Day 3 an extra visit
Garry has requested a visit to one of the major Roman remains, Volubilis. I think this excursion might be an attempt to calm the waters following the dispute about the hotel booking in Spain, it’s sort of on the way to Fes and now that we know we are on a history tour, it seems appropriate. Volubilis was begun 120 BC and is very extensive with 15 hectars yet to be excavated. We pick up an English speaking guide who describes himself as the last Roman. We have arrived in the middle of the day and like mad dogs and hardy kiwis, walk through the once crowded streets of a huge metropolis in sweltering heat. Lavish mosaics in wealthy houses (now faded by the sun) exist alongside modest terraces of one or two rooms demonstrating that the rich and poor lived together.
The aquifer still runs under the main street, bisecting the city, which was destroyed by a large earthquake and only a few of the buildings have been partly restored.
The heat continues to be blistering and I’m glad of my hat and sun-block. I offer some to the others and Jennifer does her nose as she’s left her hat in the minibus. We escape to the shade of a café and eat our picnic lunch, which Simo had purchased for us on the way out of Chefchouen. It’s made up of bread, cheese, olives, fruit and pomegranates which are not quite ripe. There’s too much food and we leave loads for the café people.
Today, the drive from Chefchouen passes through the most fertile agricultural area. Olive groves predominate to start with, sweeping up the valley sides. We pass small fields of corn and a newly planted patch of cabbages in preparation for the winter and as the valley widens to undulating arable lands, we can see where the wheat has long been harvested. The earth is covered with dried grain stalks. Some fields have been ploughed already and these black strips create a two toned patchwork over the land. This area must be so green in the spring. There is no commentary from the tour leader at this point so I decide that this is one of Morocco’s granaries.
It’s five thirty by the time we get to Fes and the driver has some difficulty finding the Hotel. He asks some motor cycle police who escort us. It’s up a small road and the minibus is too large. A small van comes down and collects our luggage and we walk up unpromising alleyways to find the most glorious Riad Norma.
This is not the Riad in the itinerary and there is no explanation, but all is well as the owner, Monique is a welcoming Frenchwoman who might be in her sixties or seventies. She used to be a hostess for Air France and several times had the opera Singer Maria Callas on her flights. Monique is an opera fan and she’s named her Riad after Callas’ most famous role. I’m allocated the room ‘Maria’ which turns out to be Monique’s private guest room up a separate staircase and next to her quarters. There’s a pool which looks cool and inviting, so I make a beeline, desperate to get some serious exercise. It’s long enough for two or three strokes and a tumble turn at each end, so that’s what I do to for twenty or thirty minutes. I feel good afterwards having got my heart rate up for the first time in three days.
Day 4 The Medina
I wake and open the curtains to find the figure of an elderly woman hunched on a low chair in the courtyard outside my bedroom. It is Monique doing her makeup in the early morning light. I carry on with my daily exercises and greet her before going downstairs to sit in the garden. Monique has no husband or family and has, by sheer will power, rescued this Riad from a neglected ruin to it’s present elegance. Paying homage to local tradition she has given it extra flair and simplicity. She began it eleven years ago and two years to do the restoration, fighting to get her own way with workman, craftsmen and male orientated bureaucracy. It has been difficult being both a woman and a foreigner. She’s insisted that her staff speak French and Mustapha, who seems to be her right hand helper has a degree in English Linguistics but can’t leave his illiterate parents who sacrificed everything for his education.
Breakfast is set on a long table in the garden. There’s melon balls and yoghurt; crepes and folded parcels with honey and jam or goat’s cheese and olives; toast and tea of café au lait, all served on exquisite blue and white crockery.
Our guide for the day is Mohamed. He’s done a degree, is fluent in English and also speaks Spanish, French as well as Arabic. He wears a Jalaba which he says he’s had specially made, having bought the material separately. His outfit includes the white baggy pants which ‘provide air conditioning’. This routine is possibly standard for tour guides as Ahmed from Chefchouen had the same patter. In this climate, underwear and trousers (particularly tight ones) cause overheating so than many modern Moroccan men can be seen constantly adjusting themselves. Mohamed’s outfit is completed by a pair of traditional yellow leather shoes. He claims to have two wives – a situation he does not recommend. ‘One is best – or three. While two of them are fighting you could be with number Three.’ Four wives, he imagines would be a nightmare. It’s all light hearted misogyny and I manage to fake a polite laugh.
Our first stop is the King’s palace (only used when he is in town). The front is a modern set of seven brass doors with a rather ugly mosaic façade. Apparently no one knew who the last King had as a wife, as she or they were never seen. The new King has married a commoner and she has the status of a princess and is visible to the people. We drive through the old Jewish quarter with the balconies facing out on the street. Arab houses have their balconies facing inwards onto a courtyard. Mohamed says that in Islam, what people are like on the inside is more important and that western beauty is external and hence superficial. He goes on to say that in England what a house looks like outside is more important than it’s interior. I can’t help thinking that he hasn’t seen any English Interiors, but don’t say anything. When Ferdinand and Isabella threw out all the Sephardi Jews along with the Moors, this is where they mostly came.
We drive over the valley to a castle on the hill to get a panoramic overview of the Medina (the area of the walled city). It’s vast and inaccessible to motor vehicles. But before we can do that, there’s the first retail opportunity in the guise of a visit to a ceramic factory.
We see Tagine dishes being thrown on a foot driven potter’s wheel, then a row of artists hand painting them. A large section of the factory is devoted to the cutting and placing of tiles for mosaics. Tables, fountains, columns and walls are all assembled here. The exit is, as always, through the shop and I buy a few small pieces for gifts. Now it’s into the Medina on foot, down narrow passageways which can only accommodate one person. These widen out to allow stalls of salads, fruit and vegetables. Each type of merchandise is found in the same area. In the fish zone, the stalls stink and are infested with flies. A cat sleeps unconcerned that they are clustered on one fish blood stained hind leg. The stalls of nuts and dried fruit, followed by a camel meat stall which leads into an area of tinsmiths beating out gaudy plates, large trays and huge jugs in gold-like and silver-like tin. There’s a section of knife grinders, endless jewelry stalls and jalaba makers. The kitchest of all are the wedding shops which make white satin covered couches and sedan chairs for bridal couples to sit or ride in. We stop in a carpet co-operative, ostensibly to see the historic building, but it is a sales pitch. I express an interest in kilms and with Mary and Sue, am whisked to another room. They are all too large, the wrong colours and too expensive. Eventually, by feigning indifference I manage to beat them down to half price for a small blue one made from wool and agave silk. A bid deal is made of how I’ve ruined them but they loose no time in getting my credit card processed. They pack up the kilm and swear to deliver it to the Riad but I’m wondering if that will really happen. Next it’s off to a weaving co-operative where the women in the group buy sparkly scarves and finally the leather factory where we are each given a bunch of fresh mint to hold against our noses against the revolting smell. We look down on vats in a vast courtyard below. There’s a white section where the skins are cured in a solution of pigeon droppings. Here the hair is scraped off before moving on to the variously coloured vats of dye. Sue almost buys a leather jacket, but they are not right and too expensive. Liz does well with a burgundy bag and a lime green jacket, though there won’t be many opportunities to wear it in sub tropical Queensland. I suggest it will be a good excuse to holiday in cooler climates. I have to leave because of the smell and immediately get accosted by a man selling brightly coloured leather wallets. I say no and he goes away. Gradually the others join me and the man returns to try his luck with them. Some of the women are curious, but the moment you express even the slightest interest in what’s for sale, the sales pitch becomes more urgent and it’s difficult to disengage.
All the way though these streets we have stood aside to let porters with barrows, empty or laden, to pass by. Donkeys, mules and horses have to be similarly accommodated.
We’ve been able to peek at the entrance to a very old and famous teaching mosque (non believers are not allowed in). The old Madrassa (Koranic School) does allow us in to see the cells once used by scholars to live in. In spite of all the retail opportunities (I hate shopping) it’s been a good day and far less hassle than the grand bazaar in Istanbul. I ache too much to swim for more than fifteen minutes and sleep before evening meal.
We are off to a place that does dinner and entertainment with a promise of belly dancing – not high on my wish list – but I enter into the spirit of it. The food is once again the usual salads and tagines. There’s a fabulous band up on the stage, all elderly and pumping out traditional music which is infectious if a bit loud for conversation. I take the opportunity to find out a bit more about Simo, his travels and how he came to end up in New Zealand. Women and cooking is the short answer.
The first belly dancer is pretty, dark, voluptuous and doesn’t show her belly. There’s only so much you can do with gyrating hips so she spends most of her time getting men out of the audience to have a go and be humiliated. People seem to love this sort of thing and there are a couple of tables who are all over fifty and most over sixty-five who are whooping it up, clapping and waving their arms about. Next on is a very strange looking woman in a blond wig made of straw, a yellow skirt held up with a huge bulky black and white cummerbund/belt arrangement. She doesn’t do much to begin with but when she gets her hips going the belt goes crazy. She gets a very tall blond Italian woman up who almost upstages her. Next up, it’s a magician who is very amusing and although he does all the tricks I’ve seen before with scarves and a dove, he still entertains. Lastly there’s a belly dancer/fire eater who does have a bare midriff. Her hips don’t move so well and I’m bored. The older men in the audience, however, are having a great time. Suddenly it’s time to go as we have a long drive ahead tomorrow.