The nearly 2,000-year-old city ruins, with a triumphal arch and rows of basilica columns topped by storks, loom in magnificent isolation amid a rolling landscape of olive trees. As donkeys laden with harvested greens plod along its dusty roads, little seems to have changed.
But the colorful floor mosaics of skimpily dressed, frolicking gods and goddesses visualize drastically different mores. A few hours’ drive north through the Rif mountains, on a pebbly Mediterranean beach nearly in sight of Spain, I alone wore a bikini among women sporting veils and ankle-length tunics.
The modesty equation was suddenly reversed when I prudishly put on that same bikini for a separate visit to a hammam — baths — in Fez, the eighth-century capital of the first Arab, Islamic dynasty to rule Morocco from the same lush farmland as Volubilis.
A muscular, sweaty masseuse nonchalantly pulled it off, leaving me covered only in olive-based black soap and precariously balanced on a marble slab. As she scrubbed roll after giant roll of dead skin cells off me, I overheard a dozen other preening naked women sharing a friendly laugh at the “dirty American,” as one put it.
In Fez, the medina is a gigantic beehive of windowless, earth-toned homes and shops crammed in a bowl-shaped river basin. In Marrakech, built by the dynasties that ruled Morocco from the 11th through the 13th century, the medina’s rose-colored walls stand out in the desert against the snowy Atlas mountains.
In either medina, if you like endless haggling, follow the flow of local women through the maze and load up on everything from sweets to expensive leather and metal handicrafts.
If you hate shopping, as I do, absorb the colors and smells while making a beeline for the many madrasas, or Islamic schools. In the centuries-old Ben Youssef school in Marrakech, tiny dorm rooms face a sunny courtyard where every inch is a kaleidoscope of intricate wood carvings, stucco inscriptions, and geometric mosaics.