advertisement

Within this section lies the soul of Morocco. With its jet-setting cousins Casablanca and Marrakech attracting the glitter, and the desert palmeraies to the south attracting the gold, this region has, throughout the centuries, been the rock of the country.

The beginnings of the country started here, when Moulay Idriss I set foot in el-Maghreb el-Aksa, "the Far West," and found shelter among the Berber tribes living within the remnants of the Roman city of Volubilis. A great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, Moulay Idriss I and his son, Idriss II, created the first semblance of a unified, independent Morocco on the banks of the Wadi Fes. From here dynasties would come and go, but no matter where their power was based, Fes would always feature strongly in their plans.

The zaouia of Idriss I is in the holy city named in his honor, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. Non-Muslims are now allowed to enter this town -- though not the holy tomb -- and it makes for a fantastic day trip when combined with a visit to Volubilis. Although direct Roman rule was relatively brief, this southernmost outpost of their empire comes to life with a walk along the city's excavated streets, houses, forum, and triumphal arch.

Most visitors travel here via Meknes, an imperial city built during the reign of Morocco's longest-serving -- and most notorious -- ruler, the Sultan Moulay Ismail. His mausoleum, a peaceful, contemplative, and truly spiritual sanctuary, is one of only a few Moroccan monuments of this stature open to non-Muslims.

Throughout this relatively short time span, the quiet, welcoming range of the Middle Atlas has watched over the theatrics occurring down on the fertile plains. With its cool, temperate climate and forests of towering cedar, the Middle Atlas is a surprise to most visitors who take the time to venture up here from the twin imperial cities down below. In the past, time-strapped travelers would bypass this whole region, or at best visit Fes for a day or two on the way to coastal or desert destinations. But Fes is entering a renaissance period. Word is getting out that within a few hours airtime from the frantic, modern, Western world, there's a medieval city that still lives and breathes within its ancient walls.