Meknes - MOROCCO
MONDAY 7TH DECEMBER 1998
The bus station was an easy target this morning and after grabbing a few muffins from a street vendor we were off. The journey took over half an hour, passing us through never-ending olive groves and hilly plains. The workers were out in the fields maintaining this seasons crops and the odd shepherd could be seen tending his goats across barren fields. Small villages framed the picture, where older men waited for grand taxis and where women would peek through windows at the passing events of the day.
The bus let us off by the side of the road and then made its way up to Moulay Idriss. Below us in the rolling hills were the Roman remains, almost glistening in the stark winter sun. we passed the police patrols and made our way down a tarred country road where workers had given us directions. The silence was bliss and would only be broken by the cries of goats and by the roar of the blue and white taxi's engines taking the country folk to town.
Outside the entrance to the ruins was the usual tourist trap selling mundane fossils, brass-work, and 70's-style postcards. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage area. Volubilis was one of the Roman empire's most remote outposts, holding some of the most intricate and beautiful mosaics, villas, arches and temples. The outpost was built in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and it was used up until the 18th century.
We spent a good two hours on this hilltop surrounded by olive groves, taking in the multitude of marvellous ruins. What made it most evocative was that we were almost the only souls there. Some of my favourite memories include a broken stone olive press, the triumphal arch, endless villas all centred around a courtyard garden and pond, including the House of Columns and the House of the Knight with the most delicate of mosaics still in its original position. We then followed the main cobbled street, passing more houses adorned with the most beautiful and complete set of mosaics - the Labours of Hercules and Nymphs Bathing. It was hard to believe that all this had survived two thousand years of usage. The last part of the city took us towards the Tangier gate, past the Gordien Palace, home to the city's administrators. Unfortunately Moulay Ismail plundered all the site's marble to build his new palace in Meknes and all that remains now is its stone facade. Today three archaeologists work in sire and are finding gob-smacking discoveries every day. As you circumnavigate the area you come across small metal railway tracks, which were used to transport dirt and rubble from the excavation site. The artificial hill of debris is enormous and yet they have only excavated about half of the site's forty hectares.
The refreshing soft drinks that we downed at the site's cafe were well deserved and after a few minutes of contemplating our serene surroundings we made our way back, passing again the farmers and workers in the field, until we reached the police patrol. A dirty white grand taxi lurched towards us with an icky green interior. We got inside and were setting off at high speed for Meknes. The interior of the car combined with the two-wheeled cornering motion and searing sun made me feel quite ill. Whilst the driver's hypnotic selection of mirror hangings had already coaxed Dave to sleep. The car suddenly careered to a stop and we were thrown out onto the busy streets of Meknes.
Within half an hour we were back into the bustling old town and onto Place el-Hedim. The square today has been quite modernised, though its amazing to see that in such a short span of time the fountains had stopped working, the new tiles had been pecked off showing a concrete facade, and in all its glory was a great big car park for the world's most polluting vehicles. Hiding behind the square is Meknes' souq, much smaller than those in the other imperial cities. Nonetheless faux guides would press you to accept their services. "There are very bad men in there", etc etc.
The souq was a bit of a let-down as its twisting streets held stores full of cheap western items, but its highlight was a glimpse through a porthole into the great mosque, tiled in a hundred colours. In that one moment I could see the bodies moving in prayer and all that is the world of Islam.
The most interesting part of the medina was behind the souq where a plethora of workshops were in a hive of activity. The wood-carvers were ever chiselling, the brass-makers were hidden behind grime and dust and the heat of their fires. Not many tourists ply this route and often we'd be stared at. It's been quite a while since we've been in the spotlight. Whilst standing by the huge salt piles near the spice markets we were passed by a man with curled yellow slippers, a vibrantly coloured jellaba, a fez hat, and a briefcase. In his haste he caught the corner of our eye and quicker than a flash he was talking to us in his calm voice. "Hello. Where are you from?", came his "surprise" question. After five minutes of small-talk he began to tell Dave about his uncle's wood-carving shop and about how he had shown other travellers there "just to look, not to buy". During his whole conversation I showed no interest in him and began to look around into the various dens. This outraged him and he would raise his voice and try to get me to look at the map and agree to his suggested walking route. Yet another five minutes passed and during that time he frequently tried to catch my attention. "No. I have no money and I don't wish to buy or swap my clothes for any items", I said. Whilst in the middle of another grand spiel to Dave, right in mid-sentence, he just turned and walked away. I suppose he had just given up and in all our experiences in Morocco we'd never pushed anyone that far. Their tolerance way exceeds ours, but not this time. Dave felt it was unusual as he was actually interested in seeing the uncle's workshop, but only after we'd finished walking around, not straight away. To end the story, we walked past him later and too our surprise he said hello and smiled. It's almost impossible to work these Moroccans out.
Later another incident occurred after we completed a walk through the old Jewish quarter and passed some carpet shops. To our left was a patisserie, selling sweet pastries for Ramadan. I decided to perhaps try to buy some delectable nibblies for tomorrow's gruelling train journey.
I tried to ask if he had the traditional gazelle horns, of which the guidebook raves, but he didn't have any. Instead he would pass the Ramadan sweets and urge me to try, which I did only after declining. The taste was awful and I passed the rest to Dave to finish whilst trying to wipe the taste from my mouth. Then all of a sudden he ran off to get his young English-speaking friend from the carpet shop. After some time the shopkeeper then ran off down the street "to my house", he said. Although presumably to another vendor that sells gazelle horns. Again he urged me to try and at first I declined, then after much persistence from the shop-keeper took the piece from his hands. Within one bite my mouth was awash with the awful taste of washing detergent laced with marzipan. After passing this disgusting item to Dave to finish I told the young man in plain English that I didn't like any of them at all.
After thanking them for their help we decided to at least buy a bottle of coke. In desperation they then began the hard-sell. "Whilst you're drinking come and look at my shop", says the friend, which we did since it was a nicer place to have the drink than in the patisserie and we'd have to return the empty bottle. The hard-sell was then put on and after saying ten times "We have no money to buy, no credit cards, and no want for any of these items" the friendship was over and we were ushered back onto the street. Then there were words in Arabic between the young lad and the patissier and before we knew it we were being told to pay for the samples, at a hugely inflated price. We both "went ballistic", because we'd never asked to buy them, whilst in the meantime the youngster strangely kept asking how many kilos would we like to buy. For the first time we decided to not even debate the issue and stormed off with the empty coke bottle in hand. The patissier then jumped into a sprint and came after us and, like something from James Bond, we whipped through the street, half-expecting to be grabbed from a darkened doorway as we passed. Finally Dave stopped and turned and held out the bottle for our pursuer to grab. In his relief at recovering the bottle he forgot about the money he was pushing us for and we just walked on.
After grabbing a chocolate coated bun from a stall on the square we retired to the hotel which was a welcoming sight. The thrill of the earlier fear had taken its toll and whilst our last Moroccan sunset raced across the sky we were sound asleep. At 7:30pm we walked down the main street towards a nice and cheap restaurant that we'd spied earlier. This was our last tagine and indeed it was a highlight - the waiter even had a jacket and bow tie on. At 10pm we returned to our hotel, packed our bags and retired for the evening, as the 7:50 train for Tangier waits for no-one.