on and the road continued to twist and turn as we passed shabby run-down roadside houses each with a recent harvest of olives outside the front door and then through the untidy town of Ouled Youssef which looked an unfriendly and unwelcoming sort of place where the quality of highway engineering came to a sudden and dramatic stop and we were glad that Abdul didn’t stop there.
I was completely disorientated now as the road threaded its way through the mountain passes heading in different directions with every hairpin bend. The reason for this was that we were circumnavigating the mountain and eventually we reached the northern slopes and the road turned south and straightened with the mountain now to our left and the agricultural farm land to our right and to the west.
As we drove cloud began to increase, above us was a flotilla of white sails skipping across the sky as though taking part in a regatta but in the distance to the south there was a fleet of steel grey battleships and we were driving straight towards them and none of us had thought to bring our umbrellas.
Eventually we saw signs for the excavations of Volubilis and Abdul left the highway and followed a track towards the Roman City. I’m not sure what I was really expecting but this took me by surprise rather like the moment we came across the Roman ruins of Segobriga in Spain in 2009 for even from the road it was clear that this place was much bigger than I was expecting. Luckily we hadn’t driven quite into the clouds so the weather remained perfect and the sky a reassuring blue and with the sun dodging between the clouds it was blissfully warm when we climbed out of the taxi to visit the ruins and the excavations.