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).

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