MEKNES, Morocco - Visitors to Morocco usually head straight for the beaches or plunge into the winding alleys of exotic medieval markets, but this rich North African country also has a wealth of ruins from its days as a Roman colony.
Few visit Morocco's handful of 2,000-year-old sites, but they are well worth the side trip, not least because the ancient city planners had a knack for picking the most stunning locations for their towns. In addition, the lack of tourists gives them a haunted undiscovered feel.
The best sites — Volubilis and Lixus — are easy two-hour drives from the capital Rabat, and a third site, Sala Colonia, is in Rabat.
And while they may lack the ostentatious grandeur of Turkey's Ephesus or Tunisia's Carthage, Morocco's overgrown, often ill-kept ruins have their own charms, in part because they are so often overlooked. The only sound to break the silence during a recent visit to Volubilus, for example, was a donkey rustling through overgrown bushes to crop at weeds around a mosaic depicting the 12 labours of Hercules.
The jewel in the crown of Morocco's Roman ruins is certainly Volubilis, located at the foot of the Atlas mountains in a sweeping valley filled with olive and almond trees.
This city of 20,000 was the westernmost extremity of an empire that once stretched to the gates of Persia. The sprawling floor plans of its buildings and brilliant floor mosaics suggest great wealth.
The site is dominated by the remains of the grand public buildings around the forum, with the impressive arches of the Basilica courthouse arrayed in front of pillars of the temple to the god Jupiter — now topped by bushy stork nests. Every old ruin in Morocco appears to host its own of population of the large black and white birds, which soar over the sites or preen in their nests as tourists snap away with cameras.
When they start clacking their beaks in chorus, it sends an eerie chattering noise across the ancient stones.
That old Roman standby of a triumphal arch, in this case commemorating Emperor Caracalla, who bestowed citizenship on the empire's inhabitants in AD 212, marks the beginning of the city's main street.
Lined with shops, the Decumanus Maximus was the most desirable address in town. Nearby expansive villas still boast the colourful floor mosaics that have made this ruin famous.
For those used to seeing such mosaics painstakingly wrought out of tiny coloured stones in museums, it is a surprise to see them set in the ground marked off by little more than a mouldy barrier of rope.
In one massive floor mosaic, Orpheus charms wild animals with his harp while in another room, dolphins frolic through the waves of what must have been the bathroom.
Greek myths predominate as subject matter. In one villa, licentious nymphs carry off the handsome Hylas, son of Hercules, who looks shocked.
In another, the hunter Acteon surprises the goddess Diana bathing — an unfortunate story that ends with Diana turning the hapless interloper into a stag to be torn apart by his own dogs.
Depictions of Greek and Roman gods of wine, Dionysius and Bacchus, are everywhere, suggesting the inhabitants liked their grape. Nearby Meknes remains the centre of Morocco's wine production.
Other mosaics depict geometric patterns that are repeated in the Berber rugs that can be bought in nearby mountain villages.
The quality of work attests to the wealth of the town, which came from olive orchards and wheat fields that fill the valley around the ruin.
The city's other main export was wild animals, including lions, jaguars and bears that went to fight and die in Rome's colosseum. Within just 200 years, the beast population in the area was devastated and indigenous species like the Barbary Lion and Atlas Bear had all but ceased to exist.
Volubilis was once the capital of Berber king Juba II, who was raised in Rome and went on to marry the daughter of doomed lovers, Anthony and Cleopatra. After his successor Ptolemy was murdered by the unstable Emperor Caligula for the crime of wearing too beautiful a robe, Morocco was made into the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitania in AD 40.
The site continued to be inhabited even after the embattled empire pulled out its legions 240 years later, and was reported to still be speaking Latin when the Arabs arrived in the eighth century.
It is said, the ruins were actually in good shape until the 18th century when Sultan Moulay Ismail pulled them down to use for the monumental palace he was building in nearby Meknes.
The easy accessibility to these mosaics, however, has taken its toll and the colours have faded from daily exposure to the elements. The site also suffers from lack of upkeep. Plants and grasses run riot through the streets and rooms, giving it an undiscovered feeling.
The grounds are a little better maintained in the ruins of Sala Colonia, conveniently located in the capital Rabat, where the remains of a Roman settlement were incorporated into a medieval necropolis called the Chellah.
It is the most easily visited of Morocco's Roman sites. With its accompanying botanical gardens and Islamic-era ruins, it's a popular spot for local families on weekends.
Built on a trading post used by the Phoenicians, Sala sits on a hill with a panoramic view of the Bouregreg river flowing into the Atlantic and is now surrounded by a crenelated medieval wall with imposing towers.
The ruins are not quite as extensive as Volubilis and there are no labels, so it takes a bit of imagination to reanimate the fallen pillars and fragments of carved stone littering the paved floor of the forum.
A statue of a figure in a toga, most likely some elder statesman of this port city, hints at the lost beauty of the main square.
Farther north along the coast is Lixus, one of Morocco's most intriguing Roman sites for its almost total obscurity and lack of visitors. Is also the legendary site of the Garden of Hesperides, from which Hercules had to steal the golden apples for one of his trials.
The once thriving port city sits on a hill over the looping folds of the winding Loukkos river.
There is no fee to enter the grounds or even a parking lot to hold a tour bus, but wandering up the hill with no tourists in sight, it's easy to feel like you are the first person to discover the tumbled blocks of a city that fell long ago.
Around the base of the hill are a series of deep pits and arches from the factories that made its principal export to Rome: a paste made of fermented fish entrails known as garum that was prized as condiment throughout the empire, but has since been (thankfully) dropped from Italian cuisine.
Since making garum was a smelly business and the factories were always on the edge town, you have to walk up the hill to find the city proper.
Halfway up the half hour trip to the summit, the path opens up to a partially restored amphitheatre with a stunning view of the flat valley below. The deep pit at the base of the rows of seats suggests that animal and gladiator combats took place here as well theatre productions.
The summit is covered with a maze of walls and buildings, some at least two metres high and give a sense of walking through the narrow alleys of an old stone town.
There are also the walls of a church built in the settlement's final years and a clear view across the bay to the town of Larache four kilometres away. The former Spanish colony still sports charming colonial buildings and a beautiful, labyrinthine old city that is worth a visit on its own — not to mention the nearby beaches.
The only time the site sees many visitors is on weekends when local youths ride their mopeds out and climb the hill to enjoy the view.
If You Go...
VOLUBILIS: Volubilis is just 30 kilometres north of the major tourist destination of Meknes and is included on some tourist itineraries. Otherwise it is a short two-hour drive, mostly on a well-marked freeway, from the capital Rabat, where it is easy to rent a car.
SALA COLONIA: The Chellah that encloses the Roman remains is right outside downtown Rabat and is worth a swing through Morocco's quaint capital just to see.
LIXUS: The ruins of Lixus are two hours north of Rabat by car on a nice freeway and next to the lovely beaches of Larache, where there are also excellent restaurants specializing in seafood and Spanish cuisine.