The corridors (and kitchens) of history

Pottery lessons mean more when the material is 2,000 years old, Caroline Fitton discovers Roman archaeology in Morocco

Landing with flamboyant yet careful precision, the stork gently leant over and placed a morsel for its young on the lopsided nest, the lowest twigs of which projected in uncertain fashion from a sandstone tower. A tower with delicate tracery work, patches of soft green and white mosaic; an ancient and faded minaret of the Merenid Dynasty, a wing's flap away from downtown central Rabat, Morocco's capital.

Landing with flamboyant yet careful precision, the stork gently leant over and placed a morsel for its young on the lopsided nest, the lowest twigs of which projected in uncertain fashion from a sandstone tower. A tower with delicate tracery work, patches of soft green and white mosaic; an ancient and faded minaret of the Merenid Dynasty, a wing's flap away from downtown central Rabat, Morocco's capital.

A profusion of stork and ibis nests preside over the graceful, elegantly overgrown ruins of Chellah, the 14th-century royal tomb, itself built on a patchwork of a Roman site. Startling purple jacaranda, flowering hibiscus, banana and fig define the skyline where ochred stonework once would have dominated.

As the start of an archaeological tour of northern Morocco, it was a clue to the further layers and pleasures revealed over a week – a dash of Roman, a splash of Islamic, Moorish and moreish. And as an introduction to a country, it provided an ideal touchstone: signs of faded and huge grandeur, a glimpse of mixed splendours, of powerful dynasties plus architectural surprises. On a trip with Andante Travels you come more than adequately equipped with a tour manager who paves the way and sorts the details. We also had an expert guide on this trip, Barnaby Rogerson, who has written extensively on the Maghreb – our own walking, talking guidebook.

From Rabat we progressed due east to the spectacular ruined Roman city of Volubilis, believed to have been the western capital of Juba II of Mauretania. Astonishingly preserved, it is remarkable both for its size and the excellent condition of many of the mosaics. Meandering down to the ruins through sunflower fields, drawing closer to the Tangier arch I felt a distinct tingling – as a former archaeology student I wondered whether my trowel hand would start involuntary twitching. With neolithic and Phoenician origins, the Carthaginians then Romans followed until Berbers took control in the 3rd century. Grand villa names betray the town's eminence – House of Orpheus, House of Dionysus, House of the Labours of Hercules and House of Ephebus. Nearly 30 mosaics on the floors of these once splendid villas depict scenes from classical mythology and every day life – images of tigers, lions and elephants attest to the animal trade.

Light would have filtered through columns into reception halls and tranquil courtyards richly decorated with mosaics, where fountains splashed. The sense of life was tangible. I started to taste grapes. Shopfronts, a bustling high street, a forum, huge basilica – used as trading centre, law courts and meeting place – and a massive triumphal arch complete the picture of this great city. Columns of varying size stretch as far as the eye can see before fields take over in the distance. Storks again have capitalised on the pillars left standing, seizing nest sites with maximum vantage point. And who can blame them – were I a stork this is precisely where I would choose.

The Romans developed a thriving olive oil trade which flourished in the first and second centuries. One house in four had its own press, of which the impressive remains can be seen: I started to smell olives. As sunset possesses Volubilis, mellow golden light gives columns, walls, paving,a majestic, haunting grace.

Next day came an unexpected stroke of real archaeology. Barnaby had received vague directions for the site of one of six surrounding hill forts. And we stumbled on one. "Our fort" emerged in a pattern of high fields, then there was no stopping us. Springing into action, forming our own "Time Team", Annabel Lawson, founder of Andante (she often goes on her own holidays), Cynthia, Tessa, Sheila and I plotted the exterior walls – ruins clearly visible in places – the central axis clearly delineated once our eyes knew where to look through bramble, rock and grass. Standing on corners like flags, we established the perameters and perimeters. Then, like a school field trip, everyone foraged in different directions wanting to find their own important piece of pot. The first find, a piece of red Samian ware, elicited an "Ooooh" of delight. Annabel gave an impromptu pottery lesson; as we gathered in a huddle she simply demonstrated by drawing in the air the shape the vessel would have taken. Pieces of rooftile, kitchenware, storage pots – all illustrated that, far from being a temporary staging post, this had been a place of permanent residence.

This sense of elation could not be bettered, I thought, but that was before Fez: a city which bewilders and enthrals. In the maze of ancient lanes, among the blend of aromas, the tannery announced itself in an olfactory assault. The pungent combination used to treat raw skins – pigeon droppings blended with ammonia – became unavoidably evident. Seen from a vantage point like giant poster paint pots spread over rooftop below, it was clearly red day. Mesmerised, I watched as a man slowly lowered himself into a crimson vat, to tread the skin into dye.

In the seemingly ever-spiralling tiny twisty dark souk alleys, the only "vehicles" permitted are mules. At one point I found myself not unpleasantly sandwiched between a wall and a tray of freshly baked bread as a laden mule squeezed past. Next minute Michael Palin plus film crew strolled by: so amazingly medieval were the surroundings, I wondered if I'd strayed onto a Monty Python film set.

After such hectic activity, each day was satisfyingly rounded off with a poem at sunset from Barnaby, a calming way of absorbing the day's sites and sights. Evenings were spent unearthing our own personal archaeology which proved just as interesting, a mixed clientele whose professions included metallurgist, psychoanalyst, high commissioner, sculptor/mosaic expert, with a smattering of legal, fiscal and medical people. More than half of our group of 25 had travelled with them previously, some repeatedly.

Casablanca made a suitable bridge straddling the ancient world and a return to normality – a Fifties kitsch seafront and extraordinarily ostentatious Hassan II mosque – lasers stretching miles in Mecca's direction, space for 25,000 worshippers, plus 80,000 pilgrims, and a hammam they are so proud to reveal to the public it renders them unusable. In our hotel, a hot-water pipe impersonating a muezzin lulled me to sleep.

The Facts

Getting there

Caroline Fitton travelled with Andante Travels (01722 713800; www.andantetravels.co.uk). Andante's 13-day trip to Morocco costs £1,850 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return scheduled flights from Heathrow, internal transport in an air-conditioned coach, all accommodation, all meals and all entrance fees.

The next trip runs from 6-18 May, visiting Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Fez, Volubilis, Marrakesh, the Atlas mountains and Essaouira. The guide lecturer is Bruce Wannell, an Islamic scholar. Every year Andante make an award for excellence to a worthy cause: in 2002 it went to Volubilis ( www.lparchaeology.com).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Sport
Sergio Romero saves Wesley Sneijder's penalty
world cup 2014But after defeating the Dutch, Lionel Messi and Argentina will walk out at the Maracana on Sunday as underdogs against Germany
Sport
Scoreboard at the end of the semi-final World Cup match between Brazil and Germany at The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte
Sport
'Saddest man in Brazil' takes defeat with good grace, handing replica trophy to German fans
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
video
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
News
The garage was up for sale in Canning Place Mews for £500,000
newsGarage for sale for £500,000
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Corporate Sales Manager, High Wycombe

    £30K- £35K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil