The mint tea and toilets tour: Meknes, Volubilis and Fes, Morocco

14 Jun

If you’ve ever been on a bus tour you’ll know there’s a relentless schedule of hurry up and wait to adhere to. The self is subsumed to the group, even when the group is small as with our band of twelve travellers from Australia, Canada and the U.S.. Some days travel feels like work, the selfish work of capturing experiences that may never come again. It’s work you’re pleased to put your shoulder to but grinding nonetheless.

The trade off of freedom versus the group proved worthwhile in Morocco, mainly because it brought us Yacine El Baraka, our Moroccan G Adventures CEO (Chief Experience Officer), plus the local guides in each of the major locations. No amount of studying guide books, wikipedia or trip advisor can substitute for passionate people knowledgable about their country.

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Left to right Hakim hotel manager in our Toudra Gorge Hotel, our very careful, adept driver Lahcin, Yacine.

It’s been four days since I last tried to capture my experiences. Time’s been a blurr since we left Casablanca, or as Yacine pronounces it, ‘Kassablonka’. God I love his accent, a Moroccan Borat with a heart of pure gold. I promise you a video of him in full flight when I have fast wifi.

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We’re heading out of Tinghir and our driver Lahcin is cranking up his favourite CD by the group Oudaden, from his home region near Agidir. The singer, Abdullah, croons a lilting poem in Arabic that speaks of how to live a good life through kindness to others and the simple pleasures of home and friendship. The hypnotic drumbeat and stringed instruments pulse under the melody. It’s the right soundtrack and sentiment for this trip.

Our first day on the road was huge. Casablanca to Meknes, then on to Volubilis and Fes with many stops. Four of the ancient imperial capitals still thrive in Morocco: Marrakech, Fes, Meknes and Rabat. Only Rabat, the current administrative capital close to Casablanca, was not included in our weeklong ‘Desert and Kasbahs’ tour.

To enter the original sections of these cities is to time warp straight to the eighth century. Much of the old medina in Fes is the original adobe, mud, pebbles and straw construction. Whereas other old cities such as Cadiz were razed and rebuilt, Fes has descendants of the original family who built the home still living there.

In Meknes we were enthralled by Etimad’s true story of Sultan Moulay Idriss who in the 17th century jsubjugated the region and consolidated his power through his harem. Lands were accumulated by marrying a woman from the desert tribes. A chief would not hazard the life of their daughter by warring with the king. The sultan’s harem contained between 500 and 2,000 wives and concubines.

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My view from the bus much of the time!

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Meknes royal reservoir.

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Gate to the Jewish Quarter.

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The delightful Etimad.

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The Sultan’s grand palace stabled 12,000 horses for his army of black slaves. It and his granary are still intact in parts. That the geometrical precision of the handbuilt arches and walls still stands strong after so many centuries is phenomenal.

Meknes medina and the soukh are essentially unchanged but for the mobile phones police on duty now carry. As they patrol the pedestrian market streets blowing their whistles the crowds part. Illegal traders selling slippers and scarves in the middle of the lane quickly stuff their wares into bags and melt to the side. As soon as the police pass they set up once again.

There is only so much raw meat and caged animals I can stomach so I perched at a cafe on a terrace high above the square to eat lunch. I idled the hour away watching men drink tea, smoke and comment on the passers by. People buy lizard oil and ostrich eggs from salesmen with their goods laid out precisely on plastic sheets under a beach umbrella.

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The only other two people on the terrace were men on their own. The second man ordered coffee then switched on music through the speaker on his mobile phone, some kind of Arabic rap. His music competed with the music CD sellers in the square below. Suddenly the call to prayer rang out from two nearby minarets and all the music was quickly switched off for the duration.

North of Meknes Volubilis was established by local tribes in the third century BC and was a Roman stronghold until the fall of the Roman empire in 245. Its ruins are now protected by UNESCO. When I say protected I mean visitors are charged an entrance fee and a man lethargically cuts tall grass, hauling it away on a bad tempered, moulting bag of bones donkey.

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Our guide said there is no money to protect the intricate, coloured floor mozaics of mythical scenes and the mundane. A few more decades of weathering and they will be gone. Storks make their nests on top of the larger marble columns.

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Fes is in two parts, the old city and the new French built section where our large hotel was located. Apparently tourists like modern plumbing.

We spent a full day inside the medina starting with the residential side which is quiet and cool. Our guide Hashim is third generation medina thus a newby as more than fifteen generations are typical. Only people born in the medina can be tour guides and postmen. He introduced us to his baker who smokes more than tobacco in his pipe between popping his own loaves and loaves prepared by neighbourhood women into his oven. No names mentioned but a couple of our party took a drag.

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One of the many gates to the imperial palace grounds.

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Fes from above.

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Crossing into the commercial side it was suddenly busy and noisy, with shouts of ‘Balak!’, ‘Watch out!’ as a laden donkey or man pushing a hand cart came through. We visited a pottery cooperative to learn how they create the ceramics and mozaic furniture and fountains we saw all over Morocco. The secret of the quality of Fes ceramics is in the magnesium rich grey clay. Strong enough to stand on.

Watching the artisans at work, mostly men but the ocasional woman painting bowls, you see the continuity in this craft where colours have special significance and patterns are handed down from one generation to the next. I concluded the purchase of a mozaic fountain for our new verandah in the space of twenty minutes. It’s dangerous for the bank balance when I travel on my own.

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This is the shape and dimensions of our future fountain in pinks, greens and blues.

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A few lanes down we climbed up to a weaver’s shop. The hand loomed fabrics were gorgeous and we learnt to tie our head scarfs in preparation for the Sahara.

I was less enamoured with the open air tannery. Sheep, goats and cattle are slaughtered off site. Raw skins are hauled in by the donkey load and dumped into the limestone water filled tanks where they cure for 15 days. Next they’re dropped into the natural dye tanks. Slim, muscular men of indeterminate ages mix the skins with their arms and legs until they’re uniformly dyed then pass them onto other specialists who slice the hair off the skin with long bladed knives. All in the blazing sun. Finally the skins are laid out to dry on straw. Back onto the donkey they go and off they trot. We were given sprigs of fresh mint to hold under our noses but no amount of mint could disguise the smell. I had to wash my hair twice that night and yet it persisted in my sinuses.

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Finished product.

Still, I managed a hearty meal in the medina restaurant where we ate like kings for the equivalent of 10 euro. The many salads starter course would have been plenty for me.

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That evening I strolled down to the main boulevarde with its central water course and crossroads fountain. I wanted to see what a posh Moroccan hotel looked like. The Royal Mirage Hotel has a pleasant pool cafe and bar, impeccable service and is a great vantage point to people watch while enjoying mint tea and snacks. I should have left it at that. I stopped to use the ladies restroom in the lobby before walking back to my hotel. On opening the main restroom door I was confronted with a bleach blonde woman sitting on the toilet smoking a cigarette with the stall door wide open. She motioned for me to use the toilet next door but I politely shook my head and backed out. I don’t know if she was Moroccan, quite possibly not, but that’s a cross cultural bridge too far for me!

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